Local nonprofit for military families shifts its focus to ‘life skills’ training for graduates

Knights of Heroes, an organization that offers camps for children who lost a parent in the military, is going through a five-year transition to focus on the program’s graduates.

By: - December 27, 2021 5:00 am

Campers and mentors of Knights of Heroes are pictured at the campsite during the 2021 Winter Camp. (Courtesy of Steve Harrold)

It began as a summer camp, a way for retired Lt. Col. Steve Harrold to commemorate his friend, Maj. Troy Lee Gilbert, who was killed in Iraq. Today, it’s a 118-acre campground that serves over 100 children throughout the year. 

Knights of Heroes is a Colorado-based organization that offers summer camps and retreats for boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 17 who lost a parent in the military, also known as gold star children. 

“He had five kids and I felt compelled to do something for his kids, so I thought of a summer camp,” said Harrold, who founded the organization.


Sixteen boys from four states attended the first camp, called the Modern Day Knights, in 2007. Knights of Heroes was established as a nonprofit that November.  

The 2019 high adventure graduating group at Knights of Heroes is pictured hiking Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, in the White River National Forest, near Aspen. (Courtesy of Steve Harrold)

“It was just a time for the kids to get together, pair up with mentors and then spend a week doing outdoor stuff, just work on character development, mentorship and stuff like that,” Harrold said. 

The programs

Campers start the program at the age of 11 and during their first three years, they stay at the campsite, located near Victor, and participate in activities at or near the campground, Harrold said. When campers turn 14, they move to three or four years of the high-adventure program before graduating. 

Campers in the high adventure program go on backpacking trips for three to five nights. The graduating class backpacks at Four Pass Loop, a difficult 28-mile trail near Aspen, where the campers filter their water and bring everything they need, Harrold said. 

Campers are placed in age-based groups of four to five campers and stay in the same group until they graduate. 

The campers and graduates form close relationships with each other. “We decided early on that we would rather have a deep impact on a smaller group than just scratch the surface with a larger number of people, and it’s proven successful over the last 15 years,” Harrold said.

We decided early on that we would rather have a deep impact on a smaller group than just scratch the surface with a larger number of people, and it’s proven successful over the last 15 years

– retired Lt. Col. Steve Harrold, founder of Knights of Heroes

The transition

When Harrold had the idea of Knights of Heroes, around 2006, there were 850 or so men and women dying in combat each year, he said. “So, there were just a lot of families who were losing loved ones, and we saw the need.” 

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With the end of combat operations (in Afghanistan and Iraq), while there are still training accidents, suicides and service-related cancer deaths, the number of service-related deaths is not to the same extent as before, and so the need to have the program at the level that they do is diminished, Harrold said. 

As Knights of Heroes ramps up the graduate program and shifts the focus towards them, mentors are assigned one or two graduates who they will stay in contact with throughout the year, Harrold said. The mentors can help graduates with resumes, finding jobs and providing letters of recommendation. 

Steve Harrold (right), founder of Knights of Heroes, is pictured with a graduate on a hike in Lost Creek Wilderness in 2020. (Courtesy of Steve Harrold)

“We’re matching up our graduates with mentors that they can stay in touch with as they continue on, and inviting all of our graduates back to take part in what will now be the focus of our summer camp, and numerous trips throughout the summer,” Harrold said. 

Next year’s summer camp for the young kids will look exactly as it always has, Harrold said. In addition, the camp will host 20 to 30 graduates and offer them “life skills training.”

The life skills instruction will include training in plumbing, automotive, wielding, and financial management. Next summer will be the first year Knights of Heroes runs this program, which is open to all graduates. 

“For some of them, college isn’t really the thing for them, but they don’t really know what other options are out there for them, so introducing them to the trades is something that we think is really important,” Harrold said.

The program found that graduates who are now college-aged and beyond still really need the mentorship that the organization provides, Harrold said. “With our limited capacity to provide services, we decided that our time, effort and financial resources are better suited to continue to provide services to those kids.”

“Knights of Heroes is just unique in the sense that they’ve made me feel welcome after I aged out, and also have really listened to me and other graduates about doing this strategic shift, because there are limited programs for us after we age out, and honestly, that’s where all the struggles start from, like financial planning, buying homes and cars, and career development, especially because some of our moms aren’t versed in those,” said Jordan Eshbaugh, who attended Knights of Heroes as a camper and now serves as a mentor. “I’ve learned how to invest and do stocks and a Roth IRA and my mom didn’t have very much knowledge in that.” 

“I know that when I’m ready to buy a home, there are mentors who are real estate agents who can help me with that process as well,” Eshbaugh said. “I could speak forever about Knights of Heroes and all of their positive stuff.”

I know that when I’m ready to buy a home, there are mentors who are real estate agents who can help me with that process as well. I could speak forever about Knights of Heroes and all of their positive stuff

– Jordan Eshbaugh, former camper, current mentor and intern at Knights of Heroes

The transition is taking five years because the 11-year-old campers who started last year will be able to finish the program in its entirety, Harrold said. The program is not taking new families.

The mentors 

About 100 people volunteer to serve as mentors for the campers, Harrold said.

Jordan Eshbaugh (front row, second from the right) is pictured next to other graduates at Knights of Heroes’ 2021 Fall Retreat at the campsite in Colorado. (Courtesy of Steve Harrold)

Half of the mentors for next summer are graduates of Knights of Heroes, who have gone through the program and are now in their 20s.  

“We continue those relationships after camp as well, it’s true mentorship. For me, specifically, since I also lost my dad, I have a more personal connection and can provide more support,” Eshbaugh said. 

Eshbaugh still keeps in touch with her mentor from when she was a camper, and now as a mentor herself, she stays in touch with her campers and their mothers throughout the year. She is currently working on scheduling a Zoom call with her campers to catch up. 

“Those girls that I had in my first year until now have grown so much in their relationships with other people and having more confidence in themselves,” Eshbaugh said. 

The week-long summer camp is Knight of Heroes’ big event, but the organization also hosts weekend and four-day retreats throughout the year. 

“It’s all volunteer, so it’s just tough to have more (retreats throughout the year). We have an amazing camp facility, we just can’t fundraise enough to support a paid staff,” Harrold said. “That’s kind of what limits us to not being able to do more, not being able to fund a staff.”

Knights of Heroes also offers events for the families of campers, including an event for the mothers, said Eshbaugh, whose mother attended the program for moms. 

“My dad died when I was 9 and for a lot of programs, you age out at about 17. So for those eight years, I was involved in numerous programs, and Knights of Heroes is the only one that I’ve returned to after aging out,” Eshbaugh said. 

“Without Knights of Heroes, I never would have discovered my love for rafting, backpacking and activities like that,” Eshbaugh said. “A lot of other programs kind of feel sorry for you, in a way, whereas Knights of Heroes pushes you beyond your limits, but in a good way, in a positive way.”

The graduates

There are about 150 graduates who stay in touch with Knights of Heroes, Harrold said. This year, Knights of Heroes hosted a graduate backpacking trip to Moab, Utah, and a ski trip.

Two campers climbing a rope course at the Knights of Heroes’ camp during the 2016 Fall Retreat. (Courtesy of Steve Harrold)

Knights of Heroes also offers an internship program for graduates, where graduates work at the camp for one to three months. The organization has a partnership with Rocky Mountain Kids, a nonprofit group home for foster children in the Colorado Springs area. While the interns are at the camp working, they run and host programs for the children living in foster care. 

“It’s an opportunity for (the interns) to give back to the foster kids, be in a leadership role and take on event planning and execution,” Harrold said.

In addition to being a mentor, Eshbaugh works as an intern at Knights of Heroes, where she helps run retreats for Rocky Mountain Kids, stays in contact with families and donors and works to find career-development partners for the organization’s new life skills training. Eshbaugh receives a small stipend for the time she spends working as an intern.

Knights of Heroes has never turned away an eligible family. “Anyone who was ever eligible and fit our criteria, we’ve been able to accept,” Harrold said.


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