An Ole Miss freshman who struggled to cope with her mother’s death from cancer hopes to establish an Oxford chapter of a national organization that helps children affected by their parents’ illnesses.
Kate Fries, a freshman studies student from Michigan, and her sister attended Camp Kesem, a five-day children’s summer program in Milwaukee when they were teenagers. The camp is free and has been hosted by college chapters in off-campus facilities for 19 years.
“The word ‘kesem’ means magic, and there truly is no other way to feel it other than attending camp for yourself,” Fries said.
After Fries’ mother had brain cancer while Fries was in middle school, she had breast cancer. She died when Fries was a freshman in high school.
Fries said that one of the worst parts about losing her mother was that while her classmates were aware of what was going on in her life, she still felt alone. She felt like she was constantly being referred to as “the girl whose mom passed away.”
Fries added that, for years, she thought that nothing could help relieve the pain of losing her mother to cancer. She thought that it would be a “never-ending roller coaster” of wishing she could see her mother’s smile.
“Camp made me see that I wasn’t alone, and that I was allowed to miss her the same way all these other kids do,” Fries said. “It took me four years to realize it was okay to miss my own mom, and I regret waiting until I was 18 to finally attend Camp Kesem.”
Counselors at Camp Kesem are college students who are screened through “a competitive interview process and undergo extensive training prior to camp,” according to the camp’s website. Each of the camp’s locations is staffed with nursing and mental health professionals to provide support for campers.
A typical day at Camp Kesem includes singing, dancing, doing arts and crafts, playing sports and swimming. Time is dedicated once during the week to acknowledge why campers and staff are there. Campers talk to each other about their stories, fears, feelings and accomplishments.
According to the organization’s website, Kesem served nearly 9,000 children in 2018. The website said 99% of parents felt that their child benefitted from attending Camp Kesem, and 86% felt their child was “more confident in their ability to address their cancer experience after Kesem.”
Anna Spears, the student adviser and vice president for the program, said that one of her main reasons for being involved in establishing a Kesem chapter in Oxford is that her pre-medical track gives her an “ongoing desire to help the sick or hurting.”
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases diagnosed and 606,880 cancer deaths in the United States in 2019.
Knowing the impact cancer has on communities, Spears said she knew that the organization could change many lives.
“When Kate brought it up, it was as if I just knew in my heart I was placed there to help guide and facilitate this organization in any way Kate needed help,” Spears said.
Spears also found a greater appreciation for her grandmother’s cancer recovery.
“She had breast cancer, and yet Jesus knew the work he had for her was not yet finished,” Spears said. “I would be lost without her, and she is such a blessing in my life and the lives of so many others.”
Eleri Linscott, a freshman involved in establishing the chapter, said another important factor in creating a chapter in Oxford is conversation.
“Right now we’re just trying to get the word out about Camp Kesem in any way we can,” Linscott said. “I’ve just been a part of talking to people about it and getting the word out.”
For Camp Kesem to become a reality at the university, Fries needs to demonstrate that other students want to be involved, and that the program would have the support of university leadership.
If Fries’s proposal becomes a finalist, it will have to win in an online voting competition in January.
“I believe every kid who has endured watching a parent go through cancer should attend Camp Kesem, and that is why I am working to bring this to not only the Oxford community but the surrounding communities as well,” Fries said.
Fries will post links for voting on Facebook and Instagram (@campkesem.olemiss) once she finds out if her application moves on to be a finalist.