Madeline Baxter (right) with other Camp Kesem counselors at summer camp.

Madeline Baxter was just a teenager when both of her parents were battling cancer. 

It was a very emotional time for Baxter, a Northwestern University student, who today turned her own challenges into a major support for kids watching their parents struggle with a cancer diagnosis. She became the co-director for Camp Kesem, which supports children from families struggling with a cancer diagnosis. 

Both of Baxter’s parents had cancer while she was in high school, so she understands firsthand what campers are going through.

“I was walking around the Northwestern University club fair my freshmen year and I fell in love with it,” she said about Camp Kesem. “It has been one of the best experiences I have had at college.”

Volunteering has always been a large part of fellow Northwestern student Justin Pasionek’s life. When he arrived at the university, he connected with Camp Kesem and knew he wanted to become a camp counselor.

“It’s about getting an escape from the harsh reality they are facing and just feeling like a kid,” Pasionek said, describing the program.

Justin Pasionek at summer camp.

Since Camp Kesem is a national organization with chapters at college campuses all across the country, campers who have been through the program can then return and become camp counselors themselves. And many often decide to give back to the organization that gave them so much in their time of need.

For children who have had parents or guardians face a cancer diagnosis, finding community may be difficult. Camp Kesem provides free care for children ages six through 18 whose parent or guardian has a cancer diagnosis in the Chicagoland area. Camp Kesem was founded at Stanford University in 2000 and has since established dozens of chapters at colleges across the country. 

Baxter worked her way up through the camp organization and became a co-director for the camp for the 2021-2022 school year, along with Pasionek. They will both work behind the scenes to make sure everything goes smoothly at Camp Kesem. They shared that although COVID-19 required some adjustment in their programming – including going virtual this summer – they have still worked to recruit members and provide comfort for children in the area.

Baxter has worked on intentional recruitment during her time at Camp Kesem. A large part of her role has been learning about disparities and inequities in the Chicagoland area and applying it to how Camp Kesem leads and recruits members such as access to care. Armed with this knowledge, Baxter and Pasionek are able to work more effectively against disparities affecting the parents of their campers and the campers themselves.

Throughout the fall and spring, programming is planned to support campers and families, as well to check in with campers when they have important anniversaries in their family, such as the death of a loved one. 

This all leads up to their most popular event – the summer camp. Before COVID-19, campers were bused to an overnight camp in Wisconsin. But when COVID-19 struck, they had to change course.

The camp was canceled for summer 2020, but for 2021, counselors are currently wrapping up their virtual camp. Of course, a virtual space doesn’t provide what in-person community and discussions can for children. And because of this, Camp Kesem recently announced they will be conducting a weekend fall camp in October at their campsite per CDC regulations and recommendations.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at and...