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Grief Propels Student to Advocate Bringing Camp Kesem to Oxford

By Ashton Logan
Hottytoddy.com intern

Kate Fries’ favorite childhood memory was running off her school bus to her sister, Cara, and an angelic being that she was lucky enough to call ‘mom.’ Little did she know, what followed next would make her an advocate for adolescents in north Mississippi. 

“I loved being home with my mom,” says Fries. “I remember her always being ready to do whatever we wanted even though I knew she had probably had a very long day, she always had so much energy. That’s something I aspire to be like.”

Kate (left) and the Fries family. Photo provided.

In 2012, as the warm summer breeze began to fade in Jackson, Michigan, students and parents were looking forward to the hustle and bustle of school starting. Fries was going into sixth grade.

Sixth grade is a big year with lots of new changes mentally, physically and emotionally but for the Fries household, sixth grade was the year that would completely rocked their faith and world.

That year her mother, Paula, was diagnosed with leukemia. Immediately following her diagnosis, she underwent surgery and was cleared. After almost a year in remission, Paula was diagnosed with brain cancer the February of Fries’ seventh grade year.

“The doctors decided to try something new, so she started treatment at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, which was about 40 minutes from my house,” said Fries. “It wasn’t like it had been before when I got to come home from school and visit her.”

After a year and a half recovery, the Fries’ went on a mission trip to Jamaica after finding out the week before the cancer was back for a third time.

“It was a really good last memory to share with her,” said Fries.

Fries and her mother share the same shade of dark brown hair, the same twinkle in their eyes, the same charismatic laugh and both carry the same endless love for life. According to Fries, her mom was always so optimistic and smiling even through her worst of days.

When Fries was 14, she and her three sisters endured something that no child should ever have to go through – losing their mother.

“She really showed me that there’s always time to be happy in life. It’s a mindset,” Fries said. “My favorite memory would be listening to her laugh and see her smile about life’s little things, she was a one of a kind type person.”

Following her mother’s passing, Fries went back to her high school were she was a freshman that year.

“I went back to school with a smile on my face. I had the reputation of being known as the happy kid,” said Fries. “I just kind of went with the flow and did my own thing.”

Before her mother’s passing, Fries’ eldest sister Mary Grace started at Marquette University where she learned of Camp Kesem, a camp that is directed towards adolescents who have lost a parent or loved one due to cancer.

Camp Kesem is a nationwide community committed to one goal: supporting children through and beyond their parent’s cancer. This goal is driven by enthusiastic college counselors in a once-a-year, one week camp all over the U.S. Kesem’s fun-filled programs provide children with those who empathize with their unique situation all while creating an impact at no cost to their families.

Children are given the opportunity to escape reality for a whole week and get to spend time with others who are going through the same situation. They are even given new “camp names” and spend the week trying new things through various activities.

“Mary Grace came home and said ‘OK we all have to go. It will be great.’ Of course I was in high school and thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to a kids camp,’” said Fries. “I remember the day they came back, Cara’s face [Fries’s youngest sister] was lit up and she was so much lighter on her toes as she danced around the house to camp songs.”

Kate, her sisters and her mom. Photo provided.

After being intrigued by their experience, a few years passed and Fries decided that she should give it a shot. She decided to enroll in the counselors-in-training program where adolescents train to become a counselor, but also have the experience of being a camper all at the same time.

“Camp Kesem taught the true meaning of togetherness. There’s just something about your relationships you build at Camp Kesem that can never be replaced,” said Fries, also known as Fin to her Camp Kesem family.

For Fries, Camp Kesem allowed her to step back into her youthful shoes; she laughed harder than she ever had. When she told her story, it reminded her that she would never be alone wherever she traveled. Kesem gave her and her sisters a nationwide community in just one Wisconsin week.

Kesem in Hebrew means magic, and there is no doubt that Camp Kesem is a magical place that gives children a chance to let go and let loose.

“Camp Kesem has worked wonders with bringing new friendships, new role models and new perspectives into my life,” said Fries. “The opportunity to be a part of something this influential in many children’s lives is the greatest blessing I could have ever asked for.”

Over her week as a camp counselor, Fries was awarded two paper plate awards, one for coolest camp name. According to her, it reminded her that a part of her would always be with Camp Kesem as she started a new chapter in a small town in northern Mississippi.

The second award was the “Magic Maker” award. In that moment she vowed that she would wouldn’t rest until she could bring a chapter of Camp Kesem to her Ole Miss community, and so far she hasn’t.

This past fall, Fries applied to bring a chapter of Kesem to Ole Miss and is now one of only 16 finalists with one more task, be one of the top five schools with the most votes.

“Camp showed me we don’t have to just be sad when we think about cancer. We can think of our Kesem family now, or we can think about the good that has come out of this,” Fries said. “There’s no way I would be able to benefit these kids next summer if the vote goes through or have this much passion if it hadn’t of happened. There is a reason behind it all.”

Fries has rallied various groups, communities and individuals to assist in the voting process but, in turn, has created a personal impact on every single one of their lives.

“Kate is one of the most kind hearted, most genuine people I have ever known and if you ever get the privilege of calling her a friend you will say the same thing,” said Eleri Linscott, a freshman at the University of Mississippi. “I can say with complete confidence that she is by far one of the most fearless, most courageous people I have ever met. She is stronger than she will ever know, and because of that she inspires me everyday.”

Fries is a constant ray of light and has the ability to light up the darkest of rooms with a simple smile. Her faith drives her being and her loving soul empowers every person she has ever met, and for this she gives credit to her mom.

“I still see her in every sunset and sunrise over the lake as my sisters and I sit wrapped in a towel, just as we use to sit with her when we were children,” Fries said. “Mom would have loved the mission of Camp Kesem and I know that she is working through every song, game, child and counselor involved in it.”

Kate reflects on her faith and reminds everyone that things happen for a reason and that no one but the greater being will ever understand those reasons. According to Fries, she misses holding her mother’s hand and talking about simple things with her the most but is beyond thankful for everyday she was able to spend the time she had with her.

“If I could tell her anything I would thank her for teaching us the importance of family. She always said, ‘Family is what you are going to have forever. They will always be by your side,’” said Fries. “I would also say something funny just to see her laugh one more time. She taught me a lot but the one thing I would thank her for is giving me a family that loves and supports me as much as they do. I’s just indescribable.”

Cancer changed Fries’ life in many ways. It painted a dark picture, leaving her young family motherless, but in another light it created a picture full of color. It gave her an entire new outlook on life, a powerful strength she wasn’t aware she possessed, and a family apart from her own that she didn’t know she could live without.

Voting started this past Monday and will end Friday, Jan. 31. Voters are allowed to vote once a day every day.

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