Summer Camp Fund

Camp Kesem: A special place for kids whose parents have cancer

Three Camp Kesem campers hold a “dinosaur egg” they collected during a camp game. Camp Kesem provides a summer respite for kids affected by a parent’s cancer.
Three Camp Kesem campers hold a “dinosaur egg” they collected during a camp game. Camp Kesem provides a summer respite for kids affected by a parent’s cancer.

Morgan Daly, co-executive director at Duke University’s Camp Kesem, leads a camp for kids affected by a parent’s cancer. But she always tells people: “This is not a sad camp.”

It’s purely about fun. Camp Kesem leaders figure their campers deserve a week without responsibilities.

“They’ve had to grow up faster because they’ve had a parent with an illness,” said Daly, a recent Duke University grad. “They may be helping with laundry and fixing dinner. We hear it from parents all the time: ‘Thank you for letting my kid just be a kid again.’ 

Each summer kids ages 6 to 16 come to Camp Kesem’s one-week session held at the Girl Scout’s Camp Keyauwee in rural Sophia, N.C.

“Our entire team is comprised of Duke students,” Daly said of the camp she’s been a part of all four years of college.

“Each year, the week of camp is entirely run and organized by student volunteers, which I think is amazing,” she said. “Camp is my favorite week of the summer.”

Two of the 110 kids at this year’s Camp Kesem session, Aug. 14-19, will attend thanks to a grant from the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.

They are among more than 500 children who will attend 33 area camps thanks to donations to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. This year’s goal is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

Vinita Shaw-Simmons, a breast cancer survivor, is sending all three of her daughters to Camp Kesem in August. This will be the fourth year for Zahria, 13, and Khailan, 9. They have been prepping younger sister, Tierrani, 6, for all the fun she can expect.

Shaw-Simmons was pregnant with Tierrani when she first felt the lump in her breast. “I felt the lump grow as she grew,” Shaw-Simmons said.

She cared for her newborn while undergoing chemo and radiation. At the time cancer invaded, Shaw-Simmons’ job was tenuous and her husband, Tousont, was out of work.

“Our world was turned upside down,” she said. She remembers when Tousont stood up in front of their church and said: “Babe, you don’t have cancer. We have cancer. I am with you through all of this.”

Camp Kesem was with them too, providing their children with a much needed summer respite.

“Camp takes them out of this crazy world they’ve been thrown in,” she said. “They can just let loose. And they do. They play ‘messy games’ where they mix jelly and chocolate sauce and other foods for a food fight. They always have a best belly flop contest. And my kids tell me the camp food is amazing. But it’s the fellowship we value most.”

Fellowship includes the comfort of being with other kids who understand and having counselors trained to listen.

“We’re not therapists,” Daly said. “But we do have a mental health professional on staff. Our job is to keep kids safe and active and to be part of a conversation with them without ever being pushy.”

Shaw-Simmons’ cancer journey has led her to grad school to study Christian counseling – and to a deeper appreciation for Camp Kesem’s counselors.

“These counselors are part of our family now,” she said. “They really show kids what love looks like.”

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

The Summer Camp Fund has a $215,000 goal this year and only a couple of weeks to go. Donate at 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 to the fund. 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.