Eric Aaholm, Executive Director
Twenty years ago, YES made a small but powerful impact in the lives of 81 Richmond children which created a ripple effect in their families and surrounding community. For parents, YES took away the financial barrier to bring the enrichment and joy of summer camp into their children’s lives. For children, YES opened doors to new discovery experiences, new friends, and a newfound confidence to navigate environments in the outdoors and away from home. The meaningful connections and sense of belonging that youth discovered in these environments made parents eager to keep sending them to camp – and it fueled an interest for more children to attend. These initial experiences informed our model of relationship-building and community-building which still serve as the pillars of our approach 20 years later.
2019 marks YES’s 20th year, and my 15th year with YES. I started my journey as a volunteer at Family Camp in 2004 where I was struck by the involvement of parents and caregivers which was unique to any other youth serving agency I had seen.
Over these 15 years, I’m proud that we’ve been able to maintain our holistic focus on family engagement, while also evolving our programming in such a way that gives our youth and adult participants alike the experiences, tools, and training to become empowered leaders in Richmond and beyond.
YES has been successful because we listen deeply, and adapt and evolve in response to the needs our community identifies. In the beginning, the need for out of school enrichment programming was in high demand. As summer camp programming evolved, it became clear that parents wanted to share in the experiences their children were having. Later, we saw that youth returned home from summer camp thirsty to keep the spirit and energy from camp alive, and that they were seeking support to develop their leadership skills so they could become paid camp counselors down the road. These things fueled the development of Family Camp programming, our year-round work with teens, and more. As the health needs in our community became all too clear, we added a health and wellness focus, and as youth and adults at YES emerged as leaders around health promotion, we developed a curriculum to help grow their leadership.
In essence, YES is developing Richmond youth and adults to become the next generation of healthy leaders. To do this, we rely on a couple of key ingredients: The first is nature, where we leverage its beauty and wisdom to inspire participants to gain a sense of belonging, connect to peers of diverse backgrounds, and navigate new environments. And the second ingredient is our progressive, 10-year leadership pathway whereby YES participants engage in activities and training to explore their leadership style and practice it alongside supportive role models.
Our commitment to feedback and evaluation led us to establishing our 10-year leadership pathway which has served as the basis for our work and growth over the past five years. As we look ahead, YES will continue to establish itself as a leader in providing sustained access to the outdoors for underrepresented communities. We will also lead by ensuring the activities our staff and volunteers provide are grounded in cultural relevance and a historical understanding of how systems of power and privilege have shaped our world and can be undone. This understanding and expertise will allow us to provide trainings for our partners so that young people grow up seeing and believing that the outdoor field is an equitable and inclusive space – a space that honors their culture and supports the recreational and career opportunities they pursue. With twenty years of experience and lessons learned, we are eager to engage with other communities who seek to create a YES in their own neighborhoods. We invite you to join us!