Young benefactors help send San Quentin children to camp

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For the children of inmates at San Quentin, summer vacation often consists of routine visits behind prison walls to a heavily guarded room where the air is too hot or too cold, and always rife with distress.

But this summer could prove to be more colorful, thanks in part to a group of philanthropic third-graders from Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

As part of a year-long tzedakah project, the Hebrew school class raised $176.50 to help send children from the House at San Quentin, a nonprofit visitor's center for families of prison inmates, to sleep-away camp.

Approximately 30 children, some of whom have fathers or brothers on death row or serving life sentences, will spend up to a week mixing with their peers far from the shadow of prison walls.

The youngsters can choose from two California camps, attending either a two-week session at Camp Celio, a Campfire Boys & Girls Camp in Nevada City, or a four-day stay at Camp Summit, a Salvation Army camp in Weimar.

House of San Quentin director Joan Resnikoff believes camp will provide a breath of fresh air for these children, most of whom spend their summers hanging out in their neighborhoods and visiting loved ones in prison.

"I think being in an environment that has nothing to do with their own home, no reminder of the dysfunction they live through…could give them the idea that maybe they can do something with their life," said Resnikoff.

The House of San Quentin, a small Victorian-like residence within walking distance of prison gates, serves a similar purpose. Located on Main Street in San Quentin Village, the center is a year-round haven of sorts for some 200 to 300 families of inmates. Information on the organization can be obtained by calling (415) 456-4200.

On prison visiting days, Saturdays and Sundays, the House of San Quentin offers meals, counseling and recreational activities aimed at helping the mothers and children leave the day's travails behind.

However, the House is no substitute for camp, noted Resnikoff, who was overjoyed when she received the unexpected donation in the mail along with a letter printed in pencil with conspicuous eraser marks.

In the letter, classmates politely introduced themselves and explained their motivations.

"We give you this money because we feel bad for those families with dads in prison," the letter stated. "We hope these kids will have fun at camp, just like we do."

The note went on to explain that the class raised money through bake sales and tzedakah collections, an annual Sunday school ritual at the Conservative synagogue. The letter's conclusion contained 14 signatures adorned with stars and hearts.

Although the donation will pay only part of the $2,000 enrollment fee — Camp Celio provided matching funds — Resnikoff was nonetheless touched.

"When I first read the letter, I got very weepy that children in the third grade are thinking enough and sharing enough," Resnikoff recalled. "I thought of the [third-graders] and what a wonderful way to bring up a child — to know to give is to receive."

To avoid creating feelings of shame or embarrassment, Resnikoff does not plan to reveal the identity or age of the contributors to the camp-bound youngsters.

Similarly, children from the House of San Quentin will enter camp in relative obscurity.

"These kids are called `prison brats.' If they look at anybody in the wrong way, they are told they are just like their fathers," said Resnikoff. "It's a very heavy stigma."

Among the campers will be "Jennifer" (not her real name), a precocious 11-year-old nature lover whose stepfather resides at San Quentin. She said she looks forward to studying wild animals in their natural environment — "it's not fair to take them away from their homes" — and is equally excited about spending time with her camp counselor, Danielle Bush, a House of San Quentin volunteer.

"I begged my mom to go," said Jennifer. "I have never been to camp and it sounds like a lot of fun."

Kol Shofar teacher Sherry Knazan insisted she had little to do with her students' decision to give money to the House of San Quentin.

Heeding the advice of mitzvah maven Danny Siegel, Knazan said she let her class of 25 decide for themselves the fate of some $500 they'd raised.

The House of San Quentin, she explained, was among 15 nonprofit organizations initially considered.

In the course of discussing all the possible recipients, Knazan, who had read about the visitors' center in a regional newspaper, encouraged students to put themselves in the shoes of the convicts' families.

"In general, these kids [at Kol Shofar] have a lot of opportunities. It's almost beyond their imagination to think of having a father in prison," Knazan said. "When we talked about what it's like, I made it very personal, like `How would you feel if…?' That appealed to them."

Knazan then divided students into five groups, gave them each $100 in cash, and instructed them to divvy up the funds among four organizations.

They gave the largest donation to CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals), followed by House of San Quentin, Jewish Family and Children's Services in Marin and an Israeli orphan home for girls.

"This was totally a decision by third-graders," Knazan said, praising the 8- and 9-year-olds for the maturity they displayed in handling large quantities of cash.

"It shows you how powerful kids can be when they make choices."

The Jewish community's support for the House of San Quentin doesn't stop with Knazan's class.

Resnikoff was $130 short of the total camp tuition when the program received a last-minute windfall from Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael.

At the request of teacher Steven Friedman, whom Resnikoff had met at a graduation party for one of her volunteers, students at the K-8 school contributed $100 from an ongoing penny tzedakah collection. An anonymous donor supplied the remainder.

Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael has also expressed an interest in helping the House of San Quentin during the temple's Mitzvah Day in October.

"We always need help," said Resnikoff.