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Why Donie Supports #GivingTuesday


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Ashley “Donie” Harris

Alumni, Camp Kesem at UCLA

Ashley Harris is a Camp Kesem Alumni. During her time at UCLA, Ashley served as a counselor and a program coordinator. Ashley currently works at a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles, CA where she wishes she could incorporate her past Arts & Crafts Rotation Counselor skills more into her daily life. 

Freshly back from my first winter break at UCLA, I was perched in the first row of a new classroom. An eager transfer student, I made it a point to sit at the front of the class and raise my hand a lot. On the mostly empty chalkboard in front of me, there was a small message in the top right hand corner: Help kids whose parents have/had cancer. Become a counselor at Camp Kesem!

My interest was piqued. Not many of my new college friends knew this, but I was one of those kids. Less than a year before, my mom had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer.

Technically, I wasn’t a kid when my family went through this. I was 19 years old, living at home and attending community college with the intention to transfer to UCLA. It was a weird and difficult time for the whole family. My dad and I kept our selves busy with work, school, activities, and friends. I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend. In retrospect, I realize how scared I was and that my means of coping was to flee from our fragile household.

My mom had a variety of emotional states, some of which she shared. At times she had complete confidence that she would be fine, and other times there was hopelessness about the situation. Worst of all, sometimes she just wanted out.

My little brother was 12 at the time, old enough to understand what was going on and old enough to be worried. We had always been very close, but I don’t remember us talking much about the cancer or the possible outcomes of my mom’s mastectomy. I had always been his guide and companion, but I didn’t have the strength or the knowledge to support him then. Each of us was our own little island of fear and anxiety, surrounded by the sea of cancer.

Our family was lucky. My mom had a successful surgery that eliminated her cancer. She did not have to go through chemotherapy, and she is cancer free today. A few months after her surgery, I left to attend my dream school, UCLA. My mom was fine, but cancer left my family with a lot of healing to do.

Back to that fateful classroom, I took down the date and time of the Camp Kesem informational meeting and the rest is history. I became a counselor, started hanging out with my fellow Kesem people in preparation for camp, and by the time we traveled to the Santa Barbara mountains I had a whole new group of friends.

A couple weeks before camp, I got a call from one of the head counselors. They knew I had a brother, and I had shared with the group that I had a parent that had gone through cancer. They asked if my brother might be interested in attending the newly formed ‘teen camp’ within Camp Kesem UCLA.  This was the best idea I’d ever heard.

It was hard to leave my little brother to go away to school, especially after the trauma of my mom’s cancer. Camp Kesem gave us a special opportunity to spend time together in a magic environment. As a now 13 year old, he got to hang out with and get to know my new college friends. We got to play around, be silly, and be ourselves together like we did as kids. We got the unique opportunity to heal together, and it didn’t cost my parents a dime.

Camp Kesem provides an annual week of healing for kids (and college kids) across the United States. Cancer is a common experience, but painful and life altering nonetheless. Camp Kesem gives kids a chance to be carefree and have fun with a group of peers and counselors that ‘get it’. As a counselor, I was able to heal myself by helping others. I’m forever grateful to the organization for that opportunity. That’s why I will be supporting Camp Kesem on Giving Tuesday! Hopefully my donation can help other siblings come together to heal and enjoy a week at camp.