UI students creating program for kids whose parents have cancer

CHAMPAIGN – There were so many little things that Jill Pessis treasured about having a mom around when she was a child.

The lunches she packed every morning, the dinners she cooked every night, the rides she provided for everywhere Pessis needed to go.

But what happens to kids when one of their parents is sick with cancer, she wondered.

"You picture these kids and their mom is in the hospital for two years," she said. "They don't get any of that."

Pessis, a University of Illinois senior, can't give these children a healthy parent. But, she decided, she can help get them a week of fun and support at a special camp where people understand what it's like to have a very sick mom or dad.

She and some fellow UI students have taken on a project to establish a Camp Kesem National program that will provide a free overnight camp week for 40 local kids next August.

The camp will serve children ages 6-13 whose parents are sick with cancer, are in remission or have died of cancer.

UI students are organizing the camp, raising all the money to pay for it, recruiting the experts and providing all the volunteer staffing, said Pessis, who is serving as a co-coordinator of the local camp program and also serves on the executive board of the student organization Colleges Against Cancer.

The UI-based camp program will be the 10th Camp Kesem program established at university campuses around the country.

Camp Kesem National was founded in 2001 by Iris Rave of Walnut Creek, Calif., who established the first camp at Stanford University and now heads the national program.

Rave says she hopes to have a Camp Kesem in every community one day, because the need is so great.

Rave, who holds a degree in child development, said she found lots of camps to serve kids who have cancer and their siblings. But nobody seemed to be serving children coping with their parents' cancer.

"They're really kind of a forgotten population," she said.

And because it's the parents and not the kids who are actually sick, the children's suffering often goes unnoticed, Rave said.

Children who have a parent with cancer often feel isolated and have a hard time coping with a life turned upside down, she said.

"They may feel like they're the only kid in the school to have a parent who doesn't have hair, or who's in the hospital all the time," Rave said.

Younger children sometimes even feel guilt, thinking they caused a parent's cancer. They also worry about "catching" the cancer and are afraid their sick parent will die, Rave said.

Camp Kesem, named for the Hebrew word for magic, strives to offer kids not only fun activities but also a chance to open up and talk about their feelings with other kids and counselors.

Rave said all the camps are completely organized, funded and staffed by college students, who gain valuable leadership, team-building and organizational experience. Rave said she visits each campus to help train the student leaders, and provides all the organizational, management and fundraising tools they need.

Pessis, who is set to graduate in May in applied life studies and then hopes to pursue an advanced degree in veterinary medicine, said she is working with a group of students who plan to hold the camp week at Hanging Rock Christian Assembly, a year-round camp and retreat center in Lebanon, Ind.

Pessis said she was inspired to get involved in the camp project by more than appreciation for her own mother. She also has two close friends who have had cancer, she said.

Pessis said there are eight UI students coordinating the local program, and they've recruited lots of other students to help. So far they have raised $5,000 toward the total $20,000 that is needed for the camp week, she said.

The students will also be working with the Carle Cancer Center in Urbana to promote the camp next year and find local children who could benefit from the experience, she said.

Kate Garbacz, an oncology social worker at the Carle Cancer Center, said Carle staff members think the camp is a great idea.

Having a parent diagnosed with cancer can be devastating even for older adults, she said, and it can be much harder on kids.

"They don't get to be kids, they're dealing with such weighty issues," Garbacz added.

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