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Why I Kesem — Nemo: “For My New Family”

Every now and then at Camp Kesem events, we get asked “Why do you Kesem?” We use this question in the CK community to ask more than just why someone shows up for an awesome week of camp every summer. “Why I Kesem” goes deeper than our not-so-secret addiction to silly camp songs and love of watching the Talent Show acts every summer. “Why I Kesem” is about the story that led us to this amazing organization, and what the counselors and campers have come to mean to us. This spring, we will begin to spotlight our counselors and share their stories. This week, we feature Nemo, a senior counselor from Michigan who studies Psychology.

My story starts long before I had ever heard of Camp Kesem. When I was five years old, my stepfather came into my life. Although I still had a relationship with my biological father, my stepdad was the one who was in my life every day – the one who picked me up from school, made dinner, and, like all good fathers, occasionally drove me crazy. He was extremely caring and embodied a quiet strength that I have always tried to imitate. He was also by far the most health-conscious person I knew, so I was beyond shocked when he was diagnosed with cancer while I was in high school. I was furious that someone who seemed to be doing everything right for his health could develop such a terrifying disease. That fear and anger dug into me, and because I felt like I couldn’t talk about my family’s situation without crying, I didn’t talk about it at all.

In my freshman year of college, my stepdad had surgery to remove his entire tumor. Although the surgery had other effects on his health, his prognosis looked good. A few weeks later, I interviewed to be a Camp Kesem counselor. My very first memory of this organization is of my interviewers asking me about my personal experience with cancer and being almost as thrilled as I was with my family’s recent good news. We had only known each other about ten minutes, but the co-chairs had already made me feel like part of their family. That summer, I experienced camp for the first time and absolutely fell in love with all things Camp Kesem. I became close friends with my fellow counselors and was incredibly inspired by the awesome campers I worked with. While my camp experience helped put my own struggles in perspective, it was not until later on that I truly understood the power of the Camp Kesem family.


The same summer that I experienced camp for the first time, my stepfather’s health declined again as cancer reared its ugly head. The following year was an incredibly difficult one for my family as we went through the struggles that our Kesem campers know all too well. In February we were incredibly thrilled when my stepdad’s scans came back all clear. It felt like I could breathe again for the first time in years, but that overwhelming sense of hope was short-lived and false. In April, I got a call from my mother that she was taking my stepdad to the hospital because he was acting strange and complaining of back pain. A few days later, I heard her say the word “hospice” for the first time. As it turned out, my stepdad’s cancer was never actually gone and had been wreaking havoc in his body. A week after I got that first phone call from my mother saying that something might be wrong, I got another call asking me to come home to say goodbye. I rushed home to the most surreal and terrifying scene I had ever witnessed. Eighteen hours after I got there, the man who had raised me was gone.

In the months after losing my stepdad, I felt bewildered, depressed, anxious, and alone, but my Kesem family rallied around me. Although I was unable to attend camp that summer, my fellow counselors continually checked up on me and made me feel loved and supported even when they didn’t know what to say. I began to look forward to weekly Admin team meetings as a highlight of my week and cherished time spent with Camp Kesem friends.  Although we became very close, it wasn’t until the following summer of camp that I realized exactly what these people had come to mean to me.

The Empowerment Ceremony is an extremely important moment in each Camp Kesem camp session. It is the night in which everyone, campers and counselors alike, gathers to share their stories and rally around each other in support. It is always a very emotional night for everyone involved, but the most recent Empowerment Ceremony at Camp Kesem Notre Dame was also a moment of revelation for me. As I knelt down beside a seven-year-old boy and listened to him assuring me that both our dads were watching over us, he became my little brother. As a fellow counselor shared the special gesture she uses to remind herself of her mom’s continued presence in her life even after death, she became my sister. This process repeated over and over again, and by the end of the night I felt like a completely different person. Although I had been involved with Camp Kesem for three years, it wasn’t until that night that I truly understood what it meant to be part of the Kesem family. The connection I felt with every counselor and camper allowed me to heal in a way that I hadn’t been able to until then.

So, why do I Kesem? Ever since that amazing night, my answer has been the same. I Kesem for my family. I Kesem for my siblings and parents at home, but also for my sisters and brothers who reunite every year at Camp Kesem Notre Dame. Every counselor and every camper is part of that family, and they are the reason I devote time and energy all year long to recruiting campers, organizing camper medical information, and fundraising for camp. On days when preparing for camp seems overwhelming or when I’m missing my stepdad more than ever, that family is what I keep coming back to. I am so lucky to be a part of it.