One of the most rewarding things about being a part of our community is hearing everyone’s “Keshet story” about how they got involved here. While each person’s story is different, the sense of belonging they feel when they first join our community is what keeps them coming back. Seeing our campers return one day as counselors, and those counselors eventually join our full-time team as teachers, DSPs or even work their way to becoming our CEO, is pretty much the ultimate goal and is the case for many of our staff across our entire organization. Yet nobody embodies this ultimate, full-circle “Keshet story” quite like Max Stroesser, who is a counselor providing 1-to-1 Keshet support for a camper attending Apachi Day Camp. As a camper, CIT, and now staff member (and soon to be special ed teacher) Max has embraced Keshet’s mission from a very young age, and continues to return because of the sense of belonging he feels within our community.
During Max’s first summer as a camper in 2013, he was in a camp group with a camper receiving Keshet support. This camper was just as much a part of the group as any of the others–he swam, played sports, sang all the Shabbat songs and was decked out in his team’s Maccabi colors from head to toe. The one-on-one counselor in the group, who coincidentally is now Keshet’s Recreation Program Manager Drew McNamara, seamlessly facilitated an environment where all campers could feel true belonging and acceptance with their peers. At first, this came as a huge surprise to Max, as his experience at his previous camp was quite the opposite. Even at a young age, he recognized that this former camp was not a good environment for children with disabilities; they were singled out, not treated equally and simply made to feel “different.” On the other hand, being a part of a community like Keshet and Apachi where inclusion isn’t just the norm, but is celebrated, was by Max’s standards, the “coolest thing ever.” And, seeing a counselor like Drew contribute to this environment in a positive way was so inspiring to him. So, when it came time for Max to apply to apply to be a counselor eight years later, it was an obvious choice for him to want to work with Keshet.
Since Max began as a counselor, his mission has always been the same: to ensure that campers and staff of all abilities feel like they belong. His team of co-counselors, fellow Keshet staff and Keshet site directors serve as tremendous mentors for him to help learn and persevere through whatever challenges may arise. He’s learned to find that balance between providing support to his camper, while also recognizing when he can step back and allow that camper to thrive independently. This past summer in particular, he and his camper were an awesome duo. Beyond attending to this camper’s individual needs, Max taught him so much more: how to build friendships, gain confidence to try new things and simple ways to be kind. For example, Max and his camper spent time each morning greeting every single person in the camp office and asked them how they were doing. Anyone who knows Max knows that this is just who he is to his core, but seeing him instill these same values with his camper was even more special.
When it came time for Max to begin his college search, it was important to him to attend a school where he could pursue his passion for disability inclusion. He is currently a freshman at Illinois State University studying special education, with plans to teach during the school year and spend his summers working at Keshet for as long as he can. In only the first few months, Max has realized just how formative his experiences with Keshet are in his academic and career pursuits. Much of the information he is learning in his classes are things he already has learned throughout his time on staff at Keshet. In addition, these hands-on experiences working with people of all abilities at camp have been helpful in preparing him both in and out of the classroom. In addition to his involvement in the ISU marching band, Max is also a part of Best Buddies and an organization called Deaf Redbirds, where he is learning American Sign Language. All of these experiences would not be possible without the skills and interest he gained while spending his summers with Keshet.
As we say often, our mission doesn’t just impact the people that we serve–our hope is to create a sense of belonging for every single person in our community–and Max’s story exemplifies this. He is someone who understood who we are and what we do at a young age and became inspired enough to want to be a part of that himself. It’s so special to see directly the people who spark the magic of Keshet in others, influence them to get involved and give them the tools to make it happen. We know it is people like Max who will continue to spark that passion for future generations of our community and give them the power to develop their own full-circle Keshet story.