Peyton Haefner began volunteering with Camp Kesem during her freshman year at Penn State. A friend from high school recommended that she get involved, thinking that her own experience with losing a parent at an early age could provide her with insight into young children whose mother or father had been diagnosed with cancer.
"He was like, 'This is great, it changed my life.' And I trusted his judgment," said Haefner, who is now a co-director of the Centre County chapter.
Before delving any further into all of the life changing going on, it's probably best to clear up one potentially confusing point of business. Camp Kesem is the name of a nationwide program that operates free summer camps for children ages 6-18 who have parents with cancer, but it's Camp Chen-A-Wanda in Thompson where the Centre County chapter and the up to 120 kids in their care will actually gather for a week in mid-August.
They play games, do crafts and — if they want to — talk about what's going on at home.
"By the end of the week they're all really close to each other and really close to us," Haefner said.
Her chapter is not officially affiliated with Penn State, but all of the camp's 130 volunteers are students there. Each is required to take part in a series of four-hour training sessions that touch on grief and loss, diversity and inclusion, bullying and basic safety. Mental professionals will be on site in August to provide additional support.
Nobody is going into this expecting to become an amateur psychiatrist in their off hours. The goal is just to provide the kids with a friendly ear.
"You can't fix the problem and that's not what we're there to do. We're there to listen," Haefner said.
There are 90 children registered for this year's camp, but Haefner and company can accommodate up to 120. Families can register at www.kesem.force.com