Six-year-old Aaron giddily rounded up his art supplies – construction paper, scissors, stickers, crayons and anything he could glue to paper. He was on a mission to make the world’s best Father’s Day card. With his masterpiece in hand, he spent the day anxiously waiting by the door for his dad. Every Father’s Day, Aaron did this, but the day would end with the card unopened. Eventually, realization hit: his dad was never coming.
Being an only child and growing up without a male figure to look up to, Aaron kept his emotions regarding his father’s absence bottled up. As he got older, he saw a therapist who helped him develop coping skills, but Aaron needed more.
Aaron’s aunt saw his struggle and wanted to help. She suggested he enroll in summer camp at United Way of Greater St. Louis supported Sherwood Forest Camp. She was an alum of Sherwood and thought it would be beneficial in helping her 13-year-old nephew learn responsibility, respect and independence while working through his emotions in a setting where he was encouraged to try new things, be creative, use his imagination and simply be himself.
While Aaron had his mother as a role model and motivator, he longed for a second voice to encourage him, provide advice and give him the reassurance that he needed.
By the time Aaron came home from the 12-day program at Sherwood, he was hooked.
“Mom, I have to go back,” he said.
The next summer, Aaron returned to camp as a camper and participated in the Leadership Training Program the following summer. While in the program, Aaron learned the importance of responsibility, team work and personal growth while working with youth as a counselor-in-training. During this time, Aaron faced several significant personal challenges with behavior and self-esteem but found his biggest supporter in John, his counselor at Sherwood Forest. John helped Aaron throughout the summer, and Aaron attributes his personal growth to him and Sherwood Forest.
“He was my biggest supporter; and, to this day, I honestly feel that if it wasn’t for his talks and positive words, I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have today,” Aaron said. “His words kept me going to finish out the session and come back to graduate from the Leadership Program the following year.”
Having successfully completed the Leadership Program, Aaron didn’t want his camp adventure to stop there. Determined and goal-oriented, Aaron took on several roles at Sherwood, including camp counselor, adventure sports department head and village director.
Staying true to his St. Louis roots, Aaron attended Lindenwood University and graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology – a decision he attributes to his work with Sherwood Forest.
The summer of 2013 came and went, and Aaron thought it would be his last summer with Sherwood and took on a full-time position at a health services organization. While he was grateful for the work experience he was getting, his heart was still at camp. As fate would have it, a full-time staff position as registration specialist at Sherwood Forest became available. When Aaron discovered this, he was ecstatic.
“It’s not just a job; it’s my life,” Aaron said, “and has been for 15 years.”
For Aaron, Sherwood Forest was exactly what he was missing.
“It gives you that sense of family,” Aaron said. “They’re like brothers and sisters, sometimes even mothers and fathers.”
Sherwood Forest Camp primarily serves youth living in poverty, comprising of 80 percent of their total enrollment. Over the last 25 years, more than 60 percent of Leadership Training Program graduates have gotten back in touch with Sherwood staff and, of those, more than 90 percent are no longer living in poverty.
“We’ve flipped the statistic,” said Sherwood Forest Director of Communications Jenny Ray.
In fact, many Sherwood alums return years later just to say “thanks.”
“So we know what we’re doing works,” Jenny said.
Through long-term relationships, one-on-one conversations and heart-to-hearts, kids know that Sherwood is a place they can always count on and come to wherever they find themselves in life.
“We focus on establishing lasting relationships,” Jenny said. “It’s not just about getting kids in the door, them having fun and seeing them next year; it’s ensuring that the lessons that they learn will serve them well in life.”
Nearly one-third of Sherwood’s budget is provided by United Way of Greater St. Louis. These funds directly support their programs, both year-round and summer camp. Whether it’s covering the cost of transportation, staff salaries or program supplies, these dollars directly support the kids who need it most.
Like so many children who participate in Sherwood Forest programs, Aaron has always felt that Sherwood was his “home away from home.” Sherwood provided him with the opportunity to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment and offered him the chance to develop a strong sense-of-self. He attributes his personality, confidence and high self-esteem to his camp experience.
For Aaron, now 29, being able to work at Sherwood is a dream come true. He often talks about how thrilled he is to be giving back to the place that encouraged him to be the person he is today. As he embarks on his journey as a professional staff member at Sherwood, Aaron looks forward to helping other children grow into strong and capable young adults.
During the school year, Aaron works in Sherwood’s St. Louis-based office, identifying children for camp and meeting with youth and their families to prepare them for the program. During the summer, he will live and work at the campsite in Lesterville, training staff and working with campers.
To this day, Aaron still finds himself singing camp songs or telling his friends about all his adventures at Sherwood Forest and is counting down the days until summer, when he will get to go back home.
About Sherwood Forest Camp
Through unique summer camp programs and year-round enrichment opportunities, Sherwood Forest Camp helps children realize a future beyond anything they could have imagined and provides them with the tools to achieve it. They are the only independent, non-profit youth development agency in the St. Louis region providing resident camp experiences for elementary school age children from economically disadvantaged families. Sherwood Forest Camp has been a United Way funded agency since 1937.