JSOM Gives Back: Students Work for Kids Whose Parents Have Cancer

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UT Dallas Camp Kesem Chapter Aims to Raise $40K

When Naveen Jindal School of Management accounting majors David Gutierrez and Ryan Townsend decided to launch a nonprofit organization last year, they knew it would take lots of time, hard work and sweat.

But they did not know they would be shedding tears as well.

“It’s a crazy emotional journey,” says Gutierrez, co-director of the campus chapter of Camp Kesem, which provides a free weeklong summer camp for the children of parents who have battled cancer.

“It’s so heartbreaking hearing the kids talk about what they’re going through. You just want to cry in front of them, but you try to put your emotions aside and have a big cry after they leave.”

Founded in 2001, Camp Kesem — the word kesem means magic in Hebrew — is the largest national organization dedicated to supporting children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. College student leaders run each of the 105 chapters around the U.S. In early 2016, Gutierrez and Townsend signed up to start a new chapter at UT Dallas and recruited a dozen fellow students to help them.

David Gutierrez, John Barden and Ryan Townsend

“I fell in the love with the cause,” says Townsend, the other co-director of the UT Dallas chapter. “Kesem’s mission of serving kids affected by a parent’s cancer really hit home for me … multiple members of my family have been affected by cancer, including my mom, aunt and grandmother.”

Gutierrez felt close to the mission, as well. While cancer has not affected his immediate family, one of his siblings has hydrocephalus, a chronic brain condition that has required multiple hospital stays.

“As soon as I heard about this opportunity, I knew this was the one for me,” Gutierrez says. “When I was awarded a full scholarship from the Terry Foundation, it set a fire inside of me. I knew I wanted to help people and empower kids who are part of this forgotten demographic.”

Gutierrez, Townsend and their fellow Kesem teammates raised more than $29,000 to send 27 children ages 6 to 16 to a weeklong retreat last summer at Camp Gilmont in the East Texas town of Gilmer. Like most summer camps, Camp Kesem offers a wide range of fun indoor and outdoor activities, from archery to dance classes to s’mores-making.

“It’s a chance for kids to get away from it all,” Gutierrez says.

But campers are also encouraged to talk about what they are going through back home. Two licensed therapists are on hand all times, and everyone circles up for a midweek “empowerment ceremony” to share stories of their parent’s cancer.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” says Townsend. “Each kid, despite having been through so much, was brave enough to not only share their story but to offer support to their fellow campers while they were struggling with their own emotions.”

For many kids, Camp Kesem offers a sense of kinship and optimism — two things that are often hard to find during difficult times.

“I feel more upbeat now … I met so many friends, and I came home from Camp Kesem feeling brighter than ever,” says an 11-year-old girl who goes by “Wolf Spirit.” (Campers and staff members use “camp names” to protect anonymity.)

“Kesem was the highlight of my summer … it was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says.

Gutierrez and Townsend hope to expand the camp next summer to include 40 kids. To do that, they need to raise $40,000 from individual and corporate donations, including a gala fundraising event to be held in April 2018.

“David and Ryan have a real burning desire to give back,” says John Barden, assistant dean, Executive Education. Barden gave the two students guidance in launching Camp Kesem while they were taking his managerial accounting class.

“They’re both smart, hardworking guys who are going to be successful no matter what they do,” Barden says. “They’re salt-of-the earth people who are not just passionate about their future profession, they’re passionate about helping others in the community, which is really unique.”

Townsend and Gutierrez say co-directing Camp Kesem has helped them develop skills in leadership, teamwork and goal-setting. But the biggest lesson, Gutierrez says, has to do with the resilience of the human spirit.

“It’s been shocking to me to learn how strong these boys and girls are. … I was nothing like that when I was a kid,” he says.

“They might only be 6 or 7 or 10, but they’re so strong they’re like super-heroes. It’s just an honor to work with them.”

T.D. Christensen


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