By Cary Chapman
Photo by Maddie Molot
Dori Goodman has never taken fall in New York for granted. Hailing from Tampa, Florida, she can look out the window of the commuter lounge in the Diana Center and remark on the foliage outside in the most un-jaded, refreshing way. But even if she were accustomed to a cooler fall season, Dori would, I think, still appreciate the beauty of the red leaves and the crisp air. She’s just a genuine person— her authentic self seems fully present in every interaction I’ve had with her.
In this conversation, Dori shares her experience with Camp Kesem. I’ll let her tell you what that is in her own words. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Cary Chapman: Can you tell me a little bit about Camp Kesem and your role in it?
Dori Goodman: Yeah! Camp Kesem is a national nonprofit but also a school organization. There [are] different chapters at different colleges all across the United States. It is essentially a summer camp for kids who have been affected by a parent’s cancer. So that could mean the child has lost a parent to cancer, has a parent currently going through treatment, or their parent is in remission.
CC: Awesome. And what do you do on campus with this organization?
DG: I am on the executive board. I’m in operations, so basically my role for this upcoming camp, which [will] be in August 2017, is to plan camp. So I am the person behind the scenes making camp a reality. But our job as counselors and as an executive board is essentially to fundraise for the camp because all the campers attend camp for free. Every counselor is responsible for raising $500, which sends one kid to camp for a week. And so we fundraise, spread awareness about the organization, and also provide a network for campers not only during the summer but also throughout the entire school year. We hold camp reunions and [do] outreach, so we stay in contact with our campers and make sure that they have the support of a community throughout whatever they’re going through at home.
CC: Is there anything people wouldn’t necessarily know about kids whose parents are affected by cancer? Something that your average person who’s not affected by cancer wouldn’t guess is actually a reality?
DG: I think the most important thing about camp is that it gives them a week to be kids, and I guess that something that’s really interesting and important would be a lot of times when a family is affected by cancer there’s a lot of focus on either the spouse (like the caretaker) or obviously the parent (the person who has cancer), so kids are oftentimes overlooked in that situation. They’re either given a lot of responsibilities that they wouldn’t necessarily have if they weren’t in that situation like taking on roles as parents by helping other siblings, or just carrying the burden of having a parent with cancer. Camp provides that week to just forget about what’s going on at home and [for the kids to] just be kids, which is really awesome. And I think they really appreciate that, even the older kids. Like I worked with the teenagers this year and some of the things we do are more geared towards younger kids and it’s goofy and ridiculous, but they do it. You know what I mean? It’s fun and it doesn’t matter at camp. They’re just being kids, they’re being crazy and goofy, that kind of thing.
CC: Yeah, that’s awesome. Would you say that the fun part is the most important part?
DG: Yeah […] it’s not this boo-hoo support group…
DG: People think it’s this sad thing, but you really only talk about why everyone is there only once. It’s called the Empowerment Ceremony and it’s just one evening dedicated to, “okay, yes we’re having such a good time, yes Camp is amazing, but there’s a reason we’re all here and a reason camp exists, so if you want to talk about it you can.” But literally besides that it’s a normal…
CC: A normal camp.
DG: Yes, a normal sleepaway camp.
CC: That’s awesome. How young is the youngest kid, and do you get a lot of homesickness?
DG: Homesickness? I think youngest is like 6 or 7, and no, honestly. There’s definitely some kids who maybe the first day or two of camp drag their feet and may seem like they’re having a difficult time but then by the second or third or fourth day, things start picking up and they get into it. They just enjoy themselves; you know what I mean? Maybe the first couple of days people get homesick but that’s it.
CC: Do you feel like you’ve applied anything you personally have learned in camp to your life outside of the camp?
DG: Definitely. I guess I’ve learned that it’s okay to talk about these things. When I went to camp for the first time I didn’t know what to expect and I was really hesitant about sharing my story, and now I learned that there [are] people who understand and it’s okay to feel the way you do and talk about these kinds of things […] and have open conversations about anything and everything. That’s what I’ve learned, I guess.
CC: And what is the best way to talk to someone you know who is impacted by cancer? Or show someone that you care without being insensitive.
DG: Yeah. I guess just showing support and being like, “whatever you’re feeling is valid, and there’s no right or wrong way to deal with that kind of situation.” I feel like that’s what I’ve learned. And just providing support: “if you ever need anything, I’m here.”
DG: And, I don’t know. Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t help. Because that’s like everyone’s, I mean even my own, initial reaction. [When you hear] “oh, so and so passed away from cancer,” or “my grandma passed away,” or “my dad passed away,” you’re like, “I’m so sorry.” But… you know what I mean?
CC: Yeah, it’s kind of meaningless.
DG: It’s awkward. You’re like, “it’s okay,” but is it okay? […] “I’m so sorry.” Thanks? But just being like, “if you ever need anything” [is a better way to handle that situation].
CC: Yes, making yourself available.
CC: Cool. And do you plan on continuing work with children or children affected by cancer after this ends? Because Camp Kesem is just a college thing, right?
DG: Yeah. I want to work with kids when I graduate. I want to go into occupational therapy, so I want to work with kids who most likely have developmental disabilities and that kind of thing. Working at Camp Kesem has definitely given me exposure to situations like that, which is cool […] When I first went to camp as a counselor, I was with seven to nine year olds and I literally didn’t know I could learn so much from seven, eight, and nine year olds. These little kids are telling stories, and I saw so much of myself in them. I didn’t know other people felt that way and experienced such things. Camp provides a place for people to be like, “yeah, I get it. I understand what you’re going through and I have been there.”
DG: Either “I have been there,” or “I am there,” and you can kind of go through this together.
Interested in getting involved with Camp Kesem at Columbia? Counselor applications are due on December 3rd and can be found here. You can also like them on Facebook to stay in the loop!
Cary Chapman is a junior and a writer for Barnard Bite.