There’s a group of students at UC Davis doing magic.
They can be found on Saturday mornings singing camp songs at Olson Hall, circled on the Quad on Fridays for cabin talk, or spotted on campus sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a green and blue caterpillar named Karl.
They are the members of Camp Kesem at UC Davis, students who organize, fundraise, and run two weeks of free summer camp for children in the greater Sacramento area affected by a parent’s cancer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lev Farris Goldenberg is a junior graduate in anthropology and a writing researcher at the Office of Strategic communications. He was a camper at the UC Davis chapter of Camp Kesem for two years and is now in his fourth year as a counselor, with the camp nickname of “NASA”. He says joining Camp Kesem was the best decision he ever made.
Kesem – which means “magic” in Hebrew – is a national non-profit organization run by students at the campus level. The Davis chapter, founded in 2004, is one of more than 130 in 44 states. It is also the largest in Northern California, serving approximately 300 campers each year.
This year is a big year for Kesem at Davis. This will be the first time since 2019 that campers and counselors will return to camp in person after two summers of virtual programming.
The camp — held at Camp Sugar Pine, a few miles from Yosemite — will run in two sessions this summer from Aug. 3-15.
“I think it’s really hard to describe what it feels like to come back in person after so long,” said third-year music and anthropology student Chloe DeBarros. “Going to camp is an incomparable experience. … This will be my first time as a counselor in person, so I expect a lot of tears of joy from me.
DeBarros participated in UCLA’s Kesem program as a camper for nine years and is in her third year as a counselor at Davis.
During her years in the UCLA program, DeBarros went by the name “Clover,” and she brought it with her to Davis, where all of the 160-plus members of the chapter have camp names they go by. call not only during summer camp, but all year round. Hearing a friend shout “Ketchup” or “Meatball” or “Leviosa” through the Quad is not an uncommon occurrence.
Clover is planning the camp this year as part of her role as operations coordinator, along with fellow coordinators Brendan “Magoo” Crow, Taylor “Maple” Slarve and Sophie “Saturn” Stern.
Camp days are filled with fun activities, from the gaga ball to friendship bracelet making to talent shows. Every night is a special event. Day 1 is a campfire. Day 2? Show for beginners, where the new monitors are disguised by the campers and do improvisation. Movie nights, talent shows, messy Olympics and dance parties fill the other days.
The shadow of cancer seems distant to Kesem.
Each night ends with a cabin talk, one of Kesem’s most treasured traditions. Campers and counselors go around and answer questions – some profound, some silly. This is an opportunity to open up on “Why I Kesem”. In other words, to talk about the cancer experience that brought them to camp – something many kids don’t get the chance to do in their day-to-day lives.
“Students are drawn to helping these kids because they are like us in so many ways,” Ryan “Padre” Cohen said. “They are going through some incredibly difficult things. … They all have their own childhoods that are affected by their family’s health diagnosis and we want to help kids who look like us as much as possible.
Padre, a fourth-year communications major, is one of two directors of the Davis chapter, along with Ella “Almond” Piper. He saw what the magic of Kesem means – not just for the campers, but for the students who support them.
“We obviously do this for kids and families – that’s what it’s all about,” Padre said. “But we as counselors obviously get a lot out of it too, and that’s what makes Kesem so special. I love my fellow counselors like family, and we’re such a special unit once we get to camp. And that also rubs off for the campers.
Padre continued, “When counselors are together and unified as one, it makes the whole experience for each camper and counselor much more enjoyable because you really feel like you are in a safe space where you are. allowed to be more vulnerable.”
Make the magic gala
To make all this magic possible at camp, college students have to put in a mountain of work throughout the year.
Each Kesem member is responsible for helping raise funds toward the Davis Chapter’s $200,000 annual goal. Students write letters, send emails, hold bake sales and complete crazy challenges in exchange for donations.
But the biggest fundraiser of the year is the annual Make the Magic gala.
On April 30, friends of Davis Kesem flocked to the California State Railroad Museum for an evening of Kesem music, auctions, and magic. Bouquets of flowers and golden caterpillars adorned tables covered in white.
Families, alumni and guests of Kesem all turned out in their best light for the first in-person gala in three years. They sang a camp song, heard a serenade by a jazz band led by Jacob “Drummer Boi” Green of Kesem, and listened to speeches from current campers and counselors. After dinner, guests bid on auction items like dessert cakes and Tahoe cabin stays. Each paddle raise drew a louder roar from the crowd.
The evening was a resounding success, raising $100,000.
Dylan “Cactus” Blaufus planned the event, along with fellow gala coordinators Nina “Willow” Steinkemper and Aarya “Guava” Gupta.
“It’s truly one of the most inspiring moments I’ve ever been part of,” Cactus said. “To be able to share Kesem’s love and support with community members and guests who have never attended (camp) before was truly wonderful. … Having the privilege of planning this event for an organization that I feel incredibly connected to was fulfilling in itself.
New members of the Kesem family
Every other Saturday morning during the spring term, Kesem members gather at Olson Hall for precamp training.
A great deal of care and preparation is required to serve this special population of children (nationally, Kesem serves 8,600 children affected by cancer). They’ve been through a lot, and Kesem’s counselors know it — many of them have had cancer experiences themselves.
This is part of what makes Kesem unique: it is a community of people who have shared a common experience. And the tight-knit nature of this group of student leaders is the result.
Kelly “Sharky” Weihrauch is one of nearly 100 new members Kesem welcomed toward the end of the fall term. And she can already feel Kesem’s magic.
“Kesem made me feel like I’ve known the members for years despite only joining them a few weeks ago,” Sharky said. “The Kesem community is the definition of releasing your inner child. …Something that might normally seem silly is welcomed with open arms, with smiles and laughter at Kesem.