Over 5 million children are impacted by a parent’s cancer, according to Camp Kesem, a nonprofit that aims to provide support to such kids through free nationwide summer camps. Tyler McDevitt, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, knows what the kids who attend Camp Kesem are going through — and he has spent the past five years serving as one of the nonprofit’s dedicated volunteers.
Camp Kesem’s summer camps are hosted by college students across the country, with 137 chapters existing in 44 states. Tyler first became involved with Camp Kesem in 2015 while he was a junior at Cornell University. He became immediately interested after hearing a friend had reached out to the organization about founding a chapter at Cornell. When his friend was unable to continue as a founding director, Tyler ended up taking on the role.
“It was absolutely incredible,” Tyler said of Cornell’s first-ever Camp Kesem. “Especially never having been to camp, [we were] putting all this planning and time into something we didn’t really have a super clear picture of what the end goal looked like — so finally getting to experience it, and for it to work as well as it did, was an incredible feeling.”
Today, Tyler serves on Princeton University’s local advisory panel, offering advice to the university’s chapter. He also volunteers as a national camp advisor, attending a different college’s camp each year to represent the nonprofit and to serve as a point of contact for rules and safety. He has attended camp at Yale University, University of California Santa Cruz, and the University of New Mexico, and will be assisting the University of Toledo this fall for their camp.
Camp Kesem’s goal is to provide kids with an opportunity to get away from the stressors at home that come with having a parent or caregiver dealing with cancer. The nonprofit strives to allow the kids be themselves and focus on having fun, through typical summer camp activities such as sports and arts and crafts.
“Especially the first-year campers can show up to camp as these timid youngsters, and they leave happy, outgoing,” Tyler said. “They really open up at camp.”
Attendees’ ages range from six to 16, and those aged 16 to 18 are able to attend as counselors-in-training. Tyler said he’s attended camps with attendance ranging from 15 kids to over 100 kids, with the bigger chapters hosting two separate weeks of camp.
Laura Fletcher, who served as founding co-director of Cornell’s Camp Kesem chapter along with Tyler, described him as “community embodied.”
“He is so welcoming of everybody he meets and he makes Kesem feel like home,” Laura said. “We were basically starting a nonprofit from nothing, so it took a ton of perseverance. Whenever I was at my wit’s end and didn’t think we were ever going to get there, he was the hope that got me through.”
On one night of the week, the camp hosts a ceremony called “Empowerment,” where everyone present is able to share their stories and provide support for one another. Tyler described Empowerment as what makes Camp Kesem what it is. A moment that particularly sticks out to him and makes him proud of his work was from an Empowerment ceremony during his senior year at Cornell, when a counselor shared that the reason she became involved was because of the support the camp gave her brother when he attended.
“Even just in the week that I’ve spent at some of these one-off chapters, spending only a week with some campers, you can see a difference even from when their parents drop them off to when their parents pick them up,” he said. “They’re just happier, more excited, more enthusiastic kids, knowing that this community is here and they’re able to have that experience.”
Seeing that impact, along with feeling support himself for the experiences he went through with his mother, is what inspired Tyler to stay involved with Camp Kesem even after he graduated Cornell.
“It’s provided me with a support community that really, I didn’t know I needed more than I thought I did,” Tyler said. “It’s given me some of my best friends in college. It’s given me friends at schools across the country and a community you know you can reach out to at any time.”
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