Cancer has closely affected LSA senior Rebecca Ress throughout her life. Her mother has been battling colorectal cancer for the past 10 years, and she lost her father to lymphoma three days before the start of her freshman year. But soon after arriving on campus she, at the urging of her sorority sisters, became involved with Camp Kesem at the University of Michigan.
Camp Kesem at the University is part of a national nonprofit of primarily college students that organizes free camps for children of adults battling cancer. Camp Kesem at the University organizes two one-week camps in August at Camp Copneconic in Fenton, and has nearly 100 student volunteers involved. Ress was drawn to the camp, as it was something she wished she had when her parents were battling cancer.
“I grew up having two parents who were both fighting cancer, and I didn’t have any resource like that,” she said. “It was definitely an ostracising feeling. So coming to this university, and realizing that I had the power to spread this community to other children in the area to have that kind of community was a no brainer.”
Ress started off her first summer as a counselor, and quickly became more involved, being promoted to outreach chair on its coordinating board. In that role, she managed camper-family relations and reunions, as well as the organization of medical staff and information for the camp. She now serves as co-director, responsible for all the aspects of the camp’s planning and fundraising. Ress estimates that it costs $1,000 to send one kid to the camp. This summer, the camp will be its largest ever, as it is hoping to serve 260 kids.
While it may be a lot of work, Ress feels that her job is incredibly rewarding.
“I like the mission-focused work, and feeling that passion,” Ress said. “I spend so much time working on Kesem that it doesn’t feel like work when you’re working for something that you care about that much.”
Ress stresses that Camp Kesem tries to give campers as normal a camp experience as possible.
“We say that Camp Kesem isn’t a boo-boo camp — it’s not like a cancer camp,” she said. “It’s pretty much a regular, crazy, dirty summer camp where we’re swimming and on the lake front and doing ziplining and messy games and things like that.”
However, the camp does dedicate one day of the week as an “empowerment day” to help campers through their tough times. The day begins with counselors and campers alike sharing their own stories if they choose, with the goal of empowering themselves and other campers. Ress felt that this day was most impactful to her when she was helping others prepare their stories.
“My first year I spoke at empowerment, and the following years I’ve learned that I find more joy in finding others to speak,” Ress said. “So helping other counselors helping campers through their stories, and bringing them forward to feel the power to share their stories has been really meaningful for me.”
Co-directing the camp isn’t the only hat Ress wears. She also cares for her mother, who is still battling colorectal cancer, as her father has passed and her siblings have moved away. She drives an hour home to Troy every other weekend or so, to make sure her mother isn’t always alone.
“Her chemo is pretty rigorous right now, where she can’t always get up and down the stairs or feed herself,” Ress said. “Sometimes, I need to take her to the hospitals to get IVs or things like that.”
Her mother’s long-term treatments were on her mind even as Ress was choosing a college. Her mother goes through a new round of treatments about every year and a half to keep her cancer under control.
“Coming here, and when I was applying to colleges, I definitely had to consider distance to home,” she said.
While Ress has faced many obstacles before and during her college experience, her experiences with her parents battling cancer and the campers she works with have given her a new perspective on what it means to have a bad day.
“I tripped and spilled my coffee and it was just a typical kind of bad day, and I couldn’t help but laugh because I was so grateful to have a silly type of bad day.”
See the 7 other students of the year here.