Camp Kasem at Lake Cachuma | Credit: Courtesy

Jonathan Roberts, executive director of Camp Kesem at UC Santa Barbara, learned how to grieve at a young age. He was only 10 when his father was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, which had spread throughout his body. 

“They gave him six months,” Roberts shared. “He pushed through for another six months after that, and we were thankful…. I grieved for a long time.”

As a child forced to face difficult emotions, Roberts struggled to cope with his father’s diagnosis. However, his perspective changed when he found Camp Kesem, a free sleepaway camp for kids with a parent or guardian with cancer.

“Coming to Camp Kesem was such a special moment,” he said. “I was, for the first time, around other kids who were in my shoes.”

“I saw the differences in their grief, seeing them express their sadness and anger,” Roberts continued. “Camp Kesem gave me a safe place to be myself and grieve the way I wanted to grieve.”

Having attended the UC Davis chapter of Kesem for about nine years, Roberts sought other universities with local chapters and ended up at UC Santa Barbara, which hosts its annual sleepaway week at Lake Cachuma. This year, it ran from August 6-10.

The camp is operated mainly by college students, who volunteer their free time to raise funds, organize and plan activities, sing songs, and generally be there for whatever the kids need. But Kesem is not just for mourning. 

Amara Maliszewski and her daughters

Amara Maliszewski, a Santa Barbara social worker and the mother of two girls, shared her story over the phone while driving home from a family vacation. Her daughters piped up from the back seat to correct any details their mom may have gotten wrong. 

Maliszewski was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, when her daughters were only 5 and 10 years old. After years of treatment, she is now in remission. Her eldest daughter began attending Kesem in 2017, and now both girls — known by their camp names of “Quail” and “Raccoon” — attend the camp almost every year.

“When a parent is going through cancer, there’s more stress in the household, or maybe there’s just not as much focus on the kids,” Maliszewski said. “I think there’s a lot of therapeutic value in being there with other kids who have the shared experience. There’s space to share what’s going on with your family if you want to, but it’s mostly just about having a great time.”

Maliszewski’s daughter Lucy said, “Most of the time you’re there, it’s a pretty normal summer camp,” with games, crafts, and talent shows. “It’s not like we spend the whole time talking about cancer,” she said. “But it’s very special, just knowing that everyone there understands this aspect of your life.”

Whether a parent is in remission, is continuing treatment, has a recurrence, or dies of cancer, participants will always be part of the Kesem “family,” Maliszewski explained. They get together two or three times during the year for “mini-camp” days, where they can hang out, catch up, and do fun activities together. Kids even get handmade birthday cards from their counselors. 

“Whatever happens in the future doesn’t really matter,” Maliszewski said. “Once you join the family, you are part of it through your ups and downs. That’s important with cancer.” 

Learn more and apply for next summer’s camp here.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.