Kesem at Stony Brook Celebrates 10 Years of Supporting Children Affected by Parent’s Cancer

Five million children in the United States — one in fifteen — are coping with a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Kesem at Stony Brook University supports these children with free, fun-filled programs that offer a supportive and nurturing community for children affected by parental cancer.

Kesem at Stony Brook University is a local chapter of the national non-profit organization, Kesem, whose mission is to “create a world where every child who has a parent with a cancer diagnosis or has lost a parent to cancer is never alone” and to support children through and beyond a parent’s cancer with innovative programs that foster a lasting community.

Dimitrios Bakatsias, a senior majoring in biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is director of Kesem Stony Brook. As director, Bakatsias manages the inner workings of the organization and works with other coordinators to stay on top of outreach into the community, both on and off campus, fundraising, and planning the programs, while remaining in constant contact with the national organization.

Fundraising is a priority so that all resources can be free for families, with constant activities such as bake sales, online fundraisers, and a fundraising gala. The goal is to have enough funding so that the group does not need to limit the number of participants.

Kesem bakatsias
Dimitrios Bakatsias

“Being able to interact with our participants and our families in their precarious situations, has helped me kind of develop those skills necessary to have these difficult conversations with families battling cancer,” Bakatsias said.

Kesem was founded in 2013 at Stony Brook as Camp Kesem, with the first camp offered in 2014. The campus group, supported by about 80 student volunteers, provided a free, week-long summer camp and year-round peer support to campers ages 6-18. The Stony Brook chapter has provided over 500 services to local children and families over the years.

The camp’s initial goal was to provide children affected by a parent’s cancer with a supportive, lifelong community that recognized and understood their unique needs, while empowering college student volunteers with leadership skills by developing and managing their Camp Kesem chapter.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the camp shifted online, and the national organization began to rethink the model of a once-yearly camp. This year, the Stony Brook chapter is redesigning and rebranding the focus of the program as a member of a pilot program for the national organization and is hosting monthly programs as opposed to the once-yearly camp. The monthly events are named ‘Kesem Gatherings,’ and enable participants to get together more frequently, forging closer and longer-lasting connections.

The monthly events began in January, when the group brought participants to campus for a day of arts and crafts and sports. In March, the group plans to host participants for a day at the Long Island Aquarium.

Regardless of the location, the goal remains focused on the participants and allowing them to both voice their feelings and to experience peer-to-peer support from others who also have a parent diagnosed with cancer. Stony Brook student volunteers lead these discussions as ‘counselors,’ following extensive training from the national organization to help participants develop positive coping skills. Counselors guide participants through a variety of activities designed to encourage self-expression, teamwork, and personal growth. Each activity is curated to nurture resilience and foster a sense of community among the participants.

By instilling a sense of empowerment, the activities and discussions equip participants with the tools they need to navigate the challenges they face at home as they learn to cope with the emotional rollercoaster that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis of a parent.

Bakatsias said that working with Kesem participants and their families has helped him to decide on a future in medicine.

“Working with Kesem, you get to see the way that different family structures affect the kids, you get to see the way that kids are resilient and push through everything,” said Bakatsias. “You get to see the way that loss and grief can affect kids, and how they can bounce back from that.”

In addition to events, Kesem offers welcome packages and notes of support to participants, as well as online resources. You can donate to Kesem at Stony Brook online.

— Beth Squire

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