COLUMBIA— Greg Maire was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer seven years ago. Since then, his three children have watched as he's undergone 41 rounds of chemotherapy as a single, full-time parent.
His youngest child, David Maire, 12, struggled to cope with his father's illness. Every day he watched his father fight to just take another breath. David was failing his classes and gaining weight. It was clear that he lacked self-esteem and emotional support.
Camp Kesem changed all of that.
The national nonprofit raises funds to organize weeklong camps for children whose parents have had or have died from cancer. The camp is free for those children's families.
Organized by college students around the U.S., the camps give children who are coping with loss and illness opportunities to build lifelong bonds with other children who are going through the same thing.
On Sunday, the MU chapter of Camp Kesem held its fall reunion to help those children keep their friendships intact.
Devon Schekorra, 13, and her friend Eashayla Stewart, 11, spent time together at the reunion recalling memories from camp.
They laughed as they remembered the fake wedding the camp counselors had put on. Two camp counselors, both MU students, pretended to be a bride and groom and got hitched in the camp's dining hall.
Schekorra and Stewart said it was the funniest memory from camp.
Other newly reunited campers danced with their friends, arm wrestled with their camp counselors and made picture frames to display their camp memories. The children also indulged in a pie eating contest.
These silly events were reminders of the time they spent in August at the camp. Camp Kesem tries to keep the children engaged with activities like sports, arts and crafts and drama for a fun-filled week away from the constant reminders of their parents' illness.
"We've had a rough life with cancer," Maire said. "It's been very hard for my son, but this camp has helped him tremendously. He finally knows how to have fun again."
Maire said the camp counselors are the best thing about Camp Kesem.
"You can tell just by looking at them that they actually enjoy it and they're not doing it because they have to," Maire said. "They really care about what they're doing and their enthusiasm is wonderful to see."
Not only do the kids establish strong relationships with each other, but they also establish strong relationships with the counselors. At the reunion, each child was running around with a counselor or jumping on their backs and giving them hugs, demonstrating their joy at seeing them again.
Courtney Fischer, a counselor for Camp Kesem, said she enjoys being involved with the organization and giving the kids an opportunity to have fun rather than worry about tough times at home.
Fischer is one of more than 100 volunteers with the MU chapter of Camp Kesem. About 60 children went to the local camp in 2013, its second year of operation, and the MU chapter is one of 54 chapters nationwide, all of which are run by college students. The first camp opened in 2001 in California.
"Many of the kids come to camp very timid and not open to meeting new people, but by the end of the week, you can just tell that they've formed these bonds and relationships with the other campers, as well as the counselors," Fischer said. "You can tell that those bonds aren't going to last just the week of camp, but they are going to continue on."
Maire said he's very fortunate to have learned about Camp Kesem. David enjoyed camp so much that he has talked about it every day since. His grades went from D's and F's to A's and B's. He's lost weight and gained more self-confidence, Maire said. He believes that this is a result of his experience at Camp Kesem.
David has even decided he wants to be a counselor at Camp Kesem when he's old enough.
Supervising editor is Edward Hart.