Her name was JuJu. A nickname from childhood that her dad had called her before he passed away. Juju was one of my campers in the Yellow unit of nine to eleven year olds and was a natural born leader.
She was only in elementary school, but carried herself as an outgoing young adult with a passion to create a brighter world through creativity and joy. I met Juju at Camp Kesem last summer. Camp Kesem is a place where kids can find solace, support, and love from others who truly understand losing a parent from cancer.
But Camp is about finding light in dark situations and creating incredible friendships. At Camp when the sun goes down and the campers are all in their pajamas, we have Cabin Chat. This is a time when counselors lead a discussion with a series of questions. The first couple questions are lighthearted, but eventually they become more serious throughout the week.
On one of the first days, we asked the girls in our cabin “What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” I was expecting the girls to say something like “a rainbow!” or “my dog is beautiful,” but instead I was floored from the answers they provided. Juju’s answer is the most vivid in my memory.
The other counselors and I were curious. We let her continue, “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was when my dad passed away and he wasn’t hurting anymore. He was finally peaceful…I know he’s up in heaven now playing golf with my grandpa and catching up.” We were all speechless. What nine year old should be able to say that? I started thinking about how young she was and how mature I could never be at that age.
I mean nine years old and accepting that your life will go on knowing this? Feeling at peace that you know he’s safe and one with God? When I was nine, I was playing with Barbies and cried when butterflies accidentally hit our moving car. But here she was, this little girl with the biggest heart and a calm voice. I however, was not calm. Internally I was wrecked, bawling like a typical elementary schooler.
I teared up and looked around to the other counselors, only to see similar teary eyes looking back at me. As we nodded heads towards each other, it was like a wordless agreement between the counselors that we would not let our emotions interrupt this beautiful time and that our lives were forever changed. Juju was only one of the campers who became one of my role models and inspired me to become a bigger, better person.
It is incredible to be part of an organization that brings children and teens together to share this experience with and make each summer unforgettable. This summer, Camp Kesem is providing two weeks of camp so even more kids struggling with a parent’s cancer can finally be a kid again and college kids can find inspiration from 3rd graders. I joined Camp to change lives, but this summer, I can’t wait to see who will change mine.