Jenna Orabutt, left, lights her candle from the one held by Allie Denton, a cancer survivor, during the Camp Kesem candlelight vigil held last week in Ascension Chapel on the Augustana College campus in Rock Island. The project, headed by Orabutt, is intended to benefit children with a parent who has battled or is being treated for cancer. (Photo by John Schultz/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

John Schultz

It was more than a year ago when teenager Jenna Orabutt drove around the Quad-Cities, trying to explain the concept of Camp Kesem to local health professionals who treat patients with cancer.

Orabutt, now 20, has nearly completed her sophomore year at Augustana College. Back then she was a freshman, attempting to set up a Camp Kesem student chapter on the Rock Island campus. The concept came about in 2001 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and is a student-run, week-long summer camp for the children of people who have been treated for or died of cancer.

Four student leaders at Stanford chose the word “Kesem,” which means “magic” in Hebrew, because its goal was to bring magic to families coping with cancer. Camp Kesem is open to student leaders and campers of any religion, race or ethnicity.  The camp is affiliated with nearly 40 U.S. colleges, most of which are much larger than Augustana, including the University of Illinois and Ohio State University.

Orabutt was successful in drumming up quite a bit of support for the idea in the Quad-Cities, including the encouragement of Augustana president Steven Bahls, who was a child when one of his parents was found to have cancer.

“I’m very proud of what these exceptional students have accomplished. The Camp Kesem model encourages college students to find that place where their passion intersects with the world’s unmet needs and I’m grateful for our students’ participation,” Bahls said.

Today, the chapter has been fully established in Rock Island and has the name of Camp Kesem Augustana.

Students have raised $28,000 for what will be their first camp, and are working to raise the final $3,000 to meet their 2012 goal. They’ve come a long way since the start, according to Orabutt.

“It’s very different now, going into places to talk about camper recruitment, because we are now an established organization. We can list what we’ve done so far, and what we have yet to do this year,” she said.

Students are recruiting campers to attend the July 22-27 session at the Y Camp of Des Moines, located near Boone, Iowa. Campers are ages 6 to 13 and 14 to 16. They participate for free.

Camper applications have come into Camp Kesem Augustana, and Orabutt senses relief in the words she reads. She knows first-hand that a cancer diagnosis can be very frightening to a child. “We hear things like, ‘my child is having a hard time with my diagnosis,’ and it’s just so exciting to see where we can actually help these kids,” she said.

One of three children, Orabutt was 9 years old when she was told about her mother’s cancer diagnosis — just two days before Diane Orabutt went into surgery. While Diane is now a cancer survivor, her daughter never has forgotten the grief and pain associated with the experience, which she termed “terrifying,” and a time when her childhood world completely changed.

Orabutt is co-chair of Camp Kesem Augustana, and there are more than 24 students associated with the group. Student-coordinators have gone through counselor training in the spring; a few more sessions are planned this summer.

The camp in Boone is beautiful, and the cabins that will be used were renovated last month, Orabutt said.

“There’s plenty of space for the kids to run and play; there’s a rock-climbing wall and a pool with slides,” she said of the location, which is near 400 acres of forest in the Des Moines River valley. “It will be great.”