Camp guides children through and beyond parent’s cancer

Upon entering Camp Kesem, one can hear nothing but quirky names like Princess Peach, Cyclone, Maleficent or Cookie Dough. In fact, everyone there – campers and counselors – goes by a peculiar name.

This is simply one of many tactics used by camp organizers to get participants to feel at ease and be themselves while they learn to tackle a rather tragic situation — having a parent with cancer.

Camp Kesem is a national program that aims to provide comfort and support to children whose parents suffer from cancer and to empower them by developing a sense of camaraderie and community through free recreational camps.

The University of Georgia in Athens began its own chapter of Kesem in 2011 and has since hosted hundreds of campers from ages 6 through 16. It also runs a counselor in training program for 17- and 18-year-olds.

UGA brought Camp Kesem to Camp Westminster in Conyers for the second year in a row this summer. Nearly 165 campers and 80 volunteers from all across Georgia and parts of South Carolina attended the program over the course of two week-long camp sessions.

Camp Kesem gets participants to feel at ease and be themselves while they learn to tackle a rather tragic situation -- having a parent with cancer.

Grishma Rimal/ Rockdale Citizen

Camp Kesem gets participants to feel at ease and be themselves while they learn to tackle a rather tragic situation — having a parent with cancer.

“The first session, we had a lot of new campers,” said Meagan Chong, a graduate student at UGA and public relations co-coordinator for Camp Kesem. “And those are sort of my favorite campers to watch because I think it’s really special to see them grow from shy kids to really integrate themselves and become a part of the magic of Camp Kesem.”

Campers are sorted into age-based groups and participate in a variety of activities such as arts and crafts projects, zip-lining, canoeing, wakeboarding, archery, etc. as well as empowerment programs to share their personal experiences with others who experience similar struggles.

Fifteen-year-old Luis Valez of Newnan, who returned to the camp for the second year, described it as “one of the best weeks” of his life.

“No one is really judging you. You can do whatever, be yourself,” he said. “It was just a really good atmosphere. Everybody cares about you, and it’s been great coming back. I’ve been counting down the days. It’s like coming home to a huge family.”

For 14-year-old Jalen Young of College Park, this year’s camp was his first and an opportunity to try new sports.

“There are a lot of things here that I’ve never done before,” Young said, listing canoeing and wakeboarding as new adventures he has come to love.

“The people here, they are so happy and make you feel so welcomed,” he added.

Sam Hepburn, a UGA graduate and third-year counselor, said the camp helps the volunteers as much as it does the children.

“It’s cool to be a part of something where not only you get to help these kids who really need it, but it actually helps everyone here,” he said. “It’s a very therapeutic place, full of very uplifting moments.

“For these kids, especially, it’s so important because not only are they dealing with this horrible thing called cancer in their lives, they are also normal kids with typical problems at schools.”

In an effort to maintain continuous rapport with the children, counselors organize reunions and grief-support programs around the year. Students at UGA also meet regularly for event planning, fundraisers and volunteer recruitment.

Cassidy Chakroun, a rising junior at UGA and Camp Kesem public relations co-coordinator, said she joined the organization on seeing a video about the camp that inspired her.

“So just watching them have fun and talk about their experiences made me want to be a part of it,” she said. “It felt like I’m almost missing out.”

Those wishing to not miss out on next year’s Camp Kesem can visit for information on the program, registration, and ways to get involved.

Young chefs to show off culinary chops

Members of the A.R. Gus Barksdale Boys and Girls Club of Rockdale County have one mission this upcoming week – to create the best salsa in metro Atlanta.

They are putting their culinary skills to the test at the 2017 “Salsa, Salsa” event hosted by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta on July 11 at The Greystone at Piedmont Park.

“I am excited for people to say that they like our salsa,” said Jaliyah Web, a fifth-grade student at Hightower Elementary School.

Web is one of eight members who are a part of the Garden Club at the Barksdale Boys and Girls Club. Staff member Amelia Davis supervises the children.

“I gave them some ideas, and they came up with their own measurement on how to make the salsa,” Davis said.

Their ‘Sa’Roasted Tomato’ recipe includes a combination of tomatoes, jalapeno, black pepper, limes, red and white onions, as well as cilantro and mint leaves that they have personally grown. Rules of the contest require teams to use at least one ingredient from their own club garden.

The Barksdale Club tends to multiple sets of garden beds where it has grown a variety of items such as zucchini, watermelon, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cilantro, and rosemary.

Davis said gardening has provided the children with a new perspective on their food and made them willing to try vegetables they might otherwise steer away from.

“For a lot of the kids, broccoli is not their favorite thing,” Davis said. “But they were excited once they saw their broccoli grow from a seedling.

“And we were able to harvest it. Then we went in and made a broccoli salad with it, and they actually liked it. I think it’s because it was something they grew on their own, and it was different from what they thought it would taste.”

Davis said that the gardening initiative has also generated interest among the parents who bring in seedlings for them to plant.

The “Salsa, Salsa” event is a means for the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atalanta to highlight its cooking and gardening programs and promote healthy eating.

“Many kids, particularly from low-income neighborhoods, do not have access to healthy food and safe places to play,” said Missy Dugan, President and CEO of BGCMA. “Programs like this teach our kids that eating right and staying active can be fun. They help kids build healthy habits now we hope will stay with them for a lifetime.”

More than 20 Boys and Girls Clubs from across the city will participate in this year’s event. In addition to eating salsa, participants will also have a chance to learn the Salsa from professional dancers who will be teaching the members, staff, and volunteers how to move to the rhythm and use dance for a healthy lifestyle.

The Barksdale Club has won the “People’s Choice” award for their recipe for two years in a row, and are determined to win the top prize this year.

Their salsa will be judged by experts such as chefs, restaurant owners, and fitness professionals, and scored on taste, aroma, consistency, presentation, and originality. The winning salsa will be featured at a local Willy’s Mexicana Grill this summer.