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Every summer, thousands of children from across the country come to Camp Kesem camps to swim, make crafts and roast s'mores. On the surface it seems like any typical summer camp, but all of the campers have one thing in common: a parent who has been affected by cancer back home.

In preparation for one week during the summer, members of the Penn chapter of Camp Kesem spend the academic year fundraising, training and planning for camp. Now, members are gearing up for one of their biggest fundraising events, the “Make the Magic” silent auction, College junior and Camp Kesem executive board member Margo MacDonald said.

Kesem means magic in Hebrew, according to the organization's website, and the free camp is intended to give children an escape from the struggles of dealing with a parent's cancer. Counselors stressed how important it is for kids to have fun at camp when their home lives are uprooted by their parents' medical routines. Though Penn students volunteer as counselors for a variety of reasons, they all said they leave camp with deep affection for the campers they look after. 

Margo “M&M” MacDonald

MacDonald, called “M&M” at camp, said she first found out about Camp Kesem while strolling through the annual Student Activities Council club fair on Locust Walk two years ago. Now, after several years with the organization, she is one of the leaders of the "Orange" 10 to 12 year-old girls group, which she added is affectionately known as the “OGs.” 

Recalling her younger brother's cancer diagnosis years ago, MacDonald said she knows firsthand how important it is for the kids to have a support group. “It’s definitely tough because campers can act out because they are in a tough situation,” she said. “But they have a space where they know everyone is going through the same thing.”

Alex “Dumpling” Cong

“I like dumplings,” joked College junior Alex Cong, referring to his Camp Kesem moniker. He said that his job as a counselor is to give the kids a week to be carefree and forget about what is going on at home. 

“One of my campers actually lost both of their parents,” he said. “It made me think, ‘Wow, these kids are going through things I could never imagine.’” He added that he hopes that, by the end of camp, kids are able to connect with other children who share their situation.

Benjamin “Waffles” Facey

College junior Ben Facey — also known as "Waffles" —  had no personal experience with cancer when he joined Camp Kesem. But the spring following his first summer as a counselor, his father was diagnosed with lymphoma.

“It changes your perspective when it happens to you,” he said. “These kids are half my age or less and they are strong and helped me go through it.” 

One of Facey's favorite moments at camp was the annual “Messy Olympics,” which is held at the end of camp. The day consists of a marathon of activities culminating in a tradition called “Counselor’s Sundae,” when campers cover the counselors with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and ice cream. 

John “Chipwich” Byon

After two summers with Camp Kesem, Wharton senior John “Chipwich” Byon said he was surprised by campers' emotional maturity. “At first I thought that their emotional baggage would carry into camp, but it felt like I was just in a normal summer camp,” he said. “They are still kids, but they have a level of emotional experience that most kids their age don’t.” 

Byon has a family history of cancer and is one of the leaders of oldest group of campers. He said he hopes that meeting kids in similar situations helps his campers to grow as individuals even as they deal with a parent's cancer. He added, "The realization of such an emotional experience can be a good thing."