Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Jenny Holmgrain is a college student who is busy mounting her first camp, as the founder and co-director of Camp Kesem VCU. While other students are studying, partying or loafing, Holmgrain is raising funds, recruiting staff and creating a safe haven for kids.

The student-run chapter of a national organization hopes to host 30 campers—all children affected by a parent’s cancer—at a free weeklong residential camp at Camp Horizons, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a cause close to my heart—both Holmgrain and I lost our fathers to cancer.

As a sometimes camp director myself (basketball camp, in my case), I appreciate the effort involved. I talked to Holmgrain about what it took for her to dedicate her free time to founding this organization, what she’s learned and what she hopes to accomplish. Let’s help her spread the word and enroll 30 campers.

Why are you so passionate about bringing Camp Kesem to VCU?

One of the reasons I was so passionate about bringing Camp Kesem to VCU is because of the difference it made for my little sister. Our father passed away from cancer in 2009. She attended the George Washington University chapter’s camp in 2010, the year after he passed away. It made such an impact on her life that I wanted to be able to do the same for other children in the area that I was attending college.

What were some of the differences that you saw in her before and after attending camp?

Before she attended camp, she would laugh and smile, but not necessarily in the way you would typically see children laugh or smile. It almost seemed a little bit forced. After camp, she was a completely different kid. It seemed like a light had gone back on in her life. She was incredibly happy and excited about things again.

What are some of the things about the camp experience that help bring about those kinds of transformations in children?

Camp Kesem is all about just letting them be kids. They get to be kids in an environment that they feel safe in with other kids they can relate to.

It can be really great for kids who have a parent with cancer or who have just recently lost a parent to cancer because there are also kids who have lost a parent but are further out in their grief process and have healed somewhat.

It’s good for them to see that it’s not the end of the world and they can still have fun, be kids and do normal kid things that are essentially taken away from them when they’re shuttled around to parent’s doctor appointments and chemo treatments. They see all this sadness. At camp they get to be happy and spend time doing fun kid-type things.

How much of the camp directly addresses the cancer and the grief? Or is camp 100% focused on the fun?

We do address it. Anyone who wants to be a counselor at camp will go through training so that if kids do want to talk about it, they can. We know how to handle that a little bit better with training. If they want to talk about it, we let them.

We also have an empowerment program that lets them honor their loved ones and people who have helped them. If they want to talk about it, they can. At the same time, they don’t have to. It’s all about their comfort level.

What has it been like as a founder and co-director of Camp Kesem VCU and getting this student-run organization going?

It’s been incredibly exciting because it means so much to me and it’s such a personal cause. It’s been a really great learning experience too. I’m learning to manage my peers, as well as learning how to apply for grants, fund raise, and market to students and other people to try to do some outreach into the community to recruit campers.

We learn a lot of different skillsets and how to manage a $30,000 budget. As a co-director, I have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve learned how to use multiple skill sets, along with learning new things.

I make a to-do list at the start of every day. I use that to-do list to keep myself on track. I prioritize what needs to get done first. Then I basically go from there. I try to get as much done during the day as I possibly can.

Do you hope to work in the nonprofit sector after graduation?

Yes. I would like to work in the nonprofit sector after graduation. Because of Camp Kesem, last semester I took a nonprofit management class through VCU. It was very enlightening. It has actually helped me a lot with some of what I’m doing through Kesem. It showed me that there are a lot of different career paths in the nonprofit sector that I would like to possibly consider after I graduate.

Tell me a little bit about the difference between the nonprofit management you learned in class versus the very practical application of those principles with the startup of this nonprofit.

The difference is you have to be a little bit quicker on your feet with thinking and problem solving when you’re practicing it versus sitting down and doing book learning. There were a lot of similarities. I’ve learned through Kesem that sometimes you need a quick solution, so you have to be able to think quickly versus sitting down and researching for days on end for a solution to the problem.

Can you give an example of the type of thing where you’ve had to think on your feet to get the job done?

Trying to figure out how to put together fundraisers. In early September, we’d been at school for a month and hadn’t had a fundraiser yet. In about 24 hours, we threw together a bake sale to kickstart our fundraising and get our name out on campus a little bit.

At our first fundraiser, we raised about $250. We were not in necessarily the most seen location on campus. We were actually outside of someone’s house right next to the Cary Street gym. We threw that together in about 24 hours just because we realized we needed to get a kickstart on that.

What advice would you give to other students or even adults who are interested in starting a nonprofit about taking that first step?

Make sure that you have the passion for it. I’ve found that as much as I love Kesem and other nonprofits, it can be very tiresome and a lot of very hard work. If you don’t have the passion for it, it can be hard to want to do it sometimes or keep up with it. For starters, I would make sure that you have the passion, good time management skills and the ability to meet deadlines.

How can people who are interested in supporting or publicizing the camp learn more about it or reach you?

We’re looking to recruit 30 campers. They can go online to our website, www.CampKesem.org/vcu. It has all of our contact information. It lists our coordinators. It also has information about fundraisers that are upcoming and that we’ve done in the past