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Camp Newman, devastated by Tubbs fire, reopening this summer for day campers

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Aiden MacKenzie munched on chicken from Sweet T’s Restaurant and Bar in Windsor and eyed a dirt path that led to the top of a small hill topped with a white Star of David.

Aiden, 10, and his mother, Jill MacKenzie, on Thursday were mingling with a few dozen community members gathered at the barren site of Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, the Jewish camp that serves more than 1,200 youth every year from around the world.

Camp Newman was devastated during the October 2017 Tubbs fire, losing 80 of 90 buildings on its 485-acre property off Porter Creek Road. Until Thursday, no one except architects and a few executive staff had been back to the burned site.

After months of task force meetings spearheaded by Camp Newman board members regarding rebuilding plans, staff announced that in a few months the camp will resume for daytime camping activities. Overnight campers this summer still will be stationed at Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo, where Camp Newman has been temporarily operating.

Firefighters, law enforcement officers and families cheered in support as executive director Ruben Arquilevich shared the news.

“Today is a huge milestone and it is the first time we are back on this campus as a community since the fires,” Arquilevich said. “But now we are standing where the future community center will be and it will be the first thing we rebuild.”

Aiden had climbed the local mountain to the Star of David many times as a rite of passage before the Tubbs fire. When he heard Camp Newman had closed and the camp temporarily relocated, his first question was, “When can I go back?” he said.

“My favorite part is I get to see all my friends and do so many activities,” said Aiden, a fifth grade student at Strawberry Elementary School in Santa Rosa. “I am excited for summer now.”

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, was in attendance Thursday and said going to summer Jewish camps were a crucial part of his youth.

“Going to camp followed me through my childhood,” he said. “I am looking forward to Camp Newman being able to continue building community.”

Since the fire, the property has been cleaned out and is being prepped for reconstruction. The first part of the major rebuilding project will be the community center, which will be surrounded by redwoods and camper sleeping quarters, board member Jim Heeger said.

“The hope and silver lining in all of this is that we are getting to build a new vision for this space with a renewed imaginative spirit,” said Heeger, a board member for 15 years.

A $5 million allocation from last year’s state budget plus an additional $1 million through fundraising is supporting the camp’s rebuilding work.

Levine, who pushed for the state grant last year, is now requesting more state money for the massive project. In the meantime, Alaina Yoakum said she is preparing to take returning and first-time campers this summer to Camp Newman for daytrips of hiking, fishing and crafting.

“We will be busing kids in for the day from Cal Maritime, since this is still a second home for most children and we want them to still experience that,” said Yoakum, marketing director for Camp Newman.

Yoakum has spent over a decade volunteering for the camp and her two daughters are former campers. As a family, the Yoakums built their lives around spending summers in the woods, she said.

“When I came here 11 years ago, I instantly felt like I was with family and it still feels the same to this day, even after the fires,” Yoakum said. “We create community here and kids of all ages become best friends within minutes of arriving.

“It is special and we are excited about being back,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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