After Elias Hodge’s mother’s brain tumor was diagnosed in 2013, Camp Kesem was his lifeline.

“To put it bluntly, it sucks,” he said of his mother’s illness. “Camp Kesem helped soften the blow, because there were other kids my age who knew what I was going through.”

Today Hodge, a linguistics major at the University of Minnesota, is a second-year counselor for the U’s chapter of Camp Kesem, which is organized and run by 65 student volunteers, for kids who have been affected by a parent’s cancer. This summer there are two weeklong sessions for ages 6 to 18 at YMCA Camp Pepin in Stockholm, Wis.

“I wanted to give back to the kids,” said Hodge, whose mother is now cancer-free. “I received so much help during a pretty difficult time.”

At Camp Kesem, kids join in classic camp activities such as canoeing, swimming, arts and crafts, campfires and the popular gaga ball (a variation on dodge ball) during the day, and sleep in rustic cabins at night.

“It gives them a week to be kids and have fun,” said Elyse Kerian, a U senior and Camp Kesem director.

Camp Kesem also helps unearth emotions related to children coping with a parent undergoing cancer treatment, surviving cancer or losing a parent.

The “empowerment ceremony” provides a safe and comfortable setting where kids can share their own story — if they wish to — about how their parent’s cancer affects them, said Megan Filzen, a camp counselor, family outreach coordinator and a U English major. “It’s a chance to validate their own experience.”

Filzen can relate to how lives change after a cancer diagnosis. When she was 14, her dad died from the disease.

“My sister was a Kesem counselor, and I knew it was a priority for me,” she said.

This summer, Filzen will be a counselor for her second season. She looks forward to connecting with returning campers and playing “Color Wars,” a game where kids splatter each from head to toe with paint.

The national organization was started in 2000 and operates more than 100 free summer camps in 40 states. The Camp Kesem Minnesota chapter launched in 2011 at the U has grown from 35 to 190 campers this year.

In addition to providing the camp experience, the program’s goals include offering peer support, building confidence and strengthening communications skills. The volunteer student counselors undergo 60 hours of training and help with fundraising so that campers can attend free of charge.

The U chapter also organizes several events throughout the year for campers and their families, to give them extra support, said Kerian.

Now as director, she still treasures her time as a Kesem counselor.

“By the end of the week, the campers’ personalities shine through and they re-find themselves,” she said. “Parents tell us they got their child back.”

There are still some openings for campers for this summer’s sessions. To apply, go to


Twitter: @LyUnderwood