Cancer was life-altering for these families, but a local camp changed their lives

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REXBURG – It was about three and a half years ago when Brigham Taylor received the unexpected news he had Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the disease-fighting mechanism in your body.

With proper care and treatment, the cancer went into remission in January 2018. But Taylor tells it was a scary time.

About six months later, Taylor’s friend told him about Camp Kesem, a week-long summer camp in Teton Valley for kids whose parents have cancer. When Taylor heard about the organization, he wanted to get involved.

“It seemed really meaningful and felt like a good opportunity to volunteer,” Taylor says. “It’s been an amazing organization to be a part of.”

Camp Kesem was founded by a Stanford University student nearly 20 years ago. Since then, it’s grown to include 119 chapters in 42 states across the country. The Teton Valley camp got its start about six years ago. It’s run by a group of student volunteers at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

The idea is to give kids whose parents are struggling with cancer, a chance to have fun in the outdoors and take their minds off the things they’re dealing with at home. Participants spend a week doing a variety of activities, including canoeing, kayaking, swimming, ropes courses, water volleyball, fruit baseball and much more.

“We usually do a talent show that’s really fun as well,” says Taylor.

The camaraderie with everyone in the camp is a major benefit, Taylor says, and creates a sense of family that helps participants realize they’re not alone.

Brigham Taylor, center, holding a young girl, poses with a photo with some of the other kids and camp counselors | Brigham Taylor

“It makes a difference to have the support of people who understand what you’re feeling or going through,” Taylor says. “The little kids I felt understood me better than most adults I talked to.”

While working as a volunteer at Camp Kesem last summer, cancer reared its ugly head again among members of Taylor’s family. His mom was diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer, and his grandpa recently died from pancreatic cancer.

“Cancer’s a big part of my family,” Taylor says. “(Camp Kesem) was a meaningful experience last year and that’s why I’ve chosen to stay with it this year.”

Taylor will be serving as the camp’s co-director this year. It will be his third year working as a volunteer.

This year, Camp Kesem will be held at Camp Alice Pittenger in McCall. It’s happening Aug. 5 through Aug. 10. Fifty different kids from all over the state, and a few from Utah, will be participating.

Activity at Camp Kesem in Teton Valley | Brigham Taylor

Among the participants are Hailey Ashment and her three siblings, who are returning to camp for the fifth year in a row. They’ve attended every year since their mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. Heather Ashment, their mom, says the treatment was pretty aggressive initially and it placed a lot of family responsibilities on her kids.

“My oldest daughter stopped hanging out with friends. She didn’t want to leave the house because she was so scared that if she continued living that her mom wasn’t going to be around when she came back,” Ashment says.

Like Taylor, Ashment’s cancer is now in remission but she has seen so many benefits of Camp Kesem for her children.

“You could tell she (her oldest daughter) was still scared, but she felt like she had somebody to talk to,” she says. “We slowly started seeing her hang out with her friends again, and feel confident in anything she was doing.”

Ashment says Camp Kesem has taught her kids to be more empathetic to people going through similar situations.

Heather Ashment’s son, Ayden, participating in the talent show | Heather Ashment

“My son, who is super shy, will now go up to anybody going through this situation and he’ll hug them and tell them they’re amazing and they’ll get through it,” Ashment says.

Parents aren’t allowed to communicate with their kids during the week they’re at camp because it’s an experience they aren’t going to get anywhere else, Ashment says, but seeing the growth in her children made it all worth it.

“When you’re going through treatment, it’s scary. It is so good for those kids to get a chance to get away and be a kid. And if that’s the only thing they accomplish through it, it’s worth it,” says Ashment.

Camp Kesem is open to kids ages 6 to 18. There is no cost to attend, but it is fully funded by donations from the community. The group has raised more than $20,000 for this year’s camp and hopes to raise $40,000.

“We’re here and we’re trying to make a difference where we can. We’re always accepting donations from businesses and trying to build our repertoire with the community as best as we can,” says Taylor.

The group is hosting a golf tournament fundraiser this weekend. Visit the Camp Kesem Teton Valley Facebook page for more information about the event. You can also make a donation directly to the organization by clicking here. If you’d like to apply, click here.