Generosity is the Best Medicine

camp kesum magic 1Notes from Camp Kesem

A few months ago I was sitting in a cafe with a colleague discussing (ho hum) billing practices. Suddenly, a college kid entered. “Firefly?!” “Slider?!” They embraced and Disney sparkles surrounded them. What was that? I asked, starting to feel sparkly myself. The answer: Camp Kesem.

“Kesem is a nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. By offering innovative, fun-filled programs that foster a lasting community, we aim to ensure that every child affected by a parent’s cancer is never alone.”

I applied to volunteer this summer as a Mental Health Professional at Camp Kesem/U.C. Davis. Had I known what I was getting myself into, I would have made a special glittery calendar to count down the days.

Instead, I was in my 52-year-old trance, running on fumes, scrambling to tie up loose ends while I threw old clothes and a novel into a duffel bag. I’m embarrassed to admit I planned to drive my own car to camp instead of riding in the buses with 125 kids and 45 camp counselors. Vomit? No thanks. Camp songs? Headache.

I changed my mind at the last minute, realizing I needed to enter the experience wholeheartedly. I packed my headache medicine in my lunchbox.

My first moments on duty jolted me into the gravity of the campers’ experience of cancer and loss. Parents shared tragic stories with me of recent parent deaths and worries that their young kids were suffering with fears and depression. In one family a father died the day before camp, and the kids, returning campers, chose to go to camp for comfort.

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I was in awe of the high energy college kids who gave 110% to everything from bonding with the kids to organizing luggage to crossing every logistical detail off the master list so that we could board the buses and start the great adventure. When was the last time I had that much energy, I wondered. Their energy continued full throttle throughout the week.

We drove 2 hours to camp. No one vomited and I didn’t get a headache. I had entered a time machine and was easing back to my childhood, to the good part: Summer camp. My face relaxed and my heart felt stronger, ready to give its very best to the young people working so hard to give theirs. Generosity is contagious!

One day at lunch I was sitting with the 10-year-olds. A girl was banging plastic cups on the table. I could hear my dad (rest his soul), “Stop that goddamn racket!!!” I looked around waiting to see who was going to stop her, but the counselors didn’t even look annoyed.

Perhaps they realized she needed to make some noise. Maybe she’d been keeping herself quiet in a house of grief for months or years and finally needed to explode! Supporting this girl to unwind in whatever ways she needed was more important than the immediate comfort of the adults at the table. Hmmm. This caught my attention.

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In the Messy Olympics, everyone chose a large container of ketchup, mustard, syrup or shaving cream and ran around a meadow smothering each other. What a thrill to make an enormous mess, and to see the mess outside of oneself rather than holding it in.

I watched counselors just sit down and let the syrup slide into their ears, down their necks, all in the midday sun. Give me your mess. I’ll take it.

Every night before bed, 8-10 kids gathered with glow sticks for “Cabin Chat.” Counselors prepared increasingly deep questions for the kids to share about their experiences with a parent’s cancer. One night Moose invited me to join his 14-year-old boys. I was afraid I’d be intruding (Who is this old lady barging in on our cabin?), but instead the boys invited me to join their poker game.

When we started the circle, one question was, “If your life is a movie, tell us about a favorite scene?” Most boys opened up right away while others put a toe in the water. Moose had the ability to show both vulnerability and strength in his leadership, and I saw the boys quickly trusting him with their private struggles and supporting one another. It was beautiful and I smiled all the way back to my cabin.

From day one the generosity offered by all created a safe and loving environment where kids increasingly felt ready to take risks physically (zip lining, a ropes course, canoeing), emotionally (sharing pain and support even in the large group with a microphone), and in performance (the talent show lasted 3 hours), all of us ready to make fools of ourselves knowing we are safe because we are in a loving environment.

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While camp was all about the kids, one of the most meaningful parts of the week was talking with these college kids, hearing about their successes and losses, their dreams and worries. I wonder how taking part in something as powerful as Kesem will impact the quality of their lives ahead. To think that more than 100 college campuses across the country have Kesem programs gives me hope for our future generations.

We rolled back into Davis in our dirty tie-dyed shirts, smiling as big as we ever have. The kids returned stronger, more connected, more hopeful. And so did I…in spades.

Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew, and I believe generosity is its lifeblood. Giving in a culture of generosity is generosity compounded. This creates an atmosphere of extreme healing, and that’s what makes camp special. That’s its medicine.

My sparkly calendar tells me I only have 49 more weeks till camp, but meanwhile, I’m working on stoking my generosity and integrating that Kesem magic into my daily life.

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