Meet Kelly: More than Your Average Camp Counselor

Kelly with campers

This post is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying the ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook, or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.


Meet Kelly: More than Your Average Camp Counselor
By Rachel Gold, Kelly Kogen and Jamie Lake

It’s not unusual to walk through a Jewish overnight camp and see a counselor making friendship bracelets with a group of 4th grade campers in the art center. Everyone is giggling, telling stories, and helping each other select the next color bead to add to their jewelry.

This summer at Camp Chi, you can see the same scenario, but if you look at the group a little more closely, you may notice something else – the 19-year-old counselor laughing with the campers and helping with their craft project has Down Syndrome.

For decades, the Camp Chi community has included campers with disabilities through a unique partnership with Keshet, an internationally recognized organization that provides education and recreation programs for kids, teens and adults with disabilities. When it comes to meeting the individual needs of campers with a wide range of developmental disabilities, Camp Chi and Keshet share a common philosophy: we don’t focus on “whether or not it can it be done,” but on “how it can be done.”

Keshet uses the same approach in Avodah, a specialized vocational program at Camp Chi that provides young adults with disabilities both job training and recreation at camp. For the first time this summer, Kelly – an Avodah participant – is working directly with campers as a counselor for the youngest village at camp. With a small amount of adaptation and support from coworkers, Kelly works independently alongside her camp friends to make sure that campers have the best summer possible.

Rachel – Kelly’s longtime friend, counselor and job coach – collaborated on an interview about Kelly’s experiences this summer:

Rachel: How long have you been coming to camp?
Kelly: I started coming to Chi when I was in 5th grade. This is my 10th summer and now I am a counselor not a camper anymore.
Rachel: What made you want to be a camp counselor?
Kelly: I wanted to be with my friends who I love at camp. I saw you as my counselor and I wanted to be one too. I love being a counselor. My kids are so cute, and we can laugh together during rest hour or when we play cards. They all run up to me and give me hugs and yell, “Kelly!!!”
Rachel: What do you love most about camp?
Kelly (with a HUGE smile on her face): Being with my friends and my old counselors and helping my kids – especially when they give me big hugs.
Rachel: Do you have a favorite part of the camp day?
Kelly: Helping my campers get to their activities and hanging with my kids at rest hour.
Rachel: What do you love most about being Jewish?
Kelly: I get to help work at a Sunday School with little kids. I like Shabbat songs.
Rachel: Is there a funny story from camp that you would like to share?
Kelly: This summer when I turned 19 at camp, my campers planned a party for me. Rachel picked me up in the golf cart and we drove to my campers’ cabin. They surprised me with cards they made and we all ate ice cream sandwiches. I got tackled with a lot of hugs and laughed a lot.
Kelly: What do you love about camp?
Rachel: Getting to see you be so independent and dedicated to your campers. I am so proud of you, and hope you are proud of yourself too.

It’s easy to see the positive impact that Kelly’s leadership role has already had on her, her life, and her prospects for future employment, but the benefits extend way beyond Kelly. She brings so much joy and ruach to our Jewish camp community. Her campers and coworkers have grown just as much as she has and hopefully gained a better understanding that the inclusion of people with disabilities is an essential expression of our Jewish values, shaping a world that recognizes the dignity and potential of every human being.

Keshet is internationally recognized for its leading edge services for individuals with disabilities. From its local programming at over seventy sites in the Chicago area to its international consultations, the organization strives to meet its most important mission: To do whatever necessary to allow individuals with disabilities to achieve their potential.

The Keshet Avodah Corps at Camp Chi combines work-related activities with camp recreation for older teens and young adults with disabilities. Avodah members are staff at Camp Chi. They live alongside other participants while gaining valuable life skills and work experience.