Jon Aga grew up in Nisswa in a family that always helped others.

Now that sense of community that was an integral part of his childhood and the desire to give back combined to draw him back home.

“It’s just always been a part of what I do, my upbringing,” Aga said about helping others. “Growing up here, when you know the people and have a strong sense of community and belonging to a community, it’s not hard to give back.”

Aga took over as executive director of the Lakes Area United Way in September and spoke from his office in the basement of the Bremer Bank building in downtown Brainerd. He’s excited to be part of the United Way community, where people care for each other.

“Being able to make connections with folks is just so rewarding,” he said.

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Aga, 30, the son of Jeff and Sarah Aga, grew up with his three siblings - Ned, Molly and Emily - in the Nisswa area, attending Nisswa Elementary School and graduating from Brainerd High School in 2009.


"Growing up here, when you know the people and have a strong sense of community and belonging to a community, it’s not hard to give back."

— Jon Aga, Lakes Area United Way director


Even when he transitioned to schools in Brainerd, he said: “I still gravitated toward Nisswa. My first job was working at Martin’s (Sport Shop) downtown.”

Through college, he worked at The Pines Golf Course at Grand View Lodge with the early morning ground maintenance crew. He’s always loved the outdoor activities the lakes area offers, including sailing, boating, water skiing, wake surfing, fishing and golfing.

“Anything outside. Anything on the lake,” Aga said.

The Aga family also loves skiing, and he spent many winter days at Mount Ski Gull while growing up.

Aga attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, where he majored in psychology and social studies education - coursework he enjoyed at Brainerd High School. He intended to pursue a teaching or counseling career.

Jon Aga, who started in September as the Lakes Area United Way executive director, stands in the United Way office in the lower level of the Bremer Bank building in downtown Brainerd on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
Jon Aga, who started in September as the Lakes Area United Way executive director, stands in the United Way office in the lower level of the Bremer Bank building in downtown Brainerd on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

After a couple of student teaching field experiences, Aga said: “It went great, but I didn’t feel like it fit 100%. I liked talking to kids about what was going on at home rather than the curriculum route.”

So after graduating from college in 2013, he moved to Spooner, Wisconsin, and worked for a couple of years at an adolescent treatment center for boys with emotional and behavioral concerns.

It was a busy time. He’d started dating his future wife, whom he’d had classes with in college, and moved to St. Paul to live with friends while still working long weekends in Wisconsin and taking master’s courses in career counseling at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

Returning to the Twin Cities full time, Aga worked at the Minnesota Autism Center in Eagan. He eventually accepted a job at Tasks Unlimited in Minneapolis, where he worked with adults who had severe, persistent mental illness. He eventually obtained his master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Saying everybody’s lives are complex collections of backgrounds and experiences, Aga said: “The clients I worked with were the same as anyone else, with the added aspect of things going on biochemically where things are not firing right.”

He served as mental health coordinator for just over a year, then as a supervisor for a year and a half, then as associate director of mental health services for nearly three years with Tasks Unlimited until leaving to join the Lakes Area United Way.


"There’s a lot of care in this community. I’m trying to build relationships and get a sense for what the needs are in all the different pockets of our community."

— Jon Aga, Lakes Area United Way director


Joining Tasks Unlimited was a definite shift from working with teens to adults. Teaching and counseling teens in Wisconsin was nature oriented, exposing them to outdoors experiences.

“Transitioning to adults was not what I was expecting,” Aga said. “I never thought I’d work with someone with schizophrenia.”

He thoroughly enjoyed his job developing and overseeing growing mental health, housing and homeless outreach programs in the Twin Cities. One such program he helped start in 2019 was a day shelter for the homeless in northeast Minneapolis. The shelter stemmed from a partnership with a local church that allowed homeless people to shower, have breakfast, stay for worship and get groceries. Staff from Aga’s workplace came to talk about mental health resources.

The work led to receiving a state grant to offer a day shelter for the homeless at the church. Aga received sage advice to be there for people with warm food and a couple of bus tokens, and to be patient because data shows people won’t open up right away.

“Be there and build rapport and they’ll open up when they’re ready to,” Aga said.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and they couldn’t allow people inside the church. However, Aga said they met people at the door with resource kits and nutrition before later reopening to a smaller number of people at one time.

The program is now funded through 2023 with a grant.


"Being able to make connections with folks is just so rewarding."

— Jon Aga, Lakes Area United Way director


He spoke proudly of another program, the Envision Project, that evolved along the same lines. This program aims to help uninsured people become more proactive to prevent visits to the emergency room by overcoming a key barrier - housing. Talking to homeless people, they came up with an idea to build a community of tiny homes.

This program was still forming when he left his company to join Lakes Area United Way. The timing was right for Aga and his wife of five years, Shaina, a legal advocate for the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, to make a move with their son, Eli, 2.

They’d lived in Twin Cities suburbs and agreed the housing market and increased activity in their neighborhood made a change of scenery attractive.

“It’s hard to go to a park or walk with a cop car across the street,” Aga said.

He looks forward to his work with the United Way, and Aga credits Nisswa and the lakes area for luring him back home.

“One reason I came back is it’s just a tight-knit community that looks out for each other,” he said. “I was definitely spoiled growing up.”

It’s rewarding to identify needs in a community and create programs for change at the macro level working with organizations. He looks forward to opportunities to do that, he said, reiterating he loves connecting with people.

He looks forward to making those connections and building relationships with the United Way, including in communities from Fort Ripley to Garrison to Walker.

“There’s a lot of care in this community,” Aga said. “I’m trying to build relationships and get a sense for what the needs are in all the different pockets of our community.”

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.