My first year I convinced myself I’d always feel like an outlier at Penn. Rejection emails permeated my inaugural fall, voiding me of communities I thought I might belong in. The following semester, I joined Greek life seeking a family, and Camp Kesem seeking a purpose. Spring was occupied by the awkwardness of existing in these clubs but not truly knowing anyone. As I continued to grow as a member of these environments, I believed each step forward was a pity point granted to someone who might never belong. I began to devote most of my time to Camp Kesem—when I was helping kids affected by something much greater, a parent’s cancer, my problems felt small. In fact, I didn’t consider my own self–doubt to be a problem. Luckily, Kesem helped me to realize just how big it was. 

Kesem is a nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. By offering innovative, fun-filled programs that foster a lasting community, we aim to ensure that every child impacted by a parent’s cancer is never alone.

Outwardly, I share camp story after camp story to friends, but inwardly I feel like a fraud praising the mission of Camp Kesem while grappling with my own history of insecurity in the club. Nerves took over during the weeks leading up to my first camp. I told myself I should just pull out. After months of training without making new friends there was no way my absence would make any difference. Thankfully, I sucked it up. Our campers’ warm welcomes helped me find a home, and I quickly realized I needed their help just as they needed mine.

The day after camp I eagerly submitted an application to join the board. In my first real leadership role in college, I struggled to admit when I did not know the answer, or when I did not have the time. Coming off of security in high school and rejection at Penn, little space existed in my past for me to grasp the beauty (and normalcy) of learning as you work. When camp came around, I prepared for a disaster to unfold from the schedule I had scripted. Or, more likely, I braced for everyone to hate it. 

Aside from a small microwave fire, some dirty pitchers, and some peaceful protests for earlier mealtimes, no catastrophes occurred. I left camp this past summer with a head cold and a warm heart. Kesem had proven yet again to be a guiding light, even for us big kids. When I got the email I was selected as a CK Director, I closed out immediately. I let it sit in my inbox, unanswered, for over an hour to give our Program Director time to tell me it was sent to the wrong person. Even though I still sometimes find myself convinced that I replied to the email too quickly, I push through the uncertainty with the drive of a Blue Unit boy about to win Gaga. His goal is to win, and mine is to give him the chance. 

Midway through camp we do an Empowerment session. Empowerment is when the whole camp gathers together in a safe space to share experiences and emotions about cancer. The event culminates in “Warm and Fuzzies,” a cool–down activity to promote community by writing messages of encouragement on small plates around our necks. At the end of our cool down, the plate I expected to be empty was filled with meaningful messages. Kesem Love I thought I hadn’t earned unfolded before my eyes in a rainbow of marker scribbles. All of my plates hang on display, no matter how tacky they look. They remind me that my doubts do not translate to reality.

I can’t imagine what my life would look like if I’d listened to my fears and pulled out before that first camp session. I feel blessed that these campers trust our counselors to walk along their journey with them. If I could give them my entire summer, I would. 

Through my collection of paper plates, I have learned countless lessons. I learned pure generosity and patience while watching our campers open their home to new faces every year. I learned selflessness when a camper jumped up to be a nurse buddy after another boy in his unit got a splinter, even though he’d have to leave behind a fresh plate of waffles in the cafeteria to do so. I learned compassion as the entire auditorium completely lost their minds for performances so quiet we weren’t sure what song was sung. It didn’t matter. In the Kesem community, support flows endlessly. Most of all, I learned courage, even in the face of uncertainty, from campers who spoke of times cancer tested their hope—but they always claimed it back. Kesem gives me a reason to keep growing. 

I always understood that when I fall down, I can get back up. But my campers taught me that I don’t have to hit the ground. If I trip, it’s ok to shout for help. I can trust that someone will catch me. This fall, I attended a Kesem Leadership Summit with some of our board members. Our Program Director challenged us to write a positive “I am” statement about ourselves. I jotted down a statement that had been a source of shame in the past. As I fumble through overcoming insecurity in my abilities, I proudly hang my note—“I am learning”—just beside my paper plates.