For our second article for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, we introduce you to Katie Lightner, Keshet's Program Director at Camp Chi. We celebrate Katie's 10 years leading Keshet's most inclusive program.
As the frigid temperatures finally begin to head out of the Midwest, we know that everyone is counting down the days until Summer 2019. This is especially true for Katie Lightner, Director of Keshet Programs at Camp Chi. Last summer marked a decade of Katie’s work with Keshet, and she is eager to begin her 11th summer with Keshet.
Katie oversees Keshet’s involvement in camper inclusion and also Avodah. Through Keshet’s support, campers with disabilities and special needs receive the full overnight camp experience. Each child is completely included in the cabins with their typical peers, yet still receives a 1-on-1 counselor to ensure that the inclusion process runs smoothly for everybody. Katie works to educate the counselors to meet the individual needs of each camper.
When campers reach 10th grade, they have two options: to become a Chi SIT or join the Avodah program. By this time, their peers that they’ve grown up with at camp start working and become counselors and specialists. “Work and play the Camp Chi Way,” Avodah is a work-based program that combines vocational training with camp recreation. Katie and her staff work with our kids to do jobs all around camp such as mail, work assignments around Lake Delton and work with job coaches to attend to each child’s needs and abilities.
Katie first got involved with Keshet in the summer of 2009. She had never heard of Keshet before, but word of mouth spread about an opportunity that might be of interest to Katie. She had just graduated with a Master’s in social work, and wanted to find a job working with children that had special needs. She just knew that it was a summer camp role with kids and she was all for it. She interviewed for the role as Assistant Director, and soon to be 11 years later, she is still committed to Keshet and the children we serve at overnight camp.
Over the course of 11 years, a lot can change, and Katie has noticed that a lot has changed. One of the biggest changed that she’s noticed was the number of campers that are serviced. She noted that when she first began in 2009, the Inclusion program was just four weeks long and serviced 10 campers. Now, both the Inclusion and Avodah programs are eight weeks long and involve 65 children and young adults. The growth of the programs that Katie directs has had quite the impact on the typical peers around camp as well. “It’s amazing how what you don’t have teach is that natural inclusion, it benefits Keshet campers as well as Chi campers and that camp can be for everyone…Not only am I seeing this at camp but also in schools,” she notes as the biggest growth she’s seen.
What has kept Katie coming back to camp for the past 10 years are what she finds to be the most rewarding aspects of her job and the many ways that Keshet has impacted her. She wants to continue to see the kids grow more and more each year, and says that it’s an honor for her to have been able to watch how these programs have evolved. With her campers, she loves seeing that they truly enjoy the day-in and day-out activities. “Overnight camp is not for everybody, but it is when it’s a successful experience. Seeing the experience bring smiles on their face and those true friendships growing, it’s authentic… So it’s that rewarding experience of the campers going beyond what might even be expected of them.” The experience that Katie has had over the last 10 years has helped her grow personally as well as professionally.
Katie continues to make a difference in the lives of others when it’s not summer time and camp isn’t in session. For the past 4 years, she has worked as a school social worker at a Public Therapeutic Day School in Oswego, Illinois working with children ages K-5th grade. Her dream is to work her way up to becoming school principal and positively impact more lives than she already does now.
When asked what might she want others to know about Keshet that they might not know already? Katie replied, “Keshet is a family. I feel like it’s always portrayed and that it might be our motto but when you’re living it, it really is a family and everybody has each other’s backs and the best interest of the kids at heart. Keshet is always striving to get these kids to have the most experience in life as much as they can.” She also noted that not being Jewish, Keshet has really been a welcoming community of just amazing people.
What Katie is most looking forward to for Summer 2019 is exposing international staff to what Keshet is all about. They’re going to be fully immersed when they come to an overnight camp and they’re going to get the best learning experience.