University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Refuge from Cancer

Emily Speck ’17 in face paint playing with kids
Emily Speck ’17 and a circle of fellow students founded the UVM chapter of Camp Kesem and ran this summer’s inaugural program. Photograph by Lauren Cozzens


Refuge from Cancer

STUDENT LIFE | When Emily Speck learned in eighth grade that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, she focused on staying strong for her parents. Consequently, she never spoke about her own internal struggles throughout her mother’s treatment and recovery.

Speck ’17 shared her experience publicly for the first time this summer at a camp for children who lost a parent to cancer, or have one in treatment or remission, that she co-founded with Morgan Medeiros ’18 and Alex Cohen ’16. Her story helped campers open up about their own experiences during an empowerment ceremony at the first UVM-student-sponsored Camp Kesem in Tuftonboro, New Hampshire.

“I wish I had a Camp Kesem when I was going through that experience,” says Speck. “It was really hard to speak out loud about it, but it seemed to empower the kids to share their own stories. Their ability to be brave in that situation is a testament to their own strength, but also to the environment that we created at camp.”

Speck was part of a handful of dedicated students, including Emily Torsney ’18, who worked tirelessly to bring a chapter of Camp Kesem—a nationwide community of college students dedicated to the cause—to UVM.

Cohen, who heard about the camp from a friend, first discussed the idea with Speck while volunteering together at the UVM Children’s Hospital. “We saw a need but had no idea how much work it would take to get a chapter,” says Cohen, adding that Harvard, Dartmouth, Boston College, MIT, Yale, and Brown were the only New England schools with chapters.

But it wasn’t long before students from a broad range of majors including education, math, business, economics, nursing, biochemistry, and computer science joined the effort. Some were motivated by the loss of a parent, although most just wanted to help children. “Being able to say that we have thirty students willing to put in so much time for a great cause shows just how great the UVM community is,” says Medeiros, a nursing major who served as camp co-director with Torsney.

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