Each summer, Aron Weingard (right) works with grieving kids during Experience Camps. He’s also recruited other Gators to be camp counselors.
Gator Nation News

A Time to Weep, A Time to Laugh

Aron Weingard is a 2023 40 Gators Under 40 honoree who helps some of the 6 million American kids who bury a parent or sibling before graduating high school.

UF Advancement Published February 20, 2024

One sweltering week last summer, Aron Weingard traveled to rural Georgia to chaperone a bunkhouse swarming with 13-year-old boys. Outside, the thermometer teased 100 sticky degrees. Inside, the cabin was, on occasion, as raucous as a middle school locker room.

Weingard — a New York City and Boca Raton-based financial advisor with well-to-do clients in resort towns and bustling cities across North America — wouldn’t have wanted to be anyplace else.

“The experience is beautiful,” he says. “This is nourishing for the heart.”

The “this” he’s referring to is Experience Camps, a free weeklong summer camp for children who’ve lost a parent, brother, sister or primary caregiver. For campers, it’s a week in the woods to grieve and giggle, weep and frolic, be goofballs and understanding confidants, an escape from aloneness.

To be carefree.

To heal.

A founding counselor in 2009, Weingard’s life took an unexpected curve 15 summers ago when 27 heartsick boys trudged into Maine’s Camp Manitou for that first camp. No August has passed since without him volunteering at Experience Camps, which now has seven locations stretching from the Northeast to Hawaii.

“There is truly no better use of my time. The impact is so tangible and real and visible,” he explains. “Seeing the look on a kid’s face when he realizes he’s not alone. Having a parent say, ‘Thank you for giving me back my Jenny, she smiled for the first time since her dad died.’ Seeing an 11-year-old who lost his father to suicide, barely able to lift his eyes from looking at the ground, come back to camp year after year to become a counselor; and now he thrives as a confident young adult who gives piggyback rides to just about every little camper.”

U-turns like those, for Weingard (BS ’07, MS ’09), are personal. His best friend’s dad died when the boys were high school freshmen. That memory bubbled up during the first camp in 2009.

“I remember how devastating and painful that was for him, and I thought about how many kids would benefit from [a program like this],” Weingard recalls. “At camp, we carry the burden together. No one should have to go through anything like this alone.”

Aron Weingard and some of the kids he counsels at Experience Camps pause the week’s activities for a group photo. An estimated 6 million American kids lose a caregiver or sibling before their 18th birthday.

A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance

Suicide, sickness, an accident or homicide will rip a parent or sibling from the lives of 6 million American children before they’re old enough to blow out the candles on their 18th birthday cake. Those tragedies linger far longer than the original sorrow. Kids with childhoods upended by the death of a close loved one are more likely than peers to drop out of school, turn to illegal drugs, be depressed, struggle with relationships and grow up in poverty.

“It’s important for these children to be able to talk about their grief, talk about their challenges,” Weingard says.

That’s where Experience Camps come in.

“I’ve tried to create a sense of silliness at camp, and I always thought that was to help the kids, so they’d be more comfortable sharing about their grief with each other,” he says. “But I initially didn’t understand how therapeutic that is. If a boy loses his dad at 14 years old, it takes his childhood. That’s not fair. Being in this environment helps them let go of that burden a little and rediscover the feeling of joy.”

Which is why the managing partner at Weingard Wealth Management of Raymond James slips back into a camp T-shirt each summer. And why his dedication to those aching kids rolls straight into fall, winter and spring.

A recent “40 Gators Under 40” honoree, Weingard is on Experience Camps’ national board of directors, guided its expansion into the Southeast, recruited dozens of volunteers and has raised close to $1 million. Last fall, the Invest in Others Foundation named him America’s most charitable wealth advisor under the age of 45.

None of that, however, was on Weingard’s to-do list when he was earning his finance and entrepreneurship degrees, leading Gator Growl or reflecting on what it means to be a Florida Gator as the commencement speaker at his 2007 class graduation.

It’s just how his life unfolded.

“I didn’t start out and say, I want to be a charitable professional,” he admits. “This came on my radar, and I gravitated to it.”

As it turned out, it was a cosmic match made in the heavens.

“Coming to Experience Camps you need two things,” says fellow Gator Jesse Moss (BA ’12), senior marketing manager for the organization. “You have to have the fun and energetic side to pump up other people, enjoy hanging out with kids, going out of your way to be silly, eat a can of whipped cream, make them laugh; but you also need the emotional side, the ability to have serious conversations.

“Aron does a good job with both of those things. Wearing silly costumes, running around making kids laugh, and also having those conversations. He really is a natural born camp counselor.”

Close friend Darren Palestine, another Gator and camp counselor, calls Weingard’s energy “unmatched.”

“He’s got such a positive outlook,” Palestine (BS ’06, MA ’09) says. “He brings a spirit that motivates you to get out of your shell. I’m normally reserved, in my own narrow little pathway, but when I go to camp — with Aron’s encouragement — I’m dancing on top of tables to ’90s music during lunch hour and having fun with the kids. He makes everyone the best versions of themselves and brings out that light in other people. If there were more Arons, the world would be a better place.”

Aron Weingard (center) was a founding counselor at the first Experience Camp in 2009. Last fall, the Invest in Others Foundation named him America's most charitable wealth advisor under the age of 45.

A Time to Break Down, a Time to Build Up

The stories are heart wrenching …

And heartwarming.

“Grief does a lot of things,” a teenage girl whose mother died of a heart attack laments in a video promoting Experience Camps. “I got terrible anxiety; I could hardly function. Even if no one knows you’re a child without one of your parents, you just feel different … Before Experience Camps, I didn’t know anybody who had gone through what I was going through.”

“I didn’t really know what grief was,” another teenager, who at 7-years-old lost his father, tells the camera. “I didn’t open up to my family, to anybody. I just tried to shut it off. Me and my bunkmates, we’re like brothers. I can tell them anything. It’s an awesome feeling being [at camp], it’s special.”

Thousands of kids — some as young as fourth graders, others in high school — have been to Experience Camps in Maine, California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Hawaii and Michigan.

Lori Lane’s son, Trevor, is one of them.

“Experience Camps is a beacon of light guiding them back to safer waters,” she promises. “Where there was once despair, there is now hope. Yes, they lost their loved one, but they have gained a family, a band of brothers.”

That brotherhood (and sisterhood) keeps 85% of campers coming back summer after summer.

“We’re getting to a point where there are a lot of campers who are now counselors,” Weingard says. “It’s special to be able to shepherd that through. I’ve learned that grief doesn’t go away, it evolves. It’s important to be kind and to show love and to try to lift the spirit of people around us.”

Goodwill through Experience Camps is contagious in the Gator Nation. At last count, more than 20 alumni were volunteers, there are two full-time employees — Moss and national senior program manager Ashley Laughlin (BS ’07) — along with board members Weingard and Brian Beach (BS ’90, MBA ’95).

The ties that many of those Gators have with Experience Camps started with Weingard.

“Aron’s a leader that way,” Moss says. “Whether it’s because of his authenticity or something else, he’s one of those people who helps bond and gather people. He ignites something in you that brings out your best.”

Palestine is one of those classmates. Weingard recruited him six years ago. All but one summer since — 2021 when his daughter was born — he’s made the trip from his home in Boca Raton to Georgia to be a camp counselor.

“Some of these kids tell us we saved their lives, that we helped them get through something they didn’t think they could get through,” the managing partner at Commercial Finance Partners says. “When you hear things like that, you can’t help but go back each summer. I look forward to it all year.”

Palestine can relate to the campers. His own mother died by suicide 11 years ago.

“When I first got involved in Experience Camps it was because I wanted to give back, but I never realized how much I would get from it,” he says. “I shared things with young kids that I’d never shared with anyone about my mom’s death. These little kids taught me how to grieve and to speak about loss. It wasn’t just me helping the kids. I’ve learned from them how to be strong, how to be a better dad, a better leader.”

That so many of his friends and classmates have been drawn to Experience Camps pleases Weingard.

“You can really touch somebody’s life when you reach out to them, whether it pertains to grief or another challenge,” he says. “It’s a beautiful world that we live in, and we are all in this together.”

UF Advancement Published February 20, 2024
40 Gators Under 40 honors outstanding young Gators who are going greater in their communities and professions. Learn More

Aron’s Tips to Help Someone Grieving

1. Share Stories One of the hardest things when someone we’re close to dies is knowing we won’t be able to make new memories together. It can be a huge gift to share stories, pictures and memories about the person.

2. Reach out on milestones Holidays and anniversaries can be extra hard for someone grieving. This is a good time to check in. Don’t assume they’re feeling a particular way; just ask and listen. You don’t have to fix anything.

3. Check in … like, really check in We often greet someone with a casual, “How are you?” The response is typically, “fine,” without further conversation. For someone who just experienced the death of someone in their life, the reality is they’re likely struggling, hurting and grieving. It can be helpful to ask how they’re really doing and make the time to delve into their deeper feelings. We’re all busy, so set aside time after work or on a weekend when you can listen and be present.

4. Invite the person to do something social Friends and family are often so worried about “giving space” to those who are grieving that we stop inviting them to do things. That can make them feel more alone. Invite them to do something and trust they’ll let you know what works for them.

5. Create a scrapbook Ideally, pages will be filled with images of the person who is grieving with the person who died. But even if you just have pictures of the person who died it can bring real relief, especially for kids who worry they’ll forget what their loved one looked like. Drawings of memories can also make for a wonderful scrapbook.