Summer camp takes on a new meaning
Augustana students give up part of their summer in order to help kids affected by cancer.
Unrelenting persistence. Two words that perfectly describe Jenna Orabutt, a senior at Augustana.
When Jenna arrived to Augustana College, she came with the goal of following in her sister's footsteps, who helps run a camp for kids affected by cancer at Indiana University. An organization, Camp Kesem, helps colleges all across the nation to run such camps. Orabutt got in touch with them about having a Camp Kesem on campus and found that there was a 51 school wait list. Not at all deterred by the news, she continued to contact Camp Kesem with more questions on how and when she could get started.
Half a year later, in March of her Freshman year, Orabutt received an email explaining that the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Livestrong, was going to be sponsoring twelve new Camp Kesems nationwide. Twenty schools would be selected to go through a rigorous application process, and luckily Augustana College was one of them.
The process was not an easy one, Orabutt recalls. There were many steps; some of the big steps included talking to President Bahls, seeking advisors for the Camp, seeking coordinators, talking to lawyers to see if it was possible for Augustana to have a Camp Kesem and finding one hundred possible donors. The process took many extra hours of dedication on top of school work, class, and extracurriculars.
"I had to keep reminding myself that it was for the kids and that, of course, it was going to be worth it," said Orabutt.
Luckily, all of Jenna's efforts paid off. Augustana was voted number one overall school in the voting round.
On campus, the Hawthorn Woods native is "Jenna," a Business Administration major, but at camp, she is "Gizmo," a girl whose mom was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. Everyone at camp, including the counselors, gets a nickname and with it an alter ego.
"You're kind of an alternate personality, away from all your worries," Orabutt explained.
Once the project was approved, the idea gained wide support on the Augustana campus. Students affected by cancer and some with absolutely no experience with cancer were ready to sign up and support the cause including Cortney Lebeda, now co-chair of Camp Kesem.
Lebeda's aunt, who was one of her closest relatives, passed away about eight years ago from cancer. When she saw that Orabutt was starting this camp she remembered how she felt as a child and how she wished that someone had been there for her to talk to about it. She wanted to help children who were going through the same thing as she did when she was little. Orabutt chose her as co-chair, and they are now managing the camp together.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Matthew Smith who, unlike Lebeda or Orabutt, has never experiences cancer in his family. His grandmother had cancer very briefly, but fortunately they caught it at a very early stage. And yet, he got involved in the camp after he heard about it from a friend. Around February last year, he decided to get involved and become a camp counselor. Despite his nonexistent experience with cancer, he believes that it did not stop him from gaining trust, forming relationships or understanding the campers.
"I don't think having experience with cancer played a huge role because we just wanted to be there for the kids on an emotional level, to be a support system for them for whatever they needed ," he said.
The camp involves all kinds of activities to make it a normal week of summer camp for the children. There are fun activities from the minute the children get up to when they go to sleep, helping distract them from their worries. The activities are divided in four rotations: arts & crafts, sports, adventure and drama.
Every night there are cabin chats. These are times for the children to talk about anything they want. The first days start with simple questions about things they like. Later in the week, when the children are more comfortable, cancer becomes a topic. Towards the middle of the week an Empowerment Ceremony is held. Counselors share their own stories about how cancer affected their lives, giving the children the opportunity to feel comfortable sharing theirs.
This year, a lot of the children came forward to share their story with each other. They wanted to feel that connection with other children their age who have had similar experiences, making it a supportive experience, detracting from the usual sadness accompanied by sharing stories about a relative with cancer. They went over to others to give them hugs and support them.
This year a brother and sister came to the camp together. During the ceremony the brother looked at his sister and said: "I just want you to know that I love you and we're gonna be okay. I'm always here for you." For the counselors it was impressive to see how strong the children were and how quickly they formed lasting relationships.
Camp Kesem not only provides comfort for the children, but also their parents. One mother in particular thanked Gizmo for all the work she had done, "I haven't seen my son smile like this since his dad passed away like a year ago. You have no idea what it means to a parent to see your child smile, and it's heart breaking to see him mope around and to see him run around with his counselors and play and laugh and smile, that's just something you're not going to understand until you're a parent," she said when picking up her child at the end of the week.
Camp Kesem is constantly holding fundraisers to help raise money for their camp. Their goal is $45,000, and so far they have $5,200. They are always looking for more volunteers and donations. If you would like to get involved with Camp Kesem contact JennaOrabutt09@Augustana.edu.