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Camp Kesem, a summer camp dedicated to children who have had a parent impacted by cancer, is going virtual for the summer to protect their immunocompromised families from COVID-19. (Photo/Sarah Mitravich)

Camp Kesem, a summer camp dedicated to children who have had a parent impacted by cancer, is going virtual for the summer to protect their immunocompromised families from COVID-19.

“I think that’s just something you have to do as a leader sometimes, being ready for those difficult decisions,” said Nikki Edwards, co-director of the University of Georgia Camp Kesem chapter.

All Camp Kesem attendees are from families with a parent who has survived, passed away from or undergone treatment for cancer. This means that many of them have a parent at home who is autoimmune compromised, putting them in the at-risk category for COVID-19. The decision to go online for the summer was the best way for the organization to protect families from COVID-19 while still providing the camp experience to their children, Edwards said.

“Coming here, they have a lot of friends who understand what they have been through, who understand what it’s like to grow up so fast,” Edwards said.

Camp Kesem is the largest national organization focused on supporting children who have had a parent with cancer. With over 100 chapters across the nation, the organization is led by college students who fundraise for the camp during the school year and serve as counselors over the summer. Additionally, families are not required to pay any fees in order to send their child to camp and can even receive free transportation services to the camp if needed.

Going virtual has allowed the organization to provide more spots for children originally on the waitlist, according to Shona Wilson, a UGA senior on the national student panel for Camp Kesem.

“The message that we will always show up and be there for our families is something that is very important to us and is something we take very strongly,” Edwards said.

Lisa Boyd’s daughter Izzy has attended Camp Kesem with the UGA chapter for eight years. At the age of five, Izzy lost her father to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her mother tried to help her grieve through therapy sessions and school counselors, but said that nothing was working. It wasn’t until she took her daughter to Camp Kesem that she finally saw her daughter begin to open up about her father’s passing.

“Those college kids did what I couldn’t do and trained specialists couldn’t do. They got her to start healing,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s son, Captain, has also been attending Camp Kesem for three years now. His experience was especially important in that because Captain was too young to remember his father, Camp Kesem allowed him to develop relationships with people who could relate to his struggle in a way his mother and sister could not, Boyd said.

“It’s so important to so many people that just canceling it altogether would be wrong,” Edwards said.

Wilson and Edwards both mentioned how the organization is considering the possibility of providing each camper with a “camp in a box,” which will contain materials for camp activities such as painting or making friendship bracelets. Campers would then complete the activity with a counselor and other campers to provide a sense of community.

A lot of the planning is still in the idea stage as the national organization figures out how to approach potential challenges such as families without proper Wi-Fi, safety concerns regarding materials sent to campers and the possibility of cyberbullying, said Wilson.

Edwards said that they still intend to host “cabin chat” every night, an opportunity for campers to open up about their life experiences. They will also continue “empower hour,” a time where campers and staff can give and receive encouraging messages at the end of the week.

“I think the biggest motivation for us right now is our families. They are obviously going through their own hardships and we just want to provide some kind of distraction for them,” Wilson said.