Lucinda Frazier has fond memories of camping with her father and fishing at a lake in her home state of Mississippi.
“The quietness of it,” she said. “To just sit out and be a part of it with your dad, that was amazing.”
Frazier, who moved to north St. Louis in 1993, has noticed there are two parts of her childhood that are missing from local children’s lives: time in nature and time spent with fathers.
“We don’t have enough fathers that are involved because they are either incarcerated, they just don’t care — that’s just being real — or they are dead. Those are the issues,” said Frazier, a Democratic committeewoman for the Third Ward, a predominantly African American, poverty-stricken part of north St. Louis. “When you hear a child say, ‘My father is incarcerated,’ to know that word ‘incarcerated,’ that’s a problem.”
Seeing that lack of male involvement, Frazier and a group of women with the nonprofit Communities First in 2018 decided to create a father-son camping event in Hyde Park, located in north St. Louis.
The goals of the program were to promote father-son bonding and spur an interest in camping and the outdoors among black boys in the area.
“There’s not a lot for fathers and sons to do in the community, and a lot of the boys have never gone camping,” said Frazier, who is organizing the third annual Father & Son Camping in the Park event on May 31.
That lack of involvement among fathers in their children’s lives is not unique to north St. Louis. Sixty-five percent of black children in the US live in single-parent households, while only 35 percent of all children live with only one parent, according to US Census data.
Amidst that vacuum, neighborhood blight, and issues like a government drug policy that has led to high levels of incarceration among black men, “we have a lot of built up aggressiveness on the north side,” said Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley, who helps organize the camping event, which is free to participants. “A lot of these kids in the city end up killing each other when they get older.”
But camping and fishing shows boys “a different way to be manly and not aggressive,” said Bosley, a father of three sons.
For the event, boys ages 6 to 14 and adults gather in the evening at Hyde Park and listen to music provide by a dee-jay, play games like football and Jenga, watch a movie, enjoy a barbeque with hot dogs and chips, and make s’mores over a fire. The first year, a Boy Scout troop came to help the boys set up tents; the next year, the fathers and boys set them up themselves.
On the second day, volunteers provide breakfast and then the boys grab fishing rods and head to the pond. Girls and women are invited for that day, which also features activities with ponies and a helicopter.
“I’ve had boys jump up and down, ‘I caught a fish! I caught a fish!’ It’s the first time they ever put their hands on a live fish, and it was just so amazing to see them. They are just over the moon,” said Frazier.
Brienne Holmes signed her 10-year-old son Isiah up for the program because his “father is not as involved in his life as I would like him to be,” but “this gave him an opportunity to bond with more men in a safe space. That’s what I liked about it — it was black men, black boys, it was a safe space, and they could just be natural and have fun.”
Isiah, a fifth-grade student at Dunbar Elementary School, said his favorite parts were learning how to navigate a boat on the water and how to gut and cook his catch. He also enjoyed sleeping outside.
“You breathe in natural air, like if you were in the house full of people, like I am, you all breathe out of the same air, but when you are outside in nature, the temperature could be either hot or cold, depends on when you go, and it’s like your own room, it’s like your own house,” Isiah said.
Despite Frazier and Bosley’s efforts to promote the program, they were still left with an uneven split between boys and adults. Last year, there were 80 children and 10 fathers or father figures.
Bosley acted as a chaperone for 7-year-old Xavier Usanaga. Just a couple months later, Usasnga was shot and killed outside his home only a few blocks away from where they pitched the tents. He was one of at least a dozen black children killed in St. Louis last spring and summer.
“It was heart-wrenching for all of us because him and his sisters were the neighborhood kids — we all took care of them,” said Frazier.
Last year, members of the Black Panther Party in St. Louis patrolled the park during the trip to ensure the campers remained safe, Bosley said. He would eventually like to move the program to a park setting outside of the city, but that would require significantly more money. The current program is free to participants but costs about $10,000 to stage, Frazier said. The Lumiere Place casino provides financial support.
For now, Bosley said there are also benefits to children camping in their own neighborhood.
“As bad as they say things are on TV and as bad as things look, we take a bunch of kids to sleep in a park that would be considered dangerous, and we don’t consider it dangerous, we understand that things happen, but this is still our neighborhood, and that is also important for kids in the neighborhood, to not have the fear of being outside,” said Bosley, 32.
He and Frazier both hope to attract more fathers and leave the boys with the same sort of nice memories that they carry from camping as kids.
“Once you start really, really teaching kids to deal with each other and build that connection, we will see things like [shootings] stop because they actually care, and they were in a setting with people who cared about them,” Bosley said. “So, they know that they have people they don’t want to disappoint. ‘I don’t want to disappoint Mr. Bosley. I don’t want to disappoint Ms. Frazier, because we’re going to be going camping next year.’”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.