Profile: Camp Kesem has been a magical, life-changing experience for U-M student Courtney Whitcher


Courtney Whitcher first became involved with Camp Kesem as a freshman at the University of Michigan but her desire to help kids dealing with cancer in their family started before she got to Ann Arbor.

And, yeah, this is personal. Very personal.

“In high school I watched a close friend struggle through and ultimately lose his battle to cancer,” says Whitcher, who grew up in St. Clair Shores. “Seeing the impact that this experience had on his parents, siblings and our entire community completely changed my outlook on life.

“When I arrived at the University of Michigan and was invited to a Camp Kesem mass meeting by a group of fun-loving, goofy college students, I automatically felt a connection with my past. The organization caters to an incredible, underserved population, and both this mission and the people involved with it drew me in.”

All photos by Kaley Wetekamp

Camp Kesem is a non-profit student organization that provides a free week of summer camp and year-long support to kids affected by a parent’s cancer. For Whitcher, it was life changing.

“My involvement with the campers of Camp Kesem has meant the world to me,” she says. “It has shaped my outlook on life and transformed me into the person I am today.”

Whitcher, 21, is a senior at U-M majoring in Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity. She says her involvement with Camp Kesem has given her a new appreciation for her family from her experiences with the group. The meaning of Kesem is something that those involved with the organization often have trouble putting into words. It’s also a very emotional experience and creates an amazing connection with kids.

Whitcher said to give a better understanding of what Camp Kesem has meant to her she will share something she wrote after her first year involved with the organization: “I Kesem for the kids who are forced to grow up way too fast. For those who have to help their mom take a bath instead of their mom making them a cup of soup when they are the ones sick in bed. For the kids who can’t hang out with friends after school because they are “hanging out” at the hospital with their loved ones. I Kesem for the girls who grow up without a dad to take them fishing or a mom to help them pick out their first bra. I Kesem for the kids that have to walk down isles alone at their wedding, who have to graduate without a parent cheering in the crowd, for those who have to become parents themselves for their siblings. These kids get bullied for carrying around pictures of a parent, for not being able to go to the mall after school, for having a mom that has lost her hair, for the fear that this cancer is somehow contagious.

“These kids are the hardest on themselves, though, filling their minds with guilt for being sad when a parent gets diagnosed because it makes the parent sad or for not spending enough time with family, for simply wanting some attention. I Kesem so that these kids, that work so hard and are so brave and so incredibly strong, have a home. So that they have a family and everlasting bonds of love. I Kesem to give them a place to escape, a place to make connections, a place to have fun. I Kesem to be a face cheering in the crowd when a parent cannot. I Kesem to bring light into the darkest times. I Kesem to spread magic.

“I Kesem to heal. To feel loved. To find my true self. Kesem isn’t only for these kids but is so selfishly for me too. I Kesem because it’s where I belong. It’s where I can dance and sing without a worry of judgement. It’s where I can cry and feel and mend my broken pieces. It’s where my worries go away; it’s where my heroes reside. I will forever Kesem.”

Whitcher added that her proudest accomplishment is being able to lead the University of Michigan Camp Kesem chapter as director.

“I strive, every day, to give these children, who have given so much to me, a community of fun, love, and magic,” she says. “If I can put a smile on the face of just one more of the five million children affected by a parent’s cancer, we are doing something right.”

During her first year as a counselor at Camp Kesem, Whitcher met a girl who did not want to be there and stated she was not going to have any fun. By the end of the week, this camper was leading camp songs in front of all 150 members of that week of camp.

“With tears in his eyes, her father thanked me for giving him his daughter back,” Whitcher said. “That is when I truly felt what we like to call the Kesem magic.”

Camp Kesem
What: The annual Camp Kesem at the University of Michigan’s annual 5K Karl Krawl. The organization is a non-profit student organization that provides a free week of summer camp and year-long support to kids affected by a parent’s cancer.
When: 9 a.m. to noon, Oct. 28
Where: Gallup Park
Prices: Single participant, $15; Group of 10, $10 per person
Also: Refreshments will be served at the event. A raffle and prize for the winner of the race also are part of the festivities. On-site check in begins at 9 a.m. Race starts at 10 a.m.
To register:
How you can help: Because Camp Kesem provides both year-round support and a free week of summer camp to children affected by a parent’s cancer at absolutely no cost to the families, monetary donations are greatly appreciated and necessary to run the organization. However, there are many other ways to help support Camp Kesem by spreading the word in areas they have not yet reached, publicizing their mission, and offering support to run the many events throughout the year.
More information:




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