A teenager with disabilities gets invited to hit up the mall with her new friends for the first time. The teen and her mother arrive at the mall. The new friends then greet the teen and, with smiles, deliver an order to the mother: “You need to go away now.”
The mother, smiling back, follows the order.
The teen has the time of her life.
It’s among Jen Phillips’s favorite stories involving a Keshet camper/student. Phillips is CEO/president of Northbrook-based Keshet, a one-of-a-kind organization that brings classroom experiences, camps, sports, social and vocational activities, and residential opportunities to 600 people with disabilities and special needs each year.
The international nonprofit’s mission is to provide support, purpose, and joy to people with all abilities.
Here’s another story. A new friend of a boy with special needs calls the boy one day. The boy’s mother answers the phone and reminds the new friend that her son hasn’t been able to speak since birth. “Put him on anyway,” the caller says. “I want to tell him something that he’ll be excited to hear.”
Phillips’s career at Keshet began in the summer of 1994, when the Glenview native and Glenbrook South High School graduate was a senior-to-be at the University of Kansas. A friend had urged Phillips to consider serving as a one-on-one Keshet summer camp counselor. She signed up for the position, despite not having any experience with children who have disabilities.
Phillips met with her assigned camper’s parents a few days before meeting her camper, also named Jennifer.
“My first day with Jennifer changed my life,” Phillips recalls. “I knew, right then, that I wanted to become a special education teacher. Jennifer, who called me ‘Jen,’ was full of energy and made everyone around her laugh. I saw her needs and loved the challenges of helping her feel a part of the entire group of campers. Keshet is all about inclusion, love, and family.
“I advocated for Jennifer from the beginning of the camp until the end. It all felt so right.”
Jen Phillips, 48, isn’t just the right person to lead Keshet, which was founded in 1982 by Chicago-area parents who sat around a kitchen table and sought the establishment of a welcoming place where their children with various disabilities would feel warmth—the sense of belonging—from the get-go.
Jen Phillips is the ideal person to lead Keshet. Pick a Keshet leadership position, any position. Phillips likely held it. Assistant Director of Camps. Director of Overnight Camps. Inclusion Coordinator of Camp Try Chi. Director of Recreation. Special Education Teacher. Chief Program Officer of Keshet’s service areas—education, recreation, adult program, residential, and the Pritzker Pucker Inspire Center. And now CEO/President since August 2020.
Enrollment in Keshet’s camp and recreation programs grew 340 percent from 2016-2020 under Phillips’s direction and boundless passion. Keshet—Hebrew for “rainbow”—oversees more than 75 programs in the Chicago area and Wisconsin.
“Our focus has never been on numbers,” says Phillips, a Highland Park resident who shares sons and Keshet volunteers Jacob, 21, and Ben, 19, with husband Scott, whom she met in college.
“We’re focused on doing programs right and holding them in small, intimate settings. Our programs are top-notch. Our camp program is the pinnacle of inclusiveness and nationally recognized. Families have told me, ‘Keshet is the golden ticket.’
“It’s a beautiful thing, watching people with all abilities learning and playing together at our camps,” she adds. “Each camp is a stage for creating lifelong memories and friendships.”
A devastating thing, for adults with disabilities? The pandemic’s impact on jobs in the retail and hospitality industries. Many of Keshet’s adult participants had worked in the industries before the world turned upside down in early 2020 and bounced erratically in the ensuing months.
More than 55 percent of employed adults with developmental disabilities lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, per the Developmental Disabilities Network. Unemployment among Keshet’s adult members soared to 94 percent. But the cessation of steady income, for many, wasn’t as detrimental as the interruption of opportunities to interact with their colleagues and hone their work skills.
So Keshet, behind its job training division, acted by launching a “Coins for Keshet” program. The suddenly jobless sorted coins, counted coins, rolled coins, added coins, and deposited coins at banks. Suddenly busy, again. Suddenly social, again.
The unique program captures the spirit of Keshet’s “Forever Growing” tag line. Stagnancy is a condition non grata at Keshet. Keshet’s kids, teens, and adults are dynamic, lifelong learners who adapt, change, and continually grow to live their best lives.
“I am so proud of the organization that we’ve become,” says Phillips, who taught special education for 18 years, the first seven in Deerfield public schools, the last 11 as a Keshet staffer. “My vision at Keshet is to continue to say ‘yes,’ to figure out ways to make things work, and to serve our families forever.
“I hope we’ll reach a point where saying the word ‘inclusion’ won’t be necessary.” Phillips also envisions a 16-year-old one-on-one summer camp counselor at Keshet completing high school, excelling in college, landing a job, building a sterling career, and hiring, without hesitation, an adult with a disability.
Phillips returns to her story about the teen’s joyful day at the mall with her new friends. The teen’s mother calls Phillips later that day to discuss the moment she allowed her daughter’s peers to make her daughter feel like … just another teen. A glorious moment. The girls would skip from store to store, eat and sip at the food court, laugh themselves hoarse.
The teen’s mother has a difficult time talking to Phillips on the phone. Shedding happy teardrops often ruins attempts to chat.
“She didn’t have to say a word,” Phillips says.
“Think about what that experience, for one afternoon, did for her daughter’s confidence,” Phillips says. “A couple of years later, on the girl’s 16th birthday, she asked her mother, ‘Do you think my friends will remember it’s my birthday today?’ ”
The girl’s phone rang and rang and rang.
The girl’s phone also pinged and pinged and pinged.
One text message was sent from England. The girl’s Keshet summer camp counselor remembered, too.
Visit keshet.org for more information.