NIU students raising funds to send campers to Camp Kesem

At least 20 children are headed this June to NIU’s chapter of Camp Kesem, a free summer camp in Fredonia, Wisconsin, designed to support children whose parents are battling cancer.

The NIU students behind the chapter aim to provide a utopic place where campers know they’re not alone and can rediscover their childhood, something often stripped away when dealing with a parent’s cancer. They need your help.

In its second year, the week-long camp begins June 3, with camper applications accepted up until camp at kesem.force.com.

Student volunteers make a commitment to personally raise at least $500, as well as collaboratively chapter fundraise throughout the year. It costs $500 to send a single camper. With nearly double the amount of campers signed up this year, those involved are working hard to reach a $30,000 goal.

“Our counselors are NIU students from all disciplines and from various backgrounds,” said Ria “Muggy” Sangsomwong, NIU Camp Kesem director and an NIU nursing student. “They have either been personally impacted by cancer in their youth or simply want to be a part of this unique volunteer opportunity and to help our campers be kids again.”

“Counselors come back after they witness initially shy campers evolve into wild, fun-loving kids again over the course of a single week. It’s heartwarming to watch a child find pure joy and gain so many new friends, let alone friends who can relate to one another and share delicate emotions about cancer.”

Because campers are not turned away, NIU Camp Kesem appreciates and accepts donations of any value, sponsors and gifts in kind as part of an Amazon.com wish list. Gifts in kind also can be sent to Camp Kesem NIU at P.O. Box 267, DeKalb, IL 60115. Sponsor inquiries and questions may be sent to northernillinois@campkesem.org.

The largest national organization dedicated to this cause, Camp Kesem brings life-changing, positive experiences to a unique, often overlooked population.

“I live and breathe this organization,” said Alexis Mugnolo of St. Charles, the outreach coordinator for NIU Camp Kesem and a counselor.  

A pre-nursing major, Mugnolo joined the effort last year upon first enrolling at NIU. She personally raised about $1,600 for this year’s camps and hopes to raise more. 

“It’s super unique as the only camp serving children whose parents have cancer,” she said. “I love it so much and it makes me so happy to be a part of it.”

With 19 volunteer camp counselors at NIU Camp Kesem, the camper to counselor ratio is kept low so campers receive individual attention.

“Not only do I see the impact on our campers, I watch my counselors and coordinators grow as individuals and find their child-like selves again for our kids,” Sangsomwong said. “The raw smiles and laughter, from both campers and counselors, motivates me to put in all the time and effort to pull off Camp Kesem.”

The week’s goal isn’t to provide traditional therapy to campers, but the activities and culture of the camp become therapeutic.

One camper’s parent described the program as a huge step in the healing process: “At home, everyone is trying to be strong for each other, so things go unsaid. Camp Kesem offers children a place where they can open up about their feelings, cry together and support each other. And most importantly they have fun together. They learn that they are not alone. I’m so grateful I was told about Camp Kesem.”

Now run by students, NIU Camp Kesem began when three friends, Aaron Hadley, NIU alum Imran Kareem (’99, Marketing) and Jonathan Thursby came together several years ago to raise a portion of the $40,000 in startup costs needed. The trio partnered with NIU in 2016, and NIU Camp Kesem was recognized as an official student organization a year later. Hadley and Kareem were joined by NIU alum Nicholas Gavin (’17, Management) and Steven Grosso, who now serve on the advisory board to students.

“When I was approached with the idea of helping to launch a Camp Kesem chapter, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to give back to my university,” Kareem said. “I was fortunate Camp Kesem had chapters already established at our other alma maters. I firmly believe that Camp Kesem not only changes the lives of the campers, it provides college students a perspective on life that will help them shape a better world when they graduate—and I wanted to bring that to NIU.”

The national organization’s website at campkesem.org reports more than 5 million children are impacted by a parent’s cancer. In 2017, with 100 chapters in 40 states across the country, Camp Kesem reached more than 7,300 children in attendance. Campers have been featured on the NBC Today Show.

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