Students host camp for kids coping with parent’s illness

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 who support children through and beyond their parent’s cancer — to UVM.

Cohen, who heard about the camp from a friend, first discussed the idea with Speck while volunteering together at the University of Vermont 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.

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 30 students willing to put in so much time for a great cause just shows how great the UVM community is,” says Medeiros, a nursing major who served as camp co-director with Torsney.

The reward far outweighed the sacrifice, according to many of the 28 students who served as counselors for the 26 campers, ages 6-16. “It was absolutely the best week of my life,” says Cohen. “It was incredibly powerful to hear the kids tell these raw stories that other campers could relate to in a very deep way.”

Coupled with those moments of sharing common experiences and emotions, the camp came with ample opportunity to escape into activities you’d find at any other summer camp. Much of daily life at UVM Kesem revolved around the simple, yet powerful, motto: “Let Kids Be Kids.” 


Jon C. Reidel