April 18-- Eight summers ago, Tyler Leptich was a sad, quiet and solitary 11-year-old with a dad battling terminal lung cancer. Then he spent a week at Camp Kesem.
The free summer camp-offered to children ages 6 to 18 whose parents are cancer patients or survivors-changed Leptich's life. At the activity-rich camp, the San Diego grade-schooler found new confidence and communication skills and a circle of lifelong friends. Now he's ready to share the wealth.
Tyler Leptich, 20, co-founder of the Camp Kesem chapter at San Diego State University, talks about the organization in a recent interview.
Leptich, now 20 and a sophomore studying business management at San Diego State University, is co-founder of the campus's newly formed chapter of Camp Kesem. It's one of 116 student-run chapters at universities nationwide, including UC San Diego. Students raise money year-round to underwrite in full the campers' tuition and they also serve as counselors at the weeklong camps.
This year, Leptich, chapter co-founder Olivia Di Santo, and 18 other SDSU students raised enough money to send 25 campers to the chapter's inaugural camp at Cedar Glen Camp in Julian Aug. 5-11. Meanwhile at UCSD, which has had a Camp Kesem chapter since 2004, is on track to send more than 230 kids to camps on June 17-23 and Aug. 4-10 at the Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center.
Sarah Gan, an outreach coordinator for the UCSD chapter and aspiring elementary school teacher, said being involved in Camp Kesem over the past three years has been a life-changing experience.
"Seeing the smiling faces on the faces of all the kids is indescribable. You don't really realize how much a 6-year-old can inspire you and how strong they are," said Gan, 20, a developmental psychology major who grew up in Pasadena. "They inspire me to be a better person."
Camp Kesem got its start at Stanford University in 2000 as a community project for students in Hillel, a Jewish campus organization. Kesem means "magic" in Hebrew. The Hillel students wanted to create an enriching experience where kids touched by cancer could "forget about their problems and just be kids again," said Krystine Bernas, 21, a fundraising coordinator for the UCSD chapter.
Students at each campus set and meet their own fundraising goals, develop their own curriculum and staff the camps, which are held within a few hours drive of each university. Last year, more than 5,000 student volunteers nationwide raised enough money to send more than 9,000 kids to camp. This year's goal is for more than 10,000 campers.
Bernas, as human development major who plans to work as an occupational therapist for children with special needs, said that despite the cancer connection all the campers share, the camps are not sad, tearful affairs. Children have fun, full days of hiking, swimming, doing arts and crafts, playing sports and doing activities like zip lining
But to open up the lines of communication, the campers also have nightly "cabin chats" to talk about their day and their ups and downs. There are also optional empowerment sessions where campers can learn the communications skills to build self-esteem and share their personal stories with others. The Camp Kesem mascot is a caterpillar, since the children often emerge much changed by the camp experience, said Tiffany Mora, 22, who co-chairs the fundraising team with Bernas at UCSD.
"I have received emails from parents who thank me for being a counselor," said Mora, a Sacramento native who is studying human biology with the goal of becoming an obstetrician/gynecologist. "One parent wrote in a letter 'I have my child back.' When I hear something like that I realize all the hard work is worth it."
Like every camper and counselor, Leptich was invited to choose his own camp nickname when he arrived at his first camp in 2011. Because so many campers and counselors competed for dibs to give Leptich a nickname, he became known as "Dibs." Leptich said he so enjoyed the idea of shedding his name and sorrows at the camp gates that he returned to Camp Kesem ever summer until he turned 18.
"What I remember most from that first camp was how excited the counselors were and how super happy everyone was to be there. That creates its own atmosphere. You could be whatever you wanted to be," he said. "When I got home from that first camp, I went into the swimming pool and I cried. Leaving camp that summer was the first time in my life that I ever felt homesick."
Leptich's father, David, passed away in November 2012. The loss was devastating, he said, but having a group of camp friends-who he has stayed in close touch with at monthly Camp Kesem "friends and family" events-made the loss easier to bear.
"The friends you make at camp become friends for life, because once you've shared your deepest feelings with someone, there's nothing you can't talk about," said Leptich, whose goal is to work at Camp Kesem's national headquarters when he graduates.
To fund camper tuitions, the student chapters raise money in a variety of ways. Each active student member-SDSU has 20, UCSD has more than 100-must raise $1,200 on their own. The rest is made up through corporate sponsors, walkathons, Giving Tuesday online giving, restaurant dining promotions and other means.
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