By Stephanie Simmons

LOS ANGELES ( — The summer tradition of going to camp has brought one local program, Camp Kesem,  into the forest of Los Angeles.

In many aspects, Camp Kesem is your typical summer camp, where kids can go make friends and play, but it also helps campers dealing with cancer at home.

CBS2’s Stephanie Simmons reports the camp hosts two weeklong sessions free of charge for about 200 children at the Angeles Crest Christian Camp in the Angeles National Forest.

Children dealing with cancer at home don’t often show physical signs of distress, and their emotional needs go unnoticed. Experts say it’s hard for them to find friends who can relate to their feelings.

“Camp Kesem is a weeklong summer camp for kids affected by a parent’s cancer,” said Jeremy Reynard, co-director of Camp Kesem. “We say they face adult-size problems for 51 weeks a year, and this is the one week for them to just be a kid.”

The local camp is run by 14 undergraduate student coordinators and staffed by 70 volunteer students at UCLA who work throughout the year to make a welcoming and safe environment for children.

Most importantly, the staff keep the subject of cancer to a minimum so campers can focus on having fun, while building self-esteem and gaining support from friends facing similar challenges.

The camp has supported them through everything, and it makes them feel a lot better about themselves because organizers know what kids are going through, participants Chloe and Lucas Debarros said.

Camper Angela Leider, who goes by “Peanut” at camp, lost her mother to cancer when she was 5 and is attending her 10th year at Camp Kesem.

“This camp has changed my life, and that’s very cliché, but it’s very true,” Leider said. “The bond that I have with people here, within five days, is completely different than the bond I have with kids that I’ve known my whole life.”

However, children aren’t the only ones who experience the burden of dealing with cancer. Some camp counselors do, too.

“After I was granted a camp counselor position, a week later my mom was actually diagnosed with breast cancer,” counselor Joel Ontiveros said. “It allowed me to cry for the first time. It allowed me to be able to forget about it. It allowed me to talk with my mom about it.”

“I think their emotions are often overlooked, that they’re facing something that no child should have to face,” Reynard said. “They’re scared, they’re worried, and it kind of consumes them. Camp Kesem gives them a week to just let loose and be free.”

Camp Kesem is available to children ages 6-16 in the greater L.A. area who have or had a parent with cancer.

For more information, visit the camp’s website.

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