YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky., holds a special place in Gayle and Bill Shermans’ hearts. It’s where Gayle’s late older brother Tommy Miller and the Shermans’ late son, Will, experienced the wonderful experience that is Camp Ernst.
"One thing I have been struck by is getting kids out of their normal environment," says Eli Cochran, executive director at Camp Ernst. "When they come here they get to hit the reset button. They don’t have to worry about the other kids having preconceived notions about who they are and they get to be themselves in a place where vulnerability is accepted. You meet friends from all over the city and all over the world – you meet people you wouldn’t normally meet. Experiencing things together in a really supportive environment with encouraging counselors really builds a strong community and builds the kid’s confidence."
At Camp Ernst, children have the opportunity to experience things they typically wouldn’t such as mountain biking, zip lining, hiking, and swimming in the lake, to name just a few. For both Tommy and Will, the opportunities they experienced while at camp followed them into adulthood.
As a teenager, Tommy looked forward to going to camp every summer. Once he became old enough Tommy became a camp counselor. "Tommy worked at the rifle range and he loved it. He made a lot of good friends there," says Gayle. "There is something about being outdoors that gives you a sense of freedom."
After graduating high school, Tommy went to college at Purdue University. While there, he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away at the age of 20.
Camp Ernst played such a vital role in Tommy’s life that his parents decided to donate a memorial to him at the camp. The memorial acts as a meeting place for campers in front of the dining hall.
"Tommy had been at camp for so many years and had so many good friends that the YMCA approached my parents saying that the camp really needs this (a central gathering area). It’s a gathering place in front of the dining hall," says Gayle. "The kids can congregate there before meals. They raise and lower the flag everyday, which is a special privilege. So it’s neat every morning and evening they (the campers) are at this central gathering spot on top of the hill."
Years later, when the Shermans’ son Will was old enough, they sent him to Camp Ernst. Like his late uncle, Will loved every minute he spent at camp and eventually became a counselor. "The neat thing is even after camp Will still loved the outdoors. He was a snow skier, water skier, hiker, cyclist, and runner," recalls Gayle. "I think camp had an impact on him that allowed him to grow and expand his life without peer pressure. I think at Camp Ernst they really try to take away the peer pressure and they let kids be themselves. I really think camp helps kids build for their next step in life. And maybe it doesn’t always reveal itself immediately but it comes back."
Will took the values and life lessons he learned at camp and applied them to his life. He graduated from St. Xavier High School and went to Northwood University in Michigan where he double majored in business administration and automotive marketing management. Upon graduation, he joined the BMW Store team and eventually became their marketing manager.
Tragically, Will passed away at the age of 25. "Will was a car guy. He died in a single car accident driving his Lotus Elite. There were no drugs or alcohol involved, he had spent the afternoon with us. He was going down Delta Avenue and took a curve probably too fast and lost control," says Gayle.
The Shermans knew that they wanted to do something in their son’s memory, but initially struggled to find the right outlet. "He was healthy, well, nothing was wrong with him, and so there really wasn’t anything to embrace as far as a cause or mission," says Gayle. "So it has been a struggle for us. We want to do something special for him, something that would contribute to the growth and happiness of other kids."
In Will’s memory, the Shermans are donating a deck to Camp Ernst. The deck will be attached to the existing dining hall and will be adjacent to Tommy’s memorial.
"We are excited about Will’s deck, not only for eating in nature which will be a wonderful addition to family style meals, but it will also provide another gathering space. Kids from different cabins can gather, share ideas, and plan activities or programs there," says Cochran. "The Shermans are carrying on a legacy that started way back at the founding of the camp. This is really what the YMCA is built on – the partnership between donors, volunteers, and staff.
"When camp was built, Mr. Wade (Willard L. Wade, founder of Camp Ernst) had a vision of creating a space where kids could get away from their normal everyday life to experience God’s creation and each other in a place that built community and friendships. He recruited donors who helped build the camp that we have experienced for the first 85 years. We are really thankful to the Shermans who are contributing to this infrastructure so we can be here for another 85 years."