By Ashley Alt


How Camp Kesen helped a local mother and daughter find happiness during times of uncertainty.

Heartbreak and devastation are common words used to describe cancer. In the case of Lexington local Kellee Edwards, those descriptors are certainly accurate, but there is another term the loving mother and wife is incorporating with this debilitating disease: Hope.

Kellee Edwards, a former TOPS in Lexington employee, has Stage 4 small-cell lung cancer. The cancer first appeared in 2016, briefly went into remission after treatment, and has unfortunately reappeared. Knowing that her cancer was inoperable, Kellee and her husband, John Whitlock, enrolled their 7 year old daughter, Kate Whitlock, to attend Camp Kesem in an effort to help Kate cope with the unfavorable circumstance.

Camp Kesem is a camp for children ages 6 to 16 who have a family member with cancer. This was the first year the week-long camp has been held in Kentucky, but it operates more than 70 summer camps across 34 states. The camps are free to participants, and are financed mostly through individual donations and corporate support.

Sarah Landers, one of the Co-Directors of the Camp Kesem chapter at University of Kentucky, said the camp was an incredible experience for both her and the campers. Held this past June at Life Adventure Center in Versailles, the camp housed 17 campers. Several UK student volunteers helped make this first-time experience memorable for the children involved.

“It was amazing to see all of our hard work pay off, watching the campers have so much fun and truly escape the fears they face at home with their parents’ cancer,” Landers said. “There was such a strong bond of friendship from the beginning amongst everyone. It was unlike anything else I have been part of,” Landers said.

Landers stated that Camp Kesem is a lot like any normal summer camp with messy paint games, outdoor adventures, dance parties, swimming at the lake and late-night cabin chats. It is a place for kids to feel understood, supported and above all else, like themselves.

While the focus of the camp is providing children with innovative, fun-filled programs, the point of gathering this unique group is to ensure every child affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis is never alone.

“I want each of the children to know that there will always be an understanding shoulder to lean on, and that there are many other kids and adults going through the same fears who will make things a little easier to bear,” Landers remarked.

“I hope they gain resilience.”

From coast to coast, Camp Kesem provides training, support and leadership development to more than 3,000 passionate college student leaders who volunteer year-round to create, manage and run Camp Kesem’s life-changing programs.

The nationwide community has brought thousands of children together since its inception, deeming this special organization a monumental step in the healing process among so many affected families.

Kellee’s hope, like many other parents, was for Kate to make lifelong friends at Camp Kesem. With the knowledge that Kellee most likely will not see her daughter grow up, these moments of comfort and compassion hold so much value. This feeling is what Camp Kesem hopes to emulate for all families going through such tragedy.

“I want my daughter to grow up to be kind, above all else. Camp Kesem helps guide kids that way. It’s not just about grieving. It’s about finding happiness and love out of sadness. Of course, I wish I could grow old and and be there for her every second, but since it doesn’t look like that’s going to work out, it’s programs like this one that will help guide her. She’s going to change the world. This, I know,” Kellee shares.

As Kellee fights for her life, her daughter still remains her first priority. “Her teachers say she is the most inspiring child they’ve known in a long time,” Edwards told us about Kate. “I think she’s far more inspiring than me.” Although she may not be able to plan for her own future, Kellee can plan for the future of her daughter. She intends to do this through a manual created solely for Kate’s regular day-to-day activities.

Kellee is writing a book to help John care for Kate when she is no longer with them. The book will include all of Kate’s routines, schedules and other components that make up her everyday that John can refer to while he raises Kate.

Though heartbreaking, Kate’s well being is always first for Kellee. Her determination, compassion, optimism and hope will surely live on through Kate.

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