This OSU-affiliated program provides an outlet for kids whose parents have cancer.

For children coping with a parent's cancer, a week at Camp Kesem offers a chance to feel like a kid again.

The nonprofit organization provides a traditional overnight summer camp experience for children who have a parent who has been diagnosed with, or has died from, cancer. The nationwide program, which is managed by college students, has 80 chapters around the United States, including Camp Kesem at Ohio State University.

Due to increasing demand, Camp Kesem OSU has expanded for the second straight year to two six-day sessions. About 150 campers will attend, up from 126 in 2016, said OSU student organizer Alexandra Wright.

The free, weeklong camp serves children ages 6-16 at YMCA Camp Kern in Oregonia, about 75 miles south of Columbus. Camp Kesem OSU also offers a Counselors in Training program for 17- and 18-year-olds affected by a parent's cancer.

The program provides a chance for kids to have fun and be silly—with activities such as swimming, games, crafts, campfire singalongs and a talent show—while offering an outlet to express what they're feeling about their parent's disease, said Amanda Toland, associate professor in OSU's Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics and adviser to Camp Kesem.

Christine Pabst of Gahanna said the experience is just what her son and daughter needed. “In June of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” Pabst said. “Ella was 4 and Jack was 7 at the time I was diagnosed. The 4-year-old was obviously going to notice you don't have hair anymore. And the 7-year-old would notice enough to be dangerous.”

Pabst and her husband, Chris, “wanted to be transparent with them as much as we needed to be,” she said. “You try to keep their lives as normal as possible. But it's not normal. They are forced to see a lot of things that other kids aren't forced to see. There is a feeling of isolation being around other kids who don't know what they're going through.”

Pabst learned of Camp Kesem after she was treated at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. After her cancer went into remission in October 2013, she saw a James newsletter story and thought sending Jack to the camp might allay his concerns whenever she caught a cold or had a minor ailment.

“When we picked Jack up after a week at camp, his eyes were completely glazed and then he started crying. I asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘I'm just so sad that camp is over.' ”

His reaction was a huge relief, she said. “It gave me peace that by sending him to Camp Kesem, I gave him an outlet.”

As soon as Ella was old enough, she became a campgoer, too. Now, the family plans its summer activities around Camp Kesem.

Camp Kesem OSU was founded in 2011 after one of Toland's students, Kelsey Gray, heard about it at a research symposium and asked her to be the adviser. The chapter raised $20,000 to get started and now raises about five times that amount. (The university does not provide any funding to the organization.)

This year's goal is $102,000, Wright said. Organizers hope to raise about half that amount at the Make the Magic benefit gala March 4 at Strongwater. (For more information, go to campkesem.org/ohio-state/make-the-magic. The registration deadline is Feb. 25.)

Toland said it's been amazing to watch the students manage Camp Kesem. “They build leadership skills. They have fundraising skills. They develop connections. At the same time, they are putting on this amazing camp. It's really changed their lives.”

About one-third of the OSU counselors personally relate to campgoers because they've also been through a parent's cancer diagnosis, Toland said. Another third plan to work in the medical field, and the rest volunteer because they enjoy children or are pursuing careers such as teaching.

The latter is why Wright became a counselor. “I am majoring in early childhood education, so I love kids,” she said. “The idea of working in a summer camp startled me a little. I never went to summer camp. But I fell in love with Camp Kesem.”

Wright said the experience has touched her. “They're the strongest kids you've ever met in your life.”

Counselors are available to help even after camp has ended. “Call on Kesem” connects families with counselors for various needs—from attending a child's sporting event or school play to baby-sitting on a parent's chemotherapy treatment day. They often become like family. “My daughter had to have her tonsils out, and they came over to eat ice cream and we played games,” Pabst said.

The students are role models for Jack, Pabst said. “My son has decided he wants to go to the Ohio State University so he can be a camp counselor.”