Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration, but the young students who benefit from Camp Ferguson may end up remembering the Jewish holiday as a season of giving that continues months and years from now.
Students from the Riverview Gardens school district have the opportunity to attend a special summer camp in Camp Manitowa in Benton, Illinois, thanks to camp directors, local musicians Brothers Lazaroff and a host of community supporters. What began this fall as an idea to offer a camp for a handful of Ferguson students now may become a yearly event for an entire school district.
"We are fervent believers in the power of summer camp, and we think it's an incredible vehicle for reaching out to the kids in Ferguson," says Andy Brown, co-owner of Camp Manitowa. "We really think a summer camp experience can really do wonders for them."
See also: Photos from Hanukkah Hullabaloo 2014
Camp Manitowa has its sights on offering an annual sixth-grade camp to students of the Riverview Gardens school district in north St. Louis County -- the area where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed resident Michael Brown in August. Camp owner Andy Brown [no relation] says that sixth-grade camp is something that many schools in the St. Louis region -- and around the country -- provide, but that's not something that's been in the cards for middle schools in Ferguson. Until now, that is. With the help of many supporters, Brown and camp co-founder Dan Grabel are raising funds to bring those students to Camp Manitowa free of charge.
"We are exploring corporate funding, reaching out to foundations, groups that have a vested interest in kids, and groups that want to help kids from Ferguson, in particular," Brown tells RFT Music. "We are really excited about what's happening, and we are really proud of the way the entire community has responded."
Playing a role in that community is David Lazaroff, whose own early camp experiences helped develop his leadership skills. That's just one reason why his band Brothers Lazaroff and venue Create Space donated proceeds from the recent Hanukkah Hullabaloo celebration to the Camp Ferguson initiative.
Lazaroff's connection to the directors of Camp Manitowa goes way back to when he attended a camp led by a young Brown.
"It was a camp that a lot of Jewish kids went to growing up, and Andy was one of those big figures when we were kids -- just a really neat guy who was always doing cool stuff," Lazaroff said. "It was a real foundation to help you establish your identity. There was just a ton of music; it's where I fell in love with music like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead."
"My very first summer as an administrator of summer camp -- to this day I'll never forget it -- the most dynamic, memorable camper that I had was a 13-year-old David Lazaroff," Brown says. "He was the best athlete, the most popular and really was just a leader amongst all the other kids."
Lazaroff and his brother Jeff stayed in touch with Brown over the years, often playing campfire songs for the kids at Brown's and Grabel's Camp Manitowa. That nearly lifelong connection is how Lazaroff learned about a recent fall retreat for Ferguson students that kicked off the idea of a yearly-district-wide retreat experience.
Follow through for more on Camp Ferguson.
"I think the world of him and his brother. In addition to being, in my opinion, the hottest band in town right now, they're great people," Brown says. "When he decided to do this year's Hanukkah party, it was just an honor that he chose Camp Ferguson to receive some of the proceeds that they generated.
"This year, with everything going on in the community, it was hard to even want to do a Hanukkah party. But the Jews have always been central in the world of civil rights," Lazaroff says. "It was a really nice way for the Jewish community to do something positive."
As Grabel notes, many north St. Louis County districts had delayed starting the new school year amid the unrest that followed Michael Brown's death which prompted Camp Manitowa to informally invite affected students for a retreat. The idea eventually changed into something more formal and meaningful in October.
"We eventually partnered up with Riverview Gardens school district and Westview Middle School, in particular, and hosted twenty kids who all lived in the Canfield Green apartment complex where Michael Brown lived and was shot," Grabel says. "They needed a break. All of them were doing things they had never done before -- fishing, swimming in a lake, doing a zip line."
"Sometimes getting away can bring focus to a chaotic situation," Andy Brown says.
"One of the most impactful things for me that whole weekend was to literally hear a 12 or 13-year-old kid tell you that every night they hear gunshots and helicopters, and there are media trucks stationed outside their house and at the end of their street, and really just the chaotic nature of the way they were living at the time," Brown adds. "The ability to get away to a setting that they'd never been in before really helped them regroup a little bit.
"And it was really interesting to us because unlike our normal camp population, the majority of these kids not only had never been out to the country to stay in a cabin, they had never been outside of Ferguson or St. Louis County, never spent a night away from their family," Brown continues. "So it was a really, really powerful weekend."
Camp Manitowa had considerable help from the community in making camp a reality for those Westview Middle School Students, including from their counselors who already had departed for college around the Midwest and beyond.
"They really targeted this on their calendar when we set the date, and they wanted to be a part of it. They were awesome," Grabel says.
Brown adds that the Westview Middle School students took to their counselors, though shyly at first. He says that district assistant superintendent Bonita Jamison, who also attended the camp, watched her students open up to the people who were teaching them to fish and climb rocks.
"She was really touched, really blown away by the way the kids took a risk and allowed themselves to get close to these people who, prior to that weekend, they probably would have been a little apprehensive of," Brown says.
The success of that October weekend is what's prompting Camp Manitowa directors to organize an April Camp Ferguson and to plan even more opportunities down the road.
"One of our goals is to use the camp experience as a vehicle to help develop relationships, help develop a sense of confidence and independence in kids, and really help them become leaders," Grabel says. "We believe that putting kids into those situations at camp can carry over to their school experience."
But to do that, Camp Manitowa needs community support for Camp Ferguson. About twenty students attended the retreat in October, but to take care of hundreds of students each year, the directors say they'll have to bring in extra staff and resources. With people like the Lazaroff Brothers on their side, though, they're determined to see it through.
"The idea of enabling kids who might not have the means to have that experience, even for a weekend, to get a taste of nature and some of the outdoor experiences is a pretty remarkable thing," Lazaroff says. "We can't fix it all with a snap of a finger, but it's one small thing."
"This isn't a program where we're raising money for a feasibility study for something that might happen. We made this happen the first time, and we're determined that it's going to happen again this spring," Brown adds. "If all goes well, we're going to bring a couple of hundred kids down next fall for a sixth-grade camp."