Two student counselors at Camp Kesem
Rising senior Emma Kane with recent graduate Lauren Knopp, also known as Unicorn and Basil to campers.

Students provide a getaway for kids of cancer patients

June 10, 2024

Student Experience

Last summer, Emma Kane packed her bags and moved into a cabin on the banks of the Piankatank River. It was her first-ever week at a summer sleepaway camp — and it was nearly a year in the making.

Kane, now a rising senior majoring in biochemistry, is a counselor for Camp Kesem, a free summer sleepaway camp for children who have lost a parent to cancer, have a parent undergoing cancer treatment, or have a parent who is a cancer survivor. More than 5 million children in the U.S. fit the criteria.

Camp Kesem began at Stanford University in 2000 as a project of the Hillel chapter. Nearly 25 years later, Kesem has more than 130 chapters across the country and more than 5,300 college student members. The Richmond chapter, CKUR, was founded more than a decade ago by Christine Ghio Tauchen, a 2009 alum.

Kane stumbled into CKUR while working late one Sunday night at Gottwald, where the chapter holds its weekly meetings.

“I wasn’t really planning on joining, because I didn’t have a lot of time,” Kane said. “But I loved it so much that I kept coming back every week, and I applied to be a counselor.”

Preparing for camp — which will be held from Aug. 11-16 at Camp Piankatank in Middlesex County, Virginia — is a yearlong job. Student members organize the fundraisers that keep camp free for attendees and plan a week of activities for campers to develop life skills in a fun environment. Student counselors are also required to undergo leadership training on topics like fostering diversity and inclusion, addressing bullying, and supporting campers’ mental health.

Before the fun begins, campers choose a nickname — a tradition that protects the privacy of young campers and signifies that camp is a chance to start anew.

“The nickname helps shift your identity,” Kane said. The counselors choose a name as well — Kane goes by Unicorn. “When I’m at camp, I’m thinking about the campers. I’m not stressed about school or anything else that’s going on in my life. Whenever someone calls me Unicorn, I switch into camp mode, like ‘How can I help?’”

That singular focus on caring for others is what sets Camp Kesem apart. Campers are often struggling with anxiety, emotional isolation, and fear. Counselors and professional mental health staff are there to help.

“Many campers see Kesem as a unique opportunity to speak openly about their family history with cancer without fear of judgment from others,” Kane said. “One camper in my cabin explained sometimes at school they felt like they were labeled as the kid whose mom has cancer, and that Kesem was one of the only places where they didn't feel that was the biggest or only part of their identity. I felt like that sentiment was shared among several campers and is a good example of why we do Kesem.” 

Kane said the camp experience can be emotionally taxing — but the relationships she’s formed with both campers and counselors have defined her experience at Richmond.

“At camp, I get to know people in a really different capacity than I’d be able to do in class," she said. “It opens up a lot of different sides to people. I’ve built these incredible bonds full of trust and care.”