Camp Kesem Rice (University): Making Magic!

September 3, 2014


“I just can’t understand why my dad didn’t get that mole checked out. If he had, I’d still have him.”

“I have so many things I want to tell my mom each day but she’s too sick so I don’t say anything.”

“I miss my daddy so much but he’s in a better place now.”

These comments, which I’ve changed slightly to maintain confidentiality, along with many other incredible experiences and feelings, were shared by the 27 campers, 7 to 14 years old, at a session called “empowerment” at Camp Kesem Rice on August 5. Sadness, but hope, filled the room as the campers talked about how their parent’s cancer affected their lives.

(Kesem means “magic” in Hebrew) is a national organization based at undergraduate institutions that serves the needs of children who have a parent who has cancer or has passed away from cancer. (Learn more from my previous blog on Camp Kesem, here.) It includes a weeklong free summer camp for the children and other activities during the year. This year, Rice University held its first camp at a retreat center in Louisiana. I had the privilege of attending nearly the entire camp as the “Camp Doctor,” although, since we had a great “Camp Nurse,” I mostly spent time helping with the campers.  I also made sure all the kids had plenty of sunscreen on them!

Known to all by my camp name of “Isotope,” I confess that I had a great time playing camp games and getting to know a fabulous group of campers and the Rice University students who served as their camp counselors. I also learned from the campers and their counselors many things about courage, hope and the importance of community and friendship.  It was a “magical” time for the campers and all the counselors and staff members. Here’s the camp video. Look for the “Isotope” cameo appearance at 1:08.

I really want to try a few camp songs on rounds in the hospital. For instance, when everyone is wandering around the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Children’s, I want to call out (not too loudly of course…) “Make a circle, make, make a circle!” like we did at camp to get everyone together. When people are not listening to me talk, I’ll try singing the “Llama” to get “Silent Llamas” and everyone’s attention.

Beyond the fun and games, what I saw at Camp Kesem were two things that give me immense hope for the future. First was the support and affection the campers gave to each other. They were bonded together by their parents’ illnesses and how these illnesses have affected them. They made friends, helped each other, and shared experiences, emotions, fears and even a bit of anger in a way that I did not think that children, some only 7 or 8 years old, could share. Their lives were greatly enriched by knowing that they were not alone in dealing with tragedy at home and talking about it with other kids and the counselors.

The other thing that was great was watching the college students and program leaders from Rice University work with the kids and help them share their experiences. This was a chance for 18-21 year old college students, most of whom do not have parents with cancer, to move out of their comfort zone by helping younger children express themselves while guiding them through the camp experience.  I literally watched the counselors mature over a very short period of time.

The Rice student leaders, known as “Bubshine,” the combination name for “Bubbles” (Mariah Lawhon) and “Sunshine” (Stacey Yi), worked tirelessly to make the first Camp Kesem Rice a great success.  They handled the usual array of camp crises including multiple water outages, while being incredibly supportive of counselors and campers alike.

Now, I just have to figure out an excuse to go back next year.  I promise if they let me come back, I’ll try to learn more of the camp songs at least close to correctly.

If you have any questions about Camp Kesem, please the staff for more information. To visit Camp Kesem's Facebook page, visit .

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