Ball State’s branch of Camp Kesem supports children who have been affected by their parent’s cancer through a free weekend of fun and encouragement

<p>Kelly Hayes (left) and Brenna Sealy (right) in the “Messy Olympics” during a session of the Camp Kesem summer camp. Kelly Hayes, Photo Provided</p>

Kelly Hayes (left) and Brenna Sealy (right) in the “Messy Olympics” during a session of the Camp Kesem summer camp. Kelly Hayes, Photo Provided

Kelly Hayes, second-year creative writing major at Ball State University, grew up in a home where she said all anyone talked about was cancer.

“All you ever think about is that your parent is sick, and that takes up your whole life,” Hayes said

Her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and when Hayes was 16 years old, her mother died from it.

Two years later, Hayes was introduced to Camp Kesem, an annual summer camp for 6 to 18-year-olds.

“My mom had died two years ago at that point, so it was still fresh,” Hayes said. “I saw the [Camp Kesem] banner and mission, and I said, ‘Isn’t that amazing?’ I wish I had something like that as a kid. I wanted to help.” 

The organization was founded at Stanford University in 2000 and has since grown to have more than 130 chapters across the United States. It not only offers summer camps but online support, personalized deliveries and fundraisers that encourage children affected by cancer to be a part of a community that advocates for their mental health and well-being. 

For Hayes, Camp Kesem was a way to be a part of a community where she knew she would be able to help people in similar situations.

She said she was looking for an organization to join at her first activity fair when she came across Camp Kesem. Although she was able to join as a camper due to her age, she decided that becoming a counselor was the best for her. 

During the summer camp, counselors pick their own ‘camp names’ as a way to remain anonymous around the children. Hayes, known as “Scooter” at the camp, said her name came from her father’s nickname for her, a result of her habit of scooting rather than walking or crawling when she was young. 

Now, Hayes is in her second year of being the Amp Coordinator for the Ball State branch of Camp Kesem. She focuses on marketing some of the organization's events such as Giving Tuesday, an annual November fundraiser and community walk in order to raise funds. Hayes designs shirts and social media posts in hopes of catching potential donors’ and members’ attention.

Camp Kesem is a free camp for kids who's parents are battling cancer, 2020.

Co-directors Brenna Sealy and Samantha Van Heirseele have also been involved in the organization for several years, as they have worked their way up the board to their current positions. Directors are responsible for recruitment, overseeing coordinators and communicating with national staff regarding future plans.

Van Heirseele initially discovered Camp Kesem after being a camper herself during her junior year of high school. After discovering a chapter at Ball State existed, Van Heirseele knew that was where she wanted to attend college. 

The elementary education major’s camp name is “Peaches,” inspired by her favorite fruit. 

“At the time, I didn’t realize why [we had camp names], and throughout that week [at camp], I was the happiest and [most] care-free I had been in a long time,” Van Heirseele said. “I was just more confident at camp. [Peaches] became an alter ego where I can be the best kind of care-free and silly. I always say Peaches is who I’m growing to be.”

One of her highest priorities as co-director is recruitment for coordinators in order to provide for the current and future campers. 

“Since we are in a time of rebuilding, we are still seeking out people to be our coordinators,” Van Heirseele said. “We are currently taking on the roles of positions we don't currently have filled with the help of our program coordinator.”

Like Hayes, Sealy, a second-year geography major at Ball State, first discovered the organization at the activity fair when she was trying to find an organization that aligned with her values and allowed her to be around a community of supporting individuals. 

“I realized there was a need for a leader for the next year,” Sealy said. “It wasn’t something that I saw as a real possibility until after I worked with Kesem at the University of Toledo as their photographer and learned more about the director position and fell more and more in love with Kesem magic.” 

After her time in Toledo, Sealy said when she wasn’t taking photographs, she ended up spending most of her time at her first camp teaching both campers and counselors songs and games. 

“One of my favorite photos from that week is of a camper named Cheetah playing a game I taught them called ‘Screaming Toes,’” Sealy said. “After his mom saw the photo, she reached out and let us know that the photo had dissolved her nerves of her child being away from home for the first time.”

Sealy is known as “Wildflower” to campers, a name which she chose to resemble her own resilience. 

“Wildflowers have always been things I find comfort in because they can thrive almost anywhere in a bunch of crazy conditions,” Sealy said.

One of her main goals as a part of the organization is to spread the word across campus. 

“I want this entire campus to be able to recognize the word ‘Kesem’ and to know what it means,” Sealy said. “Having a larger general body and more coordinators would be beautiful, but I want to spread the mission of Kesem and be able to put on the best camp our campers have ever been to.”

Those interested in joining can email or find more information on Camp Kesem at Ball State’s Benny Link page.

Contact Grace Duerksen with comments at or on Twitter @gracie_duerk.


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