Jane Nelson heard the knock on her door at 4 a.m. She was a senior at Stanford University at the time. It was Graduation Day, in 1995.
The visitor producing a version of Reveille with his knuckles was Jane’s boyfriend, Jay Saccaro.
Jay wanted to go for a walk around the campus with Jane. They stopped at the residences where each had called home in their college years. He then led her to a foothill. The couple watched the sunrise California, hours before donning a cap and gown.
But Jane would get to wear another new item on that day: an engagement ring. Jay, an economics major, had proposed a merger to Jane, also a economics major.
They became Mr. and Mrs. Saccaro on June 29, 1996.
“You’re going to include that in this article?” asks a beaming Jane Saccaro, now a 43-year-old mother of three (ages 13 to 5) and a resident of Winnetka.
“Have to,” I respond. “It’s too good of a proposal story.”
The highly engaged CEO of Kesem is sitting across from me at Café Buongiorno in Winnetka. The 1991 Lake Forest High School graduate had just ordered a latte and a fresh oven-roasted pepper and goat cheese omelet (with egg whites). Four members of Kesem’s Chicago Board have joined us.
My quest on this morning is to learn all about Camp Kesem, an organization dedicated to helping children touched by a parent’s cancer. The heartbeats of the nationwide community belong to driven college students, who serve as volunteer counselors for children ages 6 to 16 during free weeklong summer camp sessions.
“Five million,” Saccaro says.
It’s one of several numbers she mentions in between her breakfast bites and sips. Five million children in the U.S. have a parent who has either died from cancer or who has been diagnosed with cancer. The number of Camp Kesem college chapters is up to 104 — Illinois’ chapters are Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, DePaul University, Augustana College and Northern Illinois University — and the number of college leaders impacting the lives of the children is up to 3,500.
“So many wonderful things are going on at these camps,” Saccaro says, adding she expects a combined 7,200 campers (up from 6,000 in 2016) to attend 90 Kesem camps in 38 states this summer. “When there’s a crisis in a kiddo’s life, that kiddo needs two opportunities — to connect with others in a similar situation and to receive support. Our college leaders go through a rigorous training program, and our campers gain great power by gaining self-confidence, self-esteem and coping skills in a warm and energetic environment, where each doesn’t have to face a parent’s cancer alone.
“The camp experiences are often life-changing ones,” she adds.
Each child picks a nickname at the start of a Camp Kesem, and that’s the name that sticks for the duration of the week. Some of the nicknames: “Snickers”, ‘Bambi”, “Nemo”, “Pops”, “Twix” and “Hot Mustard”.
Kesem counselors, Kesem staffers and the spouses of Kesem staffers also answer to nicknames. Saccaro’s moniker is “Pocket.”
“Pocket Protector”, Jane says.
“One of my favorite comments from a camper was said by a boy who looked forward to attending his next Camp Kesem, especially during a day when he was having a tough time at his school,” Saccaro adds. “He was 10 years old, maybe 11, and he said, ‘In the back of my mind, it’s nice knowing there are only 300 or so days until the start of camp.’ ”
In about 30 days, on March 11, the third annual Magic Ball benefiting Camp Kesem (“kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew) will be held in Chicago. Last year’s Magic Ball — a unique blend of fun, magic, surprise, fantastic food and entertainment — attracted 600 guests and raised more than $1 million. Among this year’s sponsors of the event are the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, Giordano’s and Victory Park Capital.
Kesem fundraisers across the nation raised $7 million in 2016. Saccaro expects that figure to swell to $10 million this year.
More than 81 percent of every dollar generated supports programming.
Saccaro was hired CEO of Kesem in late 2010, after living for more than three years in Zurich, Switzerland, and envisioning a transition from the for-profit world to the non-profit world. One of her pre-Kesem occupations was chief strategist of onboard revenues for Princess Cruises.
Seven weeks into her tenure at Kesem, Saccaro received devastating news: her sister, Susan, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. The mother of three children under the age of 4 would die 11 weeks later at the age of 35.
“As soon as she was diagnosed, I wrote to our board members to inform them,” says Saccaro, an avid runner and walker. “It was overwhelming and tremendous, the outpouring of support I received from so many wonderful people.
They showed great empathy. They were very helpful.
“I wake up every morning and still think, ‘I want to call my sister.’ ”
The third annual Magic Ball will be held on March 11, from 7 p.m. until midnight, at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park, 200 North Columbus Drive. Individual tickets are $250 and must be purchased by Feb. 28; sponsorship opportunities are available starting at $2,500. For more information, please visit magicball.campkesem.org/chicago. For more information on Camp Kesem, please visit campkesem.org.