At first Trevor Nuckols thought his dad would get better. He was 12 and didn’t grasp that pancreatic cancer could beat the guy who coached his soccer and football teams, competed fiercely, and loved to joke around.
It didn’t take long for Trevor to realize that the cancer was stealing his dad away. Carl Nuckols died on Mother’s Day in 2009 and Trevor, then 13, took on a new family role.
“It happened right as school was ending. We were spending a lot of time at home,” he said. “The house seemed vacant, it felt like there was always going to be something that was missing.
“I felt like I was the man of the house–I had a lot more responsibility. You definitely feel like you’re growing up a lot faster, it gave me a really different perspective of life than what most 13-year-olds go through.”
At Camp Kesem, he got to be a kid again.
His mom took him and his younger sister, Lauren, there that summer. They discovered an entire community of kids whose parents were fighting or had lost cancer battles. They’ve gone back every summer since, and Trevor, now 20 and a rising UNC-Greensboro junior, is a counselor.
“It made me realize that I wasn’t the only one–that hundreds of kids were feeling the same way,” he said. “It was an escape and at the same time it brought everyone together. It was more of a release–you don’t feel like you have any responsibilities, you go there to have fun. It’s nice now I get to see it from another perspective, knowing how it felt.”
Kesem is the Hebrew word for magic, and Camp Kesem tries to provide that for kids filled with the anxiety, anger, grief and sense of helplessness often brought on by a parent’s cancer. The camp’s mission statement reads: “To support children through and beyond a parent’s cancer.” College students run more than 70 chapters of Camp Kesem throughout the United States.
This year, the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send two kids to Camp Kesem in North Carolina. They’re among more than 1,000 children going to 37 camps thanks to donations from readers and the community.
They’ll head to the Kesem camp run by UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University students on the campus of Camp Keyauwee in Sophia, near Greensboro.
Because cancer often takes a huge financial toll on families, the sleep away camp is free for all kids. There are two one-week sessions each summer. The college student counselors are volunteers, and each must raise enough money to pay for a child’s week at camp. Other volunteers include two nurses and a psychologist with the camp nickname “Spike.”
This year’s co-directors are Adeline Dorough, from Indian Trail, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May, and Veerain Gupta, a rising senior at Duke.
If you think this is a sad camp, you’d be mistaken.
Kesem campers swim, canoe, and tackle high ropes courses. They put on plays and a talent show, fish, and compete in a water polo tournament. They laugh, stay up late talking and make lifetime friendships.
“It’s a fun, celebratory time in a pretty wonderful environment,” Dorough, said. “It’s so much more than a summer camp.”
There are poignant moments and some tears when kids open up and share their stories. On the last day, everyone gathers to talk about why they love camp. There’s a ceremony with gestures such as, “Tap someone who makes you laugh.”
“The campers just rock your world,” Dorough said. “They are the most incredible humans you’ll ever meet.”
Toni Frenzke learned about Camp Kesem during a radiation treatment.
The Lillington middle-school teacher was 36 and the mother of two young kids when first diagnosed with breast cancer. Her son Hunter was “my little cheerleader, but he took it all personally” and wanted to know all the ups and downs of her surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Addison was too young to understand.
Her husband, Eric, a National Guard member, was away when she drove them to Camp Kesem for the first time. The kids had never spent the night apart from the family. The 90-minute drive took her through winding back roads into the wooded camp. A college counselor assured her they’d be fine. She drove home sobbing.
“It ended up being the best decision ever,” says Frenzke, who now serves on the camp’s advisory board and has been cancer-free for five years. “Hunter came back a different kid. He was able to see me as Mom, and not just the patient.”
The kids say their annual week at camp is the best ever.
“It’s very, very very, very, fun,” Addison, who’s nine, said. She likes the arts and crafts, archery, dinosaur egg hunts, and talent show.
“Kesem is just overall great,” Hunter, 11, agreed. “If someone’s down everyone’s there trying to make them happy. We’re all there for each other.”
To give to the Summer Camp Fund
Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269.
Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors in the Local section. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).
If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.