STOCKTON — When Tracy resident Aaron McAllister was 8 years old, he asked his mother Ava if he could go to the Boys & Girls Club.

Ava McAllister wasn’t sure her son would be accepted by the club or be welcomed by other youngsters due to his autism, and told him that he couldn’t.

But he persisted, asking his mother almost every day for several months if he could go to the club. She finally relented, enrolling Aaron into the club’s Inclusion Program, which is designed to provide support and assistance to children with specific, individualized needs.

That was 12 years ago, and today Aaron is an employee at the club’s Richard O. Hastie Clubhouse, a mentor and role model for the youngsters with whom he works.

The mother and son related their story to hundreds of community members at United Way’s 90th campaign kickoff at University of Pacific’s Spanos Center on Wednesday.

Ava McAllister said it took some time to feel comfortable that her son was at the club, and laughed when she recalled that she’d send one of his siblings to the club from time to time to check on him.

“I didn’t think Aaron would survive at the Boys & Girls Club,” Ava McAllister told attendees. “But they accepted him just the way he is. He just thrived and grew, and I am so grateful for the way he was socialized. They made him believe he could be anything he wanted.”

Aaron could be found at the club almost every day while growing up, and by his sophomore year in high school, he was volunteering there.

Kelly Wilson, the club’s executive director, said Aaron rode his bicycle or walked every day to the club for five years — rain or shine — to volunteer and work with children.

Today, Aaron has become somewhat of a celebrity at the club, according to staff. When he arrives, staff said everyone calls out his name like patrons of the television sitcom bar “Cheers” would greet Norm Peterson.

Aaron McAllister said the Boys & Girls Club has been like a home and second family to him, and on Wednesday thanked the organization for everything it has done to help him in life.

“It’s been a long journey for me, but I have found that my journey isn’t over yet,” he said. “I just want to thank the club for accepting me for not only being who I am, but for letting me be a part of their family.”

Wilson said Aaron has been dedicated to helping the club’s youth every day, both as a volunteer and employee. He greets club visitors, plays games with the children and makes sure they follow the rules.

She added that the children at the club love to be around Aaron, and the staff relies on him for additional support during the day. She said he is always willing to help and learn new things.

“We are so grateful to have him,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to get this twisted around. We’re not making his life better. He’s making our lives better.”

The Tracy Boys & Girls Club is one of several educational, health and income support organizations throughout San Joaquin County that benefits from donations raised by United Way.

The organization that became United Way of San Joaquin County — Community Chest — was founded in 1926 to raise funds for local community projects.

Over the years, the organization’s priorities have changed as times and needs change. As an example, Community Chest funds were directed toward the war effort in the 1940s.

Community Chest officially changed its name to United Way of San Joaquin County in 1973.

Wednesday marked the start of the United Way’s annual Employee Workplace Campaign, which gives local employees the option to donate to the organization through payroll deductions. The campaign drives the majority of funding is receives to allocate to partnering agencies.

Rick Goucher, a past president of both United Way and the Stockton Chamber of Commerce, said the organization sought to raise $5 million in 2007, coming up short at just $4.8 million.

Thanks to the recession the following year, he said United Way has tried to raise $3 million each year.

And while the organization planned to raise that amount again in 2016-17, Goucher announced Wednesday that the goal will return to a $5 million fundraising effort.

“In a community the size of San Joaquin County — with three-quarters of a million people — it shouldn’t be too hard to reach $5 million,” he said. “If we can make $2 million more than we have in the past, every dollar will come back to groups like the Boys & Girls Club, or Goodwill Industries. It will all come back to benefit people in need, and we have needs in this community.”

Following Goucher’s comments, local United Way partners such as San Joaquin Magazine, the Stockton Heat and Janitek made sizable donations to kick off the campaign.

San Joaquin Magazine donated $10,000 to the campaign, while James Garner, a member of Lodi’s own Johnny Cash tribute band, donated $1,000.

Janitek, a local janitorial services company, and the Heat, Stockton’s minor league hockey team, came together to donate $5,000.

For more information about United Way or to pledge a donation, call (209) 320-6206 or email dng@unitedwaysjc.org.

- Contact reporter Wes Bowers at (209) 546-8258 or wbowers@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/bowersblog and on Twitter @WBowersTSR.