Strengthening Our Camp Community
When I think about what inclusivity can do for a community, I think about the Keshet Avodah Corps at Camp Chi. This program allows older teens and young adults with disabilities to work independently at camp during the summer and learn key-life skills that can help them prepare for the next phase of their lives. I have seen firsthand how it has strengthened the Camp Chi community through inclusivity, allowing its participants to feel a sense of belonging and to continuously grow. October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month and it’s a time when we need to recognize the importance of employing all people who can make strong contributions in unique ways. It’s also a month that calls on us to act because disabled and non-disabled individuals working together adds great value to our community.
Participants in the Avodah program can try many different jobs such as working in the camp office, assisting in the art center, overseeing the camp garden and more! Through this program, participants gain independence, build confidence, and contribute to the greater camp community all while having fun with their friends!
Keshet and Camp Chi started this program to create an inclusive community with an inclusive mindset. We saw campers with disabilities becoming young adults and we wanted to provide them the opportunity to follow the same journey as their non-disabled camp friends and work at Camp Chi. What started as an initiative to provide participants the opportunity to work with their camp friends, soon became so much more. It became a jumping off point to prepare them for the next phase in their young adult lives. As their friends went off to college and began working outside of camp, they realized they too could follow the same path and have a future beyond camp.
The Avodah program in many ways serves as an example of what an inclusive community could and should look like outside of camp. Every year, hundreds of campers come to camp at Chi and see an environment where people with disabilities and people without disabilities work alongside each other. While the program provides life-skills and tools to its disabled participants, it also offers life lessons to non-disabled campers. This creates an example for campers who are the next generation of business owners and employers, who will be advocating for real inclusion in the work force and community life. They will be the ones who will open their doors to having individuals with disabilities working alongside them. They will be the ones who understand the sense of belonging and supporting others.
While we’ve built this inclusive community at Camp Chi, there is still much more work to be done to further inclusivity across the globe. We’ve found the barrier for our participants in getting jobs is not a lack of skills or training, or a desire to have a job, but rather the lack of jobs available. It’s the lack of business owners and employers understanding the value our adults with disabilities bring to their businesses.
While October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we need to make sure we’re advocating every day for a more inclusive community. The Avodah program might only run two months every summer, but its impact can be felt year-round. It has shown us the power and value that inclusivity can bring to society.
Jennifer Phillips is an accomplished special education professional with more than 29 years of experience in classroom, recreational and residential settings. She is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Keshet. She has extensive experience as an administrator, trainer, consultant, and direct service provider. Phillips began her career with Keshet in 1994 as a one-on-one summer camp counselor. This experience motivated her to become a special education teacher and she subsequently spent 18 years teaching before leaving the classroom. She most recently held the position of Chief Program Officer for Keshet, and she oversaw all of Keshet’s service areas – Education, Recreation, Adult Programs, Residential and the Pritzker Pucker Inspire Center. Jennifer’s role in program development and community partnership building has been an unparalleled success for the organization. Phillips was responsible for 340% growth in enrollment in Keshet’s camp and recreation programs in just two years. Her leadership contributed to Keshet’s model of inclusive summer camps to be recognized as an industry best practice. Phillips is regularly called upon by other camps and community centers for consultations and to lead trainings about inclusion. She believes in the power of inclusion and works tirelessly to ensure that people with disabilities have meaningful lives in their home communities. Jennifer is a strong, hands-on, and team-focused leader with a deep passion for inclusion and the well-being of the community.