Erika Richardson, a junior early childhood-elementary special education major, sang camp songs every morning for five weeks last summer to wake up children at Dragonfly Forest, a summer camp for children with autism and other medical conditions.
While she worked there, she heard about Camp Kesem — a week-long free summer camp for children whose lives have been affected by parents who have died from, survived or are currently fighting cancer — and she wondered why Temple didn’t have a branch of the organization.
The camp is a nonprofit run entirely by college students at least 80 partner schools. In November 2016, Richardson applied for Temple to become a partner, and the university will open its chapter during Summer 2018 at an off-campus location.
Temple and 11 other universities participated in a social media contest in late January and early February. For five days, people voted for the schools online, and the top 10 became partners with Camp Kesem.
Richardson enlisted her friends, senior painting major Gabrielle Marshall and junior biology major Mollie McCloskey — who both worked at Dragonfly Forest this summer — to help her with the campaign.
“We basically harassed people to vote,” McCloskey said. “I would message people I didn’t even know … but it worked.”
At the end of the campaign, Richardson said Temple came in with the third most votes, which secured the partnership.
Marshall said the national Camp Kesem headquarters is currently in the process of selecting directors, nurses and mental health professionals to work at Temple’s branch. The 2017-18 academic year will be spent fundraising to meet the camp’s $30,000 goal, which will go toward buying supplies and renting an off-campus, American Camp Association-accredited campsite, Richardson said. ACA credentials ensure that the campsite offers safe, healthy and quality programs, according to its website.
Jenna Barnett, the operations director and university liaison for Camp Kesem’s national headquarters, said her favorite part of the camp is watching the kids connect during the week.
Barnett said Camp Kesem has “cabin chats” — nightly discussions among the kids facilitated by the college student counselors — to help kids connect. There is also an “Empowerment Ceremony” at the end of camp for kids to reflect on the week and their experiences.
Barnett said one of the most touching memories was when a young girl and boy talked openly to each other about losing their dads to cancer.
“She never talked about it before, and she was able to talk about it to everyone without being the kid whose dad has cancer,” Barnett said. “When you’re at Camp Kesem, you’re you, and everyone gets it.”
Richardson said she thought Camp Kesem would be a great opportunity for some children living in the area surrounding Temple and a good leadership experience for students.
“Because it’s a free program, a lot of children in a low-income household can go and experience it with other kids,” Richardson said. “Temple students would really enjoy it too because it’s such a community-driven school.”
Although Marshall will graduate before the camp opens, she thinks the impact is worth the hard work the student-run organization requires.
“A lot of kids in Philly can’t go to camp normally, especially those who have all this extra stress in life from having a sick parent,” she said. “It’s really nice for them to just be a kid for once.”
Megan Platt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.