Rebecca Ress & Sydney Grant: Camp Kesem Co-Directors

Have you ever seen “Love Kids, Hate Cancer?” chalked on the Diag? Perhaps you’ve seen a group of college-age kids erupt into a chorus of camp songs about Mexican food or toast. Or, maybe you’ve been coerced into running the best 5K of your life among a throng of costumed Halloween-aficionados. Well, whether you’ve encountered Camp Kesem in these bizarre ways or not, the fact of the matter is that CK is just about the most spirited and tight-knit group of students on campus.

A nationally recognized non-profit, which functions as a student org on campuses across the country, Camp Kesem puts on a week of camp (free of charge) for kids whose families have been affected by cancer. “Kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew, a name selected to reflect the magical experience that campers enjoy at Camp Kesem. Camp takes place at a YMCA location in mid-Michigan for two weeks in August every summer, and activities range from tie-dying t-shirts, to free swim, zip-lining, and more. Campers range in age from 6 to 16 and travel from all over the state (and areas of Canada!) to attend this special week of camp with fellow campers and counselors who become like family.

Throughout the school year Camp Kesem counselors – students here at the University of Michigan – work tirelessly to fundraise the over $100,000 needed to make camp happen. The lofty goal which CK counselors meet each and every year covers a vast array of expenses, including lodging, food, crafts and supplies, and other expenses, so that camp can be provided at no cost to the families it serves.

Her Campus had the opportunity to sit down with Co-Directors Rebecca Ress and Sydney Grant to talk about Camp Kesem, their roles within the organization, and what CK means to them.

Her Campus: What is a typical day at Camp Kesem like?

Rebecca Ress: I would say that a typical day at camp consists of three meals, adventure activities, free swim, a bonfire, and cabin chats, but there really is no typical day at camp. After being both a Unit Leader and member of the Admin Team, I have learned to expect the unexpected at camp. A typical day is the joy in the campers' face and the excitement of the counselors.

Sydney Grant: Like Becca said, a typical day at camp is always full of new surprises, in spite of the daily structure. The all-camp activity that takes place in the evenings is always a highlight of the day. This year we played giant board games like human Twister and life-size foosball. In the past we once had Harry Potter themed activities where the kids got to play Quidditch and other games. Cabin chat is also a highlight in the daily schedule. Each cabin has their own cabin chat where all the campers and counselors sit down and have a more serious talk, reflecting on the day and talking about more serious topics. Some campers will open up about their parent’s cancer. Overall it’s a really positive and safe space for the campers to bond with one another.


HC: How would you describe your fellow Kesem counselors?

RR: My fellow Kesem counselors are the goofiest, loudest, weirdest people I know. Their big personalities are matched by even bigger hearts. Every CK counselor passionately dedicates a week of his/her summer to the campers, who in turn give us so much more. 

SG: If I had to say it in one word, it would be inspiring. I joined Kesem as a freshman and looked up to all the seniors and returning members so much. My peers within Kesem have taught me to seize opportunity and take the skills I’ve developed at camp and translate that into my work and life. Even in a position of leadership I still admire the younger counselors so much. I’ve just met some of the best people.


HC: Do you have a favorite Kesem memory?

RR: This is a really hard question, because Kesem has become so many different things for me. Apart from every hilarious moment with the campers during camp, a favorite memory of mine is the National Leadership Summit. Seeing hundreds of other student leaders that all dedicate their time to the same cause as me is very powerful. It made me feel connected to this mission across the country.

SG: I remember hearing this story when I first joined. I wasn’t there at the time, but I remember it as follows: There was a family of campers (three sisters and a brother) whose mother passed away while they were at camp – this was the year before I joined. It was a terribly sad time for these kids, but they insisted that they stay at camp for the remainder of the week – all 4 of them agreed. They were in a time of complete and utter loss and didn’t know how to feel, but they knew that being surrounded by trusted friends and counselors at Camp Kesem was the best thing for them at the time. I thought that was such a powerful story. 


HC: What advice would you give to someone who is on the fence about joining Kesem?

RR: I would tell them that Camp Kesem allows you to make a direct impact in the lives of the campers, but they impact you even more. I have become a better person through Camp Kesem, and it is the most important thing I have done during my time at U of M.

SG: Do it. I remember I was kind of on the fence my first year because I didn’t know anyone. I hung around with these two seniors who talked to me… Truly though, I have zero clue where I would be without camp. It was really shaped who I am as a person, what I want to do with my life and career. I think if you talk to anyone in Kesem they’ll say that it’s the best choice they’ve ever made.


HC: You’re both seniors – what will you miss most about your Michigan experience?

RR: I will miss all the opportunities available to me. I love the sense of community I feel on this campus. As a senior, I am trying to live my life very presently this year, engaging with everyone and everything around me. I think I will miss that feeling the most. This sense of home, opportunity, and possibility. 

SG: Camp Kesem, without a doubt. I’m going to miss having that support system. Seeing familiar faces on the Diag and knowing that I can relieve my stress at the next Camp Kesem meeting with everyone… that’s what I’m going to miss most. I’ll miss the sense of being so close to everyone who cares about me so much. I especially love knowing that my friends who have graduated are just a call away – I definitely want to be able to do that for my younger friends.


For anyone who is interested in receiving more information about Camp Kesem, email [email protected]


Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem at the University of Michigan.