By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
A small group of boys tumbled out of the church van, bags piled in the parking lot and took the chance to let loose a little before the ride home. It was the end of a busy week at Camp Shands, the North Florida Boy Scout Council camp, where the boys earned badges in swimming, water safety, kayaking and other outdoor skills.
The man given charge over them all, Joe Simmons, kept an eagle eye on their fun.
Simmons, a Scout leader at the Southside Church of Christ in God, was recently recognized by United Way of Northeast Florida as a Sherwood Smith Children’s Champion for his remarkable efforts to support, mentor and lead these boys.
The awards, which honor longtime United Way philanthropist Sherwood H. Smith, recognizes two community individuals annually, one in service and one in advocacy. Simmons was nominated for and won the service category. The Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion awards are made possible by a legacy endowment gift from his son, Sherwood H. Smith, Jr. and family.
Like the nomination, each step of Simmons’ journey with his boys has been a joyful surprise and one he is always crediting to others.
Simmons knows what it’s like to be a young boy with anger and bravado his defense against the world. His own boyhood hadn’t been easy.
“I left home so that mom could be at peace,” Simmons said. “My mom was taking care of us, my two sisters, my four brothers and my grandfather. I knew what it was to have people not want to see you coming. I know what ugliness can be. I know what love is. That’s what I try to live by now.”
At 18, after joining the military, he was stricken with thrombophlebitis and spent most of the next three years bedridden. Simmons used that time to refocus his own life and now speaks proudly of his children, grandchildren and running his own landscaping business.
When the pastor of Southside Church of Christ in God asked him to help them set up a Scout troop –part of an outreach ministry into the community – Simmons was surprised. He didn’t have a Scouting background and wasn’t sure where to begin.
But once asked, he jumped in full force, taking every workshop and training available to Scout leaders — going the extra mile to make sure his boys had whatever leadership they needed to succeed.
“It took me almost two years to complete the training,” Simmons said.
And it paid off. In the three years since starting the troop, Simmons’ boys have moved from novice involvement to what he calls “being in the Red Zone,” with several of them on target to become Eagle Scouts, the highest rank a Scout can achieve.
Simmons knows to achieve that ultimate goal, the boys need to stay focused, so he does what he can to make sure they do. Whether it’s a ride home; visiting their classrooms at school to touch base with their teachers; going to the store to get them supplies; or putting them in situations where their leadership skills have to shine – he gets them there.
“It had to be,” Simmons said. “Scouting gave me an eagle eye to understanding and try to keep the door open any way I can.”