Inclusion Matters

MARCH 2023

Lives of Distinction

Derek Curtis

From Sibling Rivalry to an Unrivaled Relationship

Derek Curtis, 31, and his younger sister, Mackenzie, have a unique connection, to say the least. In addition to the typical differences and disagreements that face most siblings, Derek’s disability historically challenged their relationship further. However, with much effort, the passing of time, a good balance of patience and understanding, and a new wrinkle to their relationship, Derek and Mackenzie are now closer than they’ve ever been.

“Even without a disability, it can be hard for siblings to get along,” Derek commented astutely. “But my disability leaves me without a filter and a tendency to want to argue.” Communication has certainly been a challenge – not only for Derek, but also for those with whom he interacts, according to his sister. “The way he says some things can come across as rude or insensitive, but it’s never intended that way,” Mackenzie said. “The people he’s close to have had to practice patience when receiving his anticipated message.” 

Derek is very independent, so much so that he moved into his own apartment a few years ago. Despite his level of independence, Derek’s disability impacts him in other ways, such as nagging dietary and sleep-related issues that affect his everyday life. The thing that perhaps makes things hardest on him, however, is something that isn’t apparent to the untrained eye. “My disability isn’t physically evident, so most people don’t realize I have a disability,” he said. Because of this, people have been less understanding of him, and he can recall numerous instances in which he wasn’t shown nearly enough patience. “I don’t go out of my way to tell people I have a disability,” Derek continued. “But it would be nice if people knew, because I think they’d be able to understand and work with me better.”

Insert Mackenzie, who has worked as a Mentor with Advocates for ten years. With the experience she’s garnered in that time, perhaps as good an understanding of Derek as anyone, and a yearning to see her brother lead a successful life, Mackenzie offered to mentor him on a part-time basis. The prospect of working with her brother also meant an opportunity to improve what had always been a strained relationship.  

“The first few times we worked together were difficult because I wanted him to do the things I knew he could do,” Mackenzie said, acknowledging she may have set her expectations a bit too high early on. “But that was only because I know what he’s capable of and want to see him be the best he can be.” Both she and other experienced Mentors recognize the need to exercise patience – not only with Derek, but with everyone they support. 

“Each of us figure out our own ways to bring out the very best in Derek,” said his Senior Mentor, Erika Kiteveles. “We work on things that he and his sister aren’t able to focus on as much, and I absolutely love helping him achieve his goals.” Because Derek wants children to have a better educational experience than he did, one of his life goals is to become a teacher’s assistant. Derek was resentful towards school in general as a youth, primarily because he felt he wasn’t given enough attention or patience. “Inclusivity has come so far compared to when I was in school, so today’s kids have it much better than I did,” he said. “My goal is to connect with kids and show them that people do care.”

To help achieve this objective, Derek studied early childhood education at Onondaga Community College. Further, he now visits local institutions such as SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University, where he lectures education students. “As someone with a disability, I want them to know how important it is to really listen to their students,” he said. “Feeling that my voice was being heard as a kid would’ve made a huge difference, and I try to convey that to people who will soon be teachers.” Derek went on to say that a greater understanding by the general public of people with disabilities of any age – not just children – would make people’s lives much easier.

“The outside world can be so unaccepting of people with disabilities,” he said. “And that’s part of the reason I love Advocates…because it’s the exact opposite. No one judges me here.” The friendships he’s made through Advocates over the years mean more to him than anyone realizes. “I don’t know anyone who does more for their friends than Derek,” Mackenzie said. “He’ll do things like spend his last few dollars on a gift for someone, and it’s those things that show how much he cares about others.”

Whether it’s through gifts or simple gestures like saying something kind to someone, Derek gets a thrill out of making people smile. “A compliment may be the one nice thing a person hears all day, or maybe they have limited interactions with people. You never know how someone is feeling, but I try to cheer them up regardless.”

When he’s not spending time with his friends, you can find Derek immersing himself in any one of his many hobbies or interests. His passions coupled with his incredible creativity come to life when making things like music “mashups” and scrapbooks from magazine pictures. He also enjoys playing video games, going to the mall, traveling, and adding to any of his various collections. Derek is always open to trying new things, as is evidenced by his newfound interest in tennis. Whatever he’s pursuing, he knows he does it with the full support of everyone in his corner. Though Mackenzie is one of the newer “official” members to Derek’s support team, her impact has been among the most profound, and her work is valued and admonished by everyone they come in contact with.

“There’s nothing greater from a parent’s perspective than seeing the strides in their relationship, and I’m extremely proud of both of them,” said the siblings’ mother, Lisa, who admitted she gets emotional when considering the impact this has made on the Curtis family. Lisa attributes some of Derek’s progression with communication and other life skills directly to Mackenzie and her conscientious work. “I feel so lucky to have Mackenzie, his other Mentors, and Advocates as a whole as steppingstones for Derek’s continued growth.”

Though Derek was clear in saying all of his Mentors have been great over time, he acknowledged that the guidance he receives from his sister may mean a little more. “I would say we’re better friends now than ever before, and that’s helped things in general,” Derek said.

“Our relationship has definitely grown as brother and sister through the mentoring,” Mackenzie added. “Growing up, I always wanted to look up to him, and I do that in some ways now because of how far he’s come.”

Author Wes Adamson said it best when he said, “Sisters and brothers just happen...we don’t get to choose them, but they become one of our most cherished relationships.” Though the Curtis’ relationship can still exhibit the typical challenges that all siblings face, they appreciate each other more than they ever have. According to Mackenzie, being able to call each other friends is as meaningful to her as the strides Derek has taken as an individual. “He’s already surpassed a lot of the things we were unsure he’d ever do, and I can’t wait to see what else he can do because he has so much potential. I’m just really proud of him.”

Advocates is proud of Derek’s achievements and aspirations, and is equally proud to have Mackenzie as a valued employee of our organization!

If you have a family member or friend who is as compassionate as Mackenzie and is looking for the opportunity to support someone as inspirational as Derek, please encourage them to apply on our website.

We look forward to meeting them!

Agency Updates

National Developmental Disabilities Month

March is National Developmental Disabilities Month! This is a great time to acknowledge everyone who receives services from Advocates. We thank you for all that you teach the people in your life who have the honor of supporting you!

We'd also like to thank all of our 1,100+ Mentors, whose tireless work is beyond appreciated by Advocates and the many people we support!

Advocates Presidents' Day Bingo

After a 2-year hiatus, we were thrilled to again offer Advocates Presidents' Day Bingo! More than 50 people receiving services from Advocates and their Mentors/family members joined us for an afternoon of friends, snacks, prizes, and of course, lots of Bingo action! We thank everyone for coming!

Click here to view photos from this event

Reasons to Smile

This small group of Advocates friends gave back in a big way! In celebration of Valentine's Day, these friends and their Mentors crafted many handmade, decorative greeting cards. They then sent their lovely creations to a local organization that benefits seniors in our community.

On behalf of all of us at Advocates, thank you for making a difference with your creativity and caring!


Dial "988" for 24/7 mental health intervention

Too many people experience a suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress without the support and care they need. There are urgent mental health realities driving the need for crisis service transformation across our country.

There is hope! The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a national network of more than 200 crisis centers that helps thousands of people overcome crisis situations every day. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress. By calling or texting 988, you’ll connect to mental health professionals with the Lifeline network.

If you or a loved one is ever in a mental health crisis situation, we sincerely hope you will utilize this vital and potentially life-saving resource.

Click here for more info on the 988 hotline
Upcoming Events


Syracuse Crunch Game

Join us for Advocates night at the Syracuse Crunch!

The Syracuse Crunch

is offering discount tickets to people/ families receiving services from Advocates along with employees.

Join us on Saturday, Mar. 11th at 7pm as the Syracuse Crunch take on the Rochester Americans.

Discount tickets ($20) can be purchased by contacting Emily Kissinger: (315) 473-4444 ext. 126 or online at: using promotional code: ADVOCATES

Advocates Winter Party & Information Fair

There's still time to register!

Please join us on Friday, March 10th from 6:00pm - 8:30pm for Advocates' Winter Party and Information Fair at Le Moyne College. Over 25 agencies and vendors will be on hand offering resources to assist and enrich the lives of people with disabilities and their families.

Our Winter Party will feature entertainment provided by a DJ, games and activities, refreshments, and so much more!

Click here to register for this event!

Advocates Virtual Talent & Art Show

Advocates is excited to announce that we will again be hosting our annual Talent & Art Show virtually this year! People receiving services from Advocates are encouraged to submit their creative content, such as pictures of artwork, poetry, and videos of singing, dancing, or playing musical instruments, just to name a few. Talent will be on display on Advocates' Facebook page during the last week of April.

Stay tuned for further details!

Advocates 5th Annual Stroll & Roll

Join in the Action!

Register today!

Advocates Partners with American Red Cross

Save the date!

Advocates is sponsoring an American

Red Cross Blood Drive on Thursday, June 22nd from 1-6pm. The event will take place at Advocates office in Liverpool. We thank you in advance for considering participating in this critical mission!

To help save a life, please click here