Kelsey Dodson

Kelsey Dodson, 9, of Annapolis smiles as she learns to follow some dance moves during Camp Kesem. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / August 7, 2012)

The pastel-colored ball of yarn made its way from one tiny hand to another at the Camp Kesem "empowerment ceremony," with each camper unraveling their part of a common, painful thread.

What bound them together was cancer — which had come barreling into the lives of the children who attended the camp hosted by Johns Hopkins University students and recent alumni. For many, this week was the first time they realized that they weren't the only ones navigating a childhood derailed by the disease.

"It's just me in my entire school," said 9-year-old Kelsey Dodson of Annapolis, whose father died of stomach cancer in May. "It's really hard for them to understand. So it's good to be with other people who can help me understand."

Sixteen children, ages 6 to 13, from across Maryland and other states took part in the program for children whose parents have suffered or are suffering from cancer. The weeklong camp ended Friday.

The Hopkins chapter of Camp Kesem is among the most recent to join a network of 37 university-run programs across the nation. The students raised funds to match a grant provided by the Livestrong Foundation to help families treat their children to free summer fun. According to the foundation, nearly 3 million children are living with a parent who has cancer.

Organizers with the national campaign say that the two greatest concerns for families dealing with cancer are often money and the emotional effect on children. The Livestrong Camp Kesem project sought to address both when the program began at Stanford University in 2000.

"What we see is that parents worry about their kids, and they want to know that they're having fun," said Abby O'Leary, national program director for the Camp Kesem program. "For the families that we serve, there's such a financial burden, and things like summer camp, trips to amusement parks are the first to go."

The Camp Kesem program — Kesem means "magic" in Hebrew — also promotes student leadership.

A group of Hopkins students and recent alumni set out last year to bring the camp to Maryland, campaigning to match the $10,000 grant with fundraisers that included selling lollipops in class and online auctions.

Nicole Jiam, who graduated from Hopkins in the spring with a degree in neuroscience and will continue in the medical school at Hopkins in the fall, said that Maryland's status as a hub for cancer treatment and research means there is a need.

"I had heard 'children' and 'cancer' and 'life-changing summer,' and I knew that this was something we could be passionate about," Jiam said.

"It made me realize that there's a whole population that could be overlooked in this experience. That there are kids who are burdened by this, who don't just get to be normal, don't get to just be kids."

Tasha Bates, who moved her family to West Virginia from Texas to be closer to world-class facilities for her husband's melanoma treatment, said the camp is exactly what her 11-year-old son — who would rather go to doctors' appointments with his parents than to any recreational activity — needed.

"The last few years, he's been a lot more involved with everything, and lately he's been a lot more stressed because we're getting closer to the end," Bates said.

"He doesn't have any friends or kids his age who have had the same experience that he has. The main thing he needs to know is that even though his dad is going through something awful, he's normal, and there are other kids who are going through it, too."

Jiam and the classmates she recruited to help staff the camp, most of whom are studying to work in medicine, said the experience has taught them things about the medical field that they couldn't learn in a classroom. Many of the camp counselors also shared their experiences, and shed many tears, with the campers.

"I came in here thinking I was going to be the role model, the one to change their lives," said Yoon-Kyu Sung, who graduated this spring from Hopkins with a degree in public health. "But they've taught me so much. They're just so strong."

This week, screams of glee and camp chants rang out through the grounds of Elks Camp Barrett in Annapolis, where children — known by camp names such as "Little-Bits," "Phelps" and "Skittles" — reflected on the years, and for some mere months, since they took on the burdens of adulthood.

"It's been hard because it's different around the house, and we don't have as much money coming through the door," said Kelsey's older brother, Austin Dodson, 13. "I've been accidentally acting like the man of the house, and my mom has to tell me to act like a kid. I feel like a kid at this camp."

Other children said they would leave the camp experience with renewed optimism.

"I wanted to meet some new friends who had similar experiences as me, and I did," said 10-year-old Carson Frederick of Montgomery County. "Everything happens for a reason; you have to look at the good side of things — like today."

erica.green@baltsun.com