Inclusion is something I am very passionate about and is part of who I am. It has become a part of the way I think, teach others and live.
My journey began many years ago, before I knew what inclusion really was. I was lucky enough to have had a Jewish camp experience -- my summer home was at JCC Camp Chi. There I learned incredible life lessons, including what a Jewish community looks like. Camp taught me empathy and cooperation -- how to respect others for their differences and accept them. It is a place that embraces everyone for who they are. It was a place where I could be me.
Although I did not know it at the time, Camp Chi was where I learned my first lesson about inclusion. I can clearly recall one summer when I noticed a girl in my cabin who was struggling to fit in. It was her first summer at camp, and my friends and I had already been coming to camp for a few years. I also knew her from back home and that she had a difficult time at school - her personality made it difficult to get to know her better. At times she seemed quiet and removed from the rest of us.
Our counselors encouraged us to include her and to get to know who she really was. They reminded us that camp was a place where your cabinmates become your family. That resonated with me because it was one of the reasons I loved camp. At Chi, everyone was your family, even if you weren't close back home. I did not feel judged, or that I needed to pretend to be someone else.
So I slowly got to know her. I wanted her to experience how amazing camp was and that she could just be herself. And I discovered she was someone who made me laugh. She was fun to be around, and soon the rest of my friends started seeing how great she was too. There were days she struggled with basic stuff at camp, and as a cabin we all helped her in different ways, taking some of the responsibility from our counselors. It came together naturally and I felt really good about taking the first step to include her. The experience changed me and began my vision of what inclusion at camp could be.
I spent many more summers as a camper and a counselor, and then after spending a year studying in Israel, I found myself at home for the summer and in need of a job. Wanting to work at a camp, a friend asked me about being a counselor for Keshet. I would work with a camper who had special needs, which would be a new experience for me, so I excitedly accepted. Despite having never worked with individuals with disabilities, I of course believed that everyone should be able to go to camp.
Working for Keshet was a life-changing experience for me; it brought my passion for camp and my passion for working with children with disabilities together. I have now spent the last 11 years as the Keshet Director and Inclusion Coordinator at Camp Chi. I feel so blessed to work toward making camp possible for everyone. At Chi, we pride ourselves on being an Inclusive Camp Community where you can be a camper, a counselor and a friend. A camper's well-being and overall happiness is something we take seriously. We work hard to be a community where our campers, staff and families feel like they are part of a healthy and nurturing environment -- and inclusion is at the center.
I remember as a camper having this feeling deep in my heart at the end of the season. All these years later, this feeling hasn't gone away, but the reason for it has changed. Now the feeling is more about the incredible memories and experiences today's campers have enjoyed instead of sadness about my own experience being over.
Throughout the summer, every day there is another success story. Every summer there is a story that replays in my mind for days, weeks and months after camp ends. Sometimes it involves a cheering crowd of kids or a camper achieving a goal or a small interaction between a counselor and camper. I know that these moments happen for all kids at camp, but for "my" campers, these events are even more meaningful because they often face challenges that many other kids don't have to think about.
One such story stuck in my head came at the end of a typical camp day when campers were at their evening activities. I happened to be at the ski docks where a group of 9-year-old girls were having a beach party and going on boat rides -- a very special activity for younger campers. I heard lots of giggling and happy conversations going on, but then I spotted a group of girls sitting near the ski docks all huddled together.
As I approached them, I saw that they were talking to Abby. Abby is sweet, funny and the ultimate "happy camper." She also happens to be non-verbal and requires one-on-one support at camp.
The group of girls were talking to Abby and amongst each other, and Abby was visually communicating back. She didn't want to move from her towel and walk to the dock; she was terrified to get on the boat and her friends knew it. Yet they were determined to convince her to come, not wanting her to miss out on the special evening activity.
The girls continued to talk to and encourage Abby with words that were so calm and just perfect when one of the ski staff walked up and let the girls know that they needed to get on the boat before time ran out. The girls explained that they were waiting for Abby to join them and that they did not want to go without her. At that moment, one girl took Abby's hand and said, "Abby, I got you, let's go and have fun!" Abby got up and walked to the dock and her friend led her to the boat. She held tightly to their hands as the boat headed out into the lake.
When the boat returned to the dock, all you could hear was laughter. Abby was laughing and smiling and walked off the boat surrounded by her friends. It looked like any other moment at camp, but I could see the confidence in her walk, the pride of accomplishment and the glee in her face. It is something I will never forget and puts a smile on my face to this day.
These young girls were not going on that boat ride without Abby. They did not care if they lost minutes of their fun; they did not want to leave their friend behind. She was part of the cabin and they wanted her to be part the experience. No one had to tell them to encourage Abby either. They all felt it in their hearts to do what they needed to for her, as they would do for any of their other friends.
These girls are the epitome of inclusion and friendship. They reaffirmed for me that being a staff member at an inclusive camp is not always about facilitation and making accommodations. If the community values are strong, friendship is cherished, and the expectation is that we are all in this together, then all you need to do is sit back and watch what happens.
Somehow each summer at camp is better than the last, even when you had been sure that nothing could top it. This is how I know that it was a successful summer. When I return to the real world at the end of each camp season, I get the same question from everyone I know: "How was camp?" It's an easy question for me to answer. I quickly respond with a huge smile on my face and say "AMAZING!"
Jennifer Phillips is an accomplished special education professional with more than 25 years in the field. She currently the Director of Recreation for Keshet after starting as a camp counselor and working in many jobs in the organization, including spending 10 summers as a consultant and inclusion coordinator to Camp Chi, a JCC overnight camp and working 11 years in Keshet's high school classroom at Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
Jennifer consults with many camps all over the country and has spoken all over the world spreading the word of inclusion and its importance in all recreational programs she oversees at Keshet. She graduated from National-Louis University studying Elementary Education and Special Education and is currently in the Masters in Professional Leadership program at Spertus Institute.She lives in Highland Park, Illinois with her husband, Scott, and her two sons Jacob and Ben.
For more stories in the "Accepted, Welcomed and Included" blog series, visit oychicago.com/included.