ASHLAND – Jason Gerdes will do anything for Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. Even jump in a lake.
Not long after the Ashland resident was named executive director of the organization that operates Carol Joy Holling Camp, he offered to jump into the camp’s lake if NLOM raised $25,000 on Nov. 27, also known as “Giving Tuesday.”
Perhaps because of his offer to take a swim in the dead of winter, the organization raised almost $28,500. So Gerdes took the polar plunge.
The frigid freestyle was just one of the many activities Gerdes has undertaken since being named executive director on Oct. 1.
He succeeds Dave Coker, who retired at the end of the year, staying on as consulting director after Gerdes took over.
“Jason is a good friend and I am so very excited for the people of NLOM,” Coker said in a press release. “This organization is in good hands.”
Coker has served as a mentor to Gerdes during the 18 years he has worked for NLOM.
“I was in his path and he was someone who really helped me grow to become a leader,” Gerdes said.
There are many of Coker’s traits that Gerdes hopes to emulate, including his actions as a servant leader.
“Seeing his enthusiasm for the ministry is something you want to copy,” Gerdes said.
As the two worked closely together, Coker began grooming Gerdes to lead NLOM.
“He gave me roles and responsibilities that wouldn’t have been part of my job description,” said Gerdes. “He gave me opportunities to really stretch and grow.”
Gerdes’ first experience with Carol Joy Holling Camp was as a camper. He attended camp for four years during his youth.
“It was a place I just always loved coming to,” he said. “It was a big part of my faith and my adventure-seeking as a kid.”
Gerdes grew up in Kearney and attended First Lutheran Church there. One of the pastors, Ron Ebb, was among the people who made the decision to accept a donation of 317 acres near Ashland from George and Irene Holling.
The Hollings wanted a camp to be built there in memory of their daughter, Carol Joy, who died at age 19 in a car accident. The camp named in her honor opened in 1979.
Because of his pastor’s connection to the camp, every summer a busload of kids from the church headed to Ashland, including Gerdes.
“Coming to camp was always something you did at First Lutheran,” Gerdes said.
After being a camper, Gerdes served as a counselor.
“I had great role models as a counselor,” he said.
Working for the organization was not on his radar when Gerdes graduated from high school. He studied agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the intention to run a farm. But God intervened in those plans.
The camp suggested all counselors sponsor a camper.
“As a 21-year-old kid, no one ever asked me to help anyone else,” he said.
It opened up his heart and changed his life.
“A few weeks later I felt like this was the place I was supposed to be forever,” he said.
Gerdes came back to the camp for a retreat the summer before his senior year of college and ended up with a part-time gig as a development associate that led to a full-time job.
Gerdes worked with Coker, who was then the development director for the camp. Their responsibility was to raise money to support NLOM’s ministry.
When Coker was made executive director, Gerdes became development director.
Gerdes met many people while working in development. Quite a few became his friends.
“I’ve developed some great friendships,” he said.
In his new role, Gerdes said he misses working with the individuals and congregations that populate the donor list. But he has so many plans in the works that he has little time to really dwell on this part of being executive director.
Learning his new role is among Gerdes’ initial duties as executive director. But with Coker’s guidance, that has gone smoothly so far.
So he has moved on to his main duties, which include overseeing the facilities, staff, funding and campers.
“Just being the best stewards of everything has been my first priority,” he said.
One of Gerdes’ most ambitious plans is to raise enough money that every child can attend camp for free.
“I think there will be a day very soon when children won’t have to pay to go to Carol Joy Holling Camp,” he said. “I hope that’s the case.”
This goal has already been reached at Sullivan Hills Camp, where all children will attend for free for the first time this summer.
Donations from local citizens like Bob and Christy Luebbe are helping Gerdes achieve this goal at Carol Joy Holling Camp. Two years ago, the Ashland couple created a fund that provides 100 campers with free tuition.
With other donations, 200 more students attended camp for free last year, Gerdes said.
Over 2,000 campers come to Carol Joy Holling each year, but there are many more children to help through camp.
“All of us together are serving a fraction of kids out there,” Gerdes said.
To accommodate more campers, Carol Joy Holling Camp added new facilities in recent years. As a result, NLOM is one of the largest outdoor ministries in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, according to Gerdes.
“And we are one of the largest Christian camps in Nebraska,” he added.
Gerdes also wants to continue the success of the retreat and conference facilities at Carol Joy Holling Camp. Over 20,000 people attend functions throughout the year at facilities like the Swanson Retreat Center.
“We’ve grown as we’ve added new facilities,” he said.
Gerdes hopes to continue the work done by Coker and previous executive directors to bring their ministry to children.
“That’s my real passion, to see this place open up to serve as many kids as we can because I’ve personally felt the difference it can make,” he said.
Carol Joy Holling Camp has made a significant impact on Gerdes’ personal life as well as professional career. He met his future wife, Leslie, while the two were counselors at the camp in the summer of 1999. Their children – Lauren, Megan and Ben – are experiencing the joy of attending Carol Joy Holling Camp.
“Now I get to see our own kids come to camp,” he said.
Being executive director was not Gerdes’ goal when he first began working for NLOM. Coker suggested Gerdes apply for the job when he approached retirement.
Even though Gerdes was already working at the facility, the job was not a slam dunk. The board of directors conducted a national search for executive director. Gerdes came out on top.
“It’s an honor to get to serve in this capacity for a place that’s much such a difference in my life,” he said.