Paying it forward

As the co-directors of Camp Kesem’s local chapter, these LSU students give kids a safe space to talk about their parents’ battles with cancer

What would you do if cancer were in the room right now?

This is one of the questions Kayla Adams and Mason Guillot asked their campers last summer.

“I would beat it up,” one 8-year-old replied. Another 6-year-old chimed in: “I would just tell it to go away.”

It was the “cabin chat” session at Camp Kesem: a free, week-long summer camp for children whose parents currently have cancer or have died of it.

The national non-profit launched its LSU chapter in 2018. It places college students in leadership positions, teaching them how fundraising and volunteer work has the potential to impact struggling families. The local chapter is the first and only one in Louisiana, serving children ages 6 to 18 from across the state.

Mason is one of the students who helped bring Camp Kesem to LSU. He and Kayla, both 21, have been in leadership positions for the organization since the beginning.

As the sun set at the camp’s summer retreat just north of Alexandria that night in 2019, Kayla recalls that it was quickly becoming a home-away-from-it-all for the young campers.

After days of canoeing, archery and other activities, the daily “cabin chats” were a chance for them to unwind and talk about whatever they wanted to. They could divulge their favorite dinner food. Or the conversations might get more serious.

“Seeing the different range of emotions that these kids see at that age? I will never fully be able to understand what they’re going through. But when they open up like that, I can at least try to,” Kayla says. “They are beyond inspiring.”

Mostly, though, the campers don’t talk about cancer at all. Aside from one designated “empowerment” session where they can share cancer stories, they’re encouraged to treat the week as an escape from their daily lives. For once, these kids can just be … kids.

The campers and counselors even come up with nicknames for themselves for the week. (Kayla goes by “Cream Cheese,” and Mason is known as “Mercury.”)

“It was really one of the most life-changing weeks of my life,” Kayla says, referring to the 2019 camp. “I made lifelong friends. I gained an appreciation for life, my family members, this organization as a whole. And this will follow me around for the rest of my life.”

After the camps end, she says, many of the campers feel similarly. So the Kesem counselors make a point to keep in touch with these families through reunion events, social media and personalized notecards.

When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to cancel the 2020 summer camp, LSU’s student volunteers rallied, partnering with the Mississippi State University chapter to host the first “Kesem at Home.” For the virtual camp, the counselors sent campers a kit with supplies for activities like coffee mug making, jewelry crafting and yoga. As they munched on S’mores during a virtual campfire session, campers still shared whatever was on their hearts.

Kayla and Mason say the LSU organization is young and growing. Their hope is to continue raising awareness about it. They particularly want to reach underdeveloped and underserved communities.

Because, Mason says, he knows all too well how hard it can be to process your emotions when a loved one is sick or dying. His grandmother died when he was 9, after a year-long-battle with lung cancer and brain cancer. He can still remember the scent of her signature spaghetti recipe and the fun they used to have playing board games together. And he’ll never forget how hard it was watching one of the most important people in his life succumb to the disease.

“It didn’t really hit me until afterward the extent to which her death impacted me,” Mason says. “I didn’t really talk about it with anyone. I internalized my emotions a lot more than I probably should have.”

More than 10 years later, as he tried to help the kids at Camp Kasem process their feelings, he finally came to terms with his.

“Being able to listen to other campers’ and counselors’ experiences … all those emotions came back to me,” he says. “It helped me to finally find peace.”

This article was originally published as part of the October 2020 cover story of 225 Magazine.