CAN YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE A KID — 6, 8, 10 years old? Go there with me, if you will.

God knows we all had unique childhoods. Yours may have been pretty “normal,” or you may have had tough circumstances.

But with few exceptions, our parents were the center of our very young lives. Imperfect, yes, some much more than others, but anchors, the rock, home base from which we could make our forays into the world with our growing awareness of our place in it, feeling safe in knowing that as little, not yet physically strong or experienced people, we weren’t on our own, and could run back to safe harbor when we needed to. Our parents were, ideally, pillars of our devotion, admiration and love, kind and reliable teachers, but at the least they were the ones who put a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.

Now imagine that being taken away. Imagine being told that might be taken away. Very easily could be taken away, and there’s not a thing you can do to change that. Dad, or Mom, gone overnight, never to return. Short of the actual loss of a parent, just encountering the idea, and the reality, is possibly the scariest thing a kid could ever face.

As scary as being told you yourself may die, maybe soon, as a very young child? Maybe. I don’t know, because I’m imagining this with you, and I was never in either of those circumstances. But I’m sure they’re not only in the same ballpark, more like in the same tiny, pitch-black locked closet.

We all are aware of the many heroic organizations that address the needs of children with life-threatening illnesses: St. Jude’s Hospital, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Cavett Kids, Ronald McDonald House. But kids facing the loss of a parent to a terrible disease have not been noticed nearly as much. Their physical needs are certainly not as great, but their emotional ones are.

Iris Rave thought about it, and as a devoted lifelong camper she had an idea. Working with four student leaders at Stanford, she founded the first Camp Kesem in 2000 and hosted 37 campers the following summer. Camp Kesem now has 63 chapters associated with colleges in 29 states, serving nearly 4,000 kids ages 6-16 this coming summer.

So, a week’s summer camp for kids in a very tough situation — good idea, nice break, huh? No. Please, listen carefully. It is much, much more than it seems. It’s a week at camp that becomes an anchor, a rock, a lifelong support system for young kids who fear losing theirs, or already have, to dreaded cancer. Many who have attended even just one time will tell you it’s the most important thing in their lives.

Let me repeat that: the most important thing in their lives.

When those kids get the news of their parent’s critical illness, their world is turned upside down in an instant. Cancer? Cancer!? I’ve heard of that. It’s terrible, it’s awful! My Mom’s going to die of that? My Dad won’t be here any more? What am I going to do?!

Nothing about their lives is the same after that announcement. Doesn’t matter that much if you assure them everything will be OK, that their parent will get great treatment from doctors and will be just fine. They know what could happen. They learn it never goes away. And they have to suffer in silence. They can’t talk about this with their friends. Few even reveal it to their best friend. They wouldn’t understand. They couldn’t understand.

Then somehow they learn about Camp Kesem (a Hebrew word for “magic,” although the camps have nothing to do with any religion and are completely free), and for one week not only can they get away and just be themselves, a mostly carefree kid having fun at camp, but they are surrounded by people who understand, the other campers and the amazing counselors, meticulously chosen from student volunteers at the associated colleges.

While it’s not the focus of the camp — there’s hiking and swimming and arts and crafts and songs and skits — there is also time for “cabin chats” in the evening, where a camper can say anything they want in a completely understanding and supportive surrounding. It’s a miracle they couldn’t have imagined existed.

They can cry, and often do, and it’s OK. Everyone, everyone, understands. And being in that space for even one week, when the other 51 are spent in mute suffering, not being able to speak a word about the most important issue in their life, is a life-changing experience.

Yes, it is much, much more than it seems.

I can tell you this with some authority because I have worked with the UCLA chapter since 2004, when it was founded as one of the first five Camp Kesems. Contact me, please, if you want to know more.

But here’s what you can do right here, right now.

The UCLA Camp Kesem gets much of its needed $130,000 from its annual Make The Magic benefit dinner, which this year will be held in Santa Monica on the rooftop of Real Office Centers (604 Arizona Ave.) on Saturday, May 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $100 each. Gourmet food and drinks, live entertainment, a raffle, camper and parent testimonials, interaction with student counselors who will renew your faith in humanity and the next generation, all with a great rooftop view, and, best of all, walking away knowing you’ve helped make a huge difference in the lives of 230 local kids who got dealt a lousy hand.

If you go to, you can buy tickets. If you can’t make it but would like to be part of this worthy endeavor, for whatever amount you’d like to give, you can do it through any of the counselors, who each have to raise $500-1,000 in addition to attending weekly training sessions after having gone through a rigorous selection process — all for the privilege of volunteering. I would recommend one of the best, who has done groundbreaking work there since she was 10 — “Quinkidinc,” whose fundraising page is at

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Children are living messages we send to a time we will not see.” —John W. Whitehead

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at

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