Maddie Merwin wears her heart — and her love of camp — on her sleeve at least once a week.
“Every Thursday I wear camp stuff so I don’t seem obsessed every other day. I mean, I am obsessed, though,” Merwin said.
Merwin, a junior political philosophy major, is a counselor for Camp Kesem, an organization at Syracuse University that hosts a free summer camp for children whose parents have cancer. The camp operates for one week each summer, providing a place for campers and their counselors, all Syracuse students, to bond.
“Campers just get to be whoever they want to be,” said Merwin. “All the stories are different, but the same connection is still there.”
Unlike the other counselors, though, Merwin has experienced both sides of camp. Before she came to college, she was a camper at the University of California, Davis chapter. At just 11, Merwin learned that her mother had been diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.
At first, she says, it was easy to forget. Then the illness started to take its toll.
“My mom was having to sit in bed a lot more, she couldn’t get me up for school anymore, just little things like that,” said Merwin. “I kind of pretended like it wasn’t really happening.”
When her mother first signed her up for Camp Kesem, she wasn’t happy. But as the days went on, she started to rethink camp. “It was attention that I hadn’t received in a long time,” said Merwin. “We’re all at camp together, and being so supported and so loved in the most pure and true way.”
Merwin’s mother entered remission three years ago.
Camp Kesem uses new names for its campers and counselors to divide the real world and the world of camp. When Merwin chose her name, she settled on Ohana, which means “family” in Hawaiian culture.
When Merwin came to Syracuse as a freshman in 2015, Camp Kesem existed on campus, but it was struggling. She set out to change that. Merwin and a group of other new members of Camp Kesem focused the Syracuse
“I got here and it was a very different experience, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” Now, the organization holds camp every summer.
Sophomore Sally Rubin, 19, is one of Merwin’s fellow counselors. “There’s something in our chapter that stems directly from her, that makes us stand out as a place where kids will be completely, unapologetically themselves,” Rubin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer person.”
Merwin’s favorite memories as a counselor revolve around one girl named Skittles. “She didn’t talk at all for the first three days of camp,” Merwin said. As the week progressed, she started talking and participating more until she started to break out of her shell. She returned talkative and energetic the next year, Merwin said.
“She was 12 or 13 and too cool for the whole thing,” said Rubin. “Ohana, having been that same age when she first went to camp, was not going to have it.”
The organization is poised for a bright future on campus. Merwin plans to return to camp next summer for yet another week of fun with her campers. Camp Kesem has been an integral part of Merwin’s life for years now, and she's found a place unlike any she's had before.
“My biological family — my mom, my dad — is not my main thing," Merwin said. "Kesem is my main thing.”