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John Groden on how Camp Kesem helped him see his way out of the darkness

John Groden

John Groden

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Updated: May 9, 2014 2:10PM

Normally, when someone introduces themselves, they talk about their achievements. To that end, my name is John Groden. I am a history major at the University of Notre Dame. I am an Eagle Scout, and a swimming and water polo Academic All-American. However, I also have a more personal part of my identity that I don’t often share, but that defines who I am today.

My father died when I was 5 years old. I was keenly aware of this growing up — how I was different, how much harder my mother had to work and how my friends could never really understand. I never talked to them about it, and I tried my best to pretend that everything was normal.

But my life was anything but normal.

When I heard about Camp Kesem, an organization that provides a life-changing summer camp experience for children affected by a parent’s cancer, I knew I had to join. I identified with the kids at Camp Kesem because they, like me, had to face difficulties beyond what anyone their age should have to endure. They had to deal with the confusion and chaos of a sick or deceased parent. They had to deal with the insecurity that comes when a parent can’t play catch with you, or tuck you in at night. They had to worry about their parents, their siblings and their futures when they should have been enjoying their childhood.

After my first summer volunteering with Camp Kesem, I knew I had found something unique — a family where kids can understand each other like no one else can, where they can live and laugh and learn as kids should. I came home extremely satisfied. Unfortunately, upon my return, I learned my mom had been hospitalized with advanced ovarian cancer. She had known about the cancer for some time, but had insisted that no one tell me; she was proud of what I was doing at camp and didn’t want to distract me.

Less than 24 hours after my return home, she passed away.

I do not tell you this story to make you feel sorry for me. I tell you this story because of what I have learned from it. The year following my mother’s death was the hardest of my life, but I can confidently say that it was also the most important. I was lost in the most soul-crushing way possible. I questioned everything I thought I knew about life. But, just like I had after my father’s death, I pretended everything was normal, and refused to talk to anyone about it. I suffered alone with my thoughts.

But, when I thought about Camp Kesem, I was reminded of something truly great. I realized that in our darkest moments, we find meaning not in what we accomplish for ourselves but in what we do for others. I discovered that the things that truly matter aren’t making the Dean’s List, or how many zeroes are in my bank account, but the enormous difference something like volunteering for a summer camp can have on the world. To put it another way, in the shadow of my mother’s death, Camp Kesem allows me to light a candle for the world, rather than curse the darkness.

Allow me to re-introduce myself: I am a counselor at Camp Kesem Notre Dame. That is what defines me. I Kesem because in a life full of uncertainty, I know that what I do means something. I Kesem because when I see the smiles on the kids that remind me so much of myself, I know it is all worth it.

Registration is now open for Camp Kesem’s 14 camps in the Midwest, which run from June 15 through Aug. 23. For more information, please visit

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