ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Cancer is a difficult journey for anyone, but the kids who have watched a parent or guardian go through it are often overlooked. 

Since 2018, student leaders at Grand Valley State University have collaborated with the national nonprofit Kesem, which provides free, year-round support for children affected by a parent’s or caregiver’s cancer. There are Kesem chapters at more than 130 college and university campuses across the country. 

“It’s definitely an underserved population. Many people don’t realize what these kids go through when a parent has cancer. Some of them miss out on their childhood or they can’t participate in other things that kids do. They might have to isolate or stay home if their parent is very sick and sometimes, they even take on that role of being a caretaker,” said Naiya Summerville, co-director for Camp Kesem at GVSU.

Summerville said the thing kids look forward to most about Kesem is a week-long sleepaway summer camp. It’s held at the Mystic Lake YMCA and allows children ages 6 to 18 to build connections with each other and trained counselors who understand their emotions and needs. 

“Our student leaders work year-round to fundraise to execute that week of camp. We participate in many different activities throughout the year so just Giving Tuesday that’s one of our biggest fundraisers. This year we raised over $15,000 just throughout our student chapter and then we also plan several other fundraising events with local restaurants and organizations, and we recently had our annual Make the Magic Gala.”

So far, they’ve raised enough funds to send 35 kids to camp this summer, where they’ll get to participate in rope courses, swimming, games, rock walls, campfires and much more. Although it’s a community of youth who are dealing with similar circumstances, that’s not the focus of the camp. One day is dedicated to acknowledging why the kids are there, allowing them to share their stories if they feel comfortable, while the rest of the time gives campers a chance to escape the difficult circumstances at home.

“We don’t go by real legal names, that way it kind of is like that breakaway from their real life through school, any of the stressors that they may have,” said Jackson Richmond, outreach coordinator for Camp Kesem at GVSU. “When they’re there they’re ‘sultsman’, ‘firefly’ — they’re somebody that we know as a loving kid that is just doing whatever they want to kind of deescalate and kind of de-stress.”

Camp Kesem is open to any child in the state ages 6 to 18 whose parent or caretaker has cancer, is in remission, or has passed away from cancer. There are three university chapters in Michigan with a total of five different camp weeks for the summer of 2023. You can register to apply for your child here. If the camp has a waitlist, you’re still encouraged to apply, as more spots may become available based on funding.