By Patrick Brown
Bay Area News Group Staff Writer
Alumni of Camp Jack Hazard, a popular youth camp in the Sierra Nevada, are on a mission to raise enough money to preserve it for future generations after the organization that ran the rustic facility for nine decades abruptly shut its doors last year.
"I think it's crucial for people in the Bay Area to know about camp," said Brett Dennen, 32, a former camp counselor turned successful musician. "People from the city need the mountains more than people who live in Oakdale or Modesto."
Dennen, an Oakdale native, grew up a short drive from the sprawling mountain camp nestled along Highway 108 about 40 miles east of Twain Harte.
He fondly recalls carefree summers spent there before attending UC Santa Cruz and starting his music career in the Bay Area. His mother, Tana, now serves on the board of the Jack and Buena Foundation, which scrambled to take over camp operations last May after the operator, YMCA of Stanislaus County, announced it was shutting down. But with so little time before summer, it was all they could do to get about 100 campers signed up for just one week.
In past summers, the camp operated for six weeks and drew kids from throughout Northern California, with about 100 campers in each session. The board hopes to offer similar programs this year.
In addition to providing food and paing staff salaries, the costs of running the youth camp includes buses for the campers at about $2,000 per week and liability insurance at more than $3,000 per year. The YMCA also left the camp with about $30,000 in debt to the U.S. Forest Service from past-due fees. The foundation plans to pay that off over the next couple of years, and would also like to upgrade the swimming pool and some buildings. It also hopes to raise enough to offer scholarships to youngsters who cannot afford the camp fees.
Foundation secretary Emily Peck, of San Francisco, said it's been a challenge to juggle her full-time job with efforts to keep the camp open, but that it has been very rewarding.
"When it was becoming clear there would be no camp unless we stepped in and helped out, it was just a no-brainer," she said.
San Francisco resident Loren Williams and fellow camp alumnus Jason Poisson started the Jack and Buena Foundation in 2009 not planning on taking over the camp's operations. Their initial goal was just to offer camper scholarships.
The foundation takes its name from Jack and Buena Hazard, the husband and wife who founded the camp in the heart of the Stanislaus National Forest in the 1920s.
Berkeley resident Stephanie Brown, a human development lecturer at Cal State East Bay, and volunteer board member who was once a camp staffer, said that being in the wilderness and tackling challenges such as rappelling and traversing on granite cliffs can help counteract too much sheltering from parents.
Brown is taking her own advice and send her 10-year-old daughter, Eve, to the camp for two weeks this summer. It will be Eve's first extended time away from her family.
"I have no qualms about it," Brown said. "I'll miss her, but I know she will be OK. It sounds crazy having a bunch of 10- and 12-year-olds being taken care of by a bunch of 18- and 20-year-olds, but it works fantastically well."
Each week at camp features a three-day backpacking trip to one of many nearby destinations, such as Sword Lake, and Eve said she's eager to strap on her backpack and head out into the backcountry with other girls her age.
"I'm probably most excited to make new friends and backpack," Eve said. "My mom got me really excited."
Many alumni describe how time at the camp changed their lives.
"Without camp I would not be where I am today, so I try to give back as much as possible," said Marshall Lawler, 26, of Oakland, a camper and counselor for 16 years.
Now an accountant, he plans to volunteer at the camp on weekends and teach the staff wilderness first aid.
Both Brett Dennen and his younger brother Nathan Dennen, 27, gained musical experience performing at nightly campfire gatherings. Nathan Dennen recently released his first album and is playing gigs in the Bay Area, and Brett Dennen just concluded a worldwide tour, including headlining Oakland's Fox Theater twice.
In February the Dennen brothers performed a benefit concert that raised more than $14,000, all of which will go toward camp expenses and scholarships. Foundation members are also using Facebook to reach more alumni and have begun reuniting at the camp for a weekend each summer.
Brett Dennen said Camp Jack Hazard allows youths to feel that they have entered a different world full of possibilities. He remembers first entering that world when he went on a blindfolded group hike, where campers use other senses to follow a creek through the forest.
"It was a really hot day, but it started to rain like crazy," Brett said. "On the way back to the dining hall, we went to Chappell Rock, and it had been so hot baking in the sun out there that there was all this steam coming off the granite.
"We laid down on the rock and the rock was warming our backs, and the rain was falling on our faces. It was a magical moment that started a love that I have for nature."