I did community service in high school, but it wasn’t until college that I truly began to fall in love with it. My first year I started volunteering at a soup kitchen in downtown New Haven that collected extra Yale food to serve on the weekends. I also briefly sat on the board of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project - an organization that falls under Yale’s umbrella service organization, Dwight Hall.
One of my all-time favorite service experiences occurred earlier this year. Over the summer, someone posted in a Facebook group with a plea for a volunteer photographer to attend a week of summer camp. Having worked inside all summer, I was overly excited by a week of summer camp activities and quickly accepted the position.
And thus, my relationship with Camp Kesem was born. The weekend after leaving my summer internship I packed up my duffel bag, grabbed my camera gear, and got ready to be a camp counselor. It was an early and rainy morning that I hopped into a car with not enough socks and my camp name (Stripes!) ready to go.
Arriving at camp I was handed a green bandana marking me as a “green unit counselor.” This meant I would be staying with the youngest group of campers: girls aged 8 through 10.
Here is most of Green Unit getting ready to head into the lake.
Technically my job was to take photographs, but the experience transformed into so much more. Living in a cabin, I took on some (but certainly not all) of the responsibilities of a true counselor, and absolutely adored my Green Girls. Because I would float around with my camera, I had a lot of different camp experiences and also spent time with the oldest unit of campers, the Purple Unit.
Experiencing the full range of ages at camp really showed me what Camp Kesem is all about. Kesem campers are brought together by the worst of circumstances – having a parent who has suffered from cancer. Kesem offers these kids a chance to let go of that burden, at least for moments, and enjoy just being a kid.
One of the best days of camp is messy games!
Most of the time the campers and staff don’t talk about cancer, but there are moments of raw emotion that I feel blessed to have experienced. During most of these times I participated just as myself - not as the camp photographer. In those moments, I chose to set the camera down and purely participate.
During the Empowerment experience campers and counselors tell their stories about their interactions with cancer. For the first time in my life I spoke about someone incredibly dear to me who had passed when I was in high school. There is nowhere else I would have rather had that experience. The connection that brings everyone together at Kesem is awful, but the resulting community is one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
After Empowerment we wrote messages to the people in our life with cancer.
Of course, any summer camp would be incomplete without the typical camp activities as well. We spent plenty of time swimming, boating, doing arts and crafts, perfecting my lanyard skills, and hanging out around campfires. I am so grateful that over my time at Yale I’ve had the chance to participate in such a wide range of activities that have become so meaningful to who I am as a person. For me, Camp Kesem exemplifies the best part of Yale: the community. It is a community I never imagined myself a part of, but one that I am so happy to have found during my four years here.