Randy Childs sifts through the ashes of his yurt on the grounds of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, one of three Jewish camps there destroyed by the Woolsey blaze.
Randy Childs sifts through the ashes of his yurt on the grounds of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, one of three Jewish camps there destroyed by the Woolsey blaze.

Former Tamarack outdoors pioneer lost all in California wildfire.

Jennifer Lovy Contributing Writer
Photos by Matthew Childs

If you went to Tamarack in the mid-1970s or ’80s and participated in pioneer skills, the ropes courses or a nature center program, you met Randy Childs.

Randy Childs sitting on a tree log in the air while people stand around and watch
Randy Childs was instrumental in establishing Tamarack’s outdoor education program. Matthew Childs

You may not remember his name or even recognize his face — campers at the California camp where he subsequently ran the outdoor adventure program called him Gandalf because of his resemblance to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings character.

Childs, sans the long white beard, was a beloved fixture at Tamarack Camps for more than a decade. He assisted in building the first building at Pioneer Village and many other structures there with Barney Brown and others, including his brother Brad, another outdoor enthusiast and former Tamarack staff member. Childs also helped build the camp’s ropes courses and the climbing tower.

Childs, who lived and worked year-round on the camp’s property, left Ortonville in 1986 when he and his family moved to California. There, Childs worked again with Brad, who ran an outdoor education company. He also started his own business, building and maintaining ropes courses and consulting in outdoor education.

In 2004, one of the camps where he built and helped maintain the ropes course, JCA Shalom in Malibu, enticed him to work half-time as director of outdoor programming.

Childs accepted the job, which included housing and benefits. He lived comfortably on the property in a large yurt, a tent-like structure. However, his home, which had electricity as well as the comforts of a modern home, was destroyed last month by the Woolsey fire that devastated part of Southern California.

Childs, who was out of town at the time of the blaze, returned to find his possessions, including many rare collections, all gone. The camp also suffered a devastating loss with almost all if its structures destroyed.

Childs dressed in period costume, which goes with his antique tools collection that was wiped out by the fire.
Childs dressed in period costume, which goes with his antique tools collection that was wiped out by the fire. Matthew Childs

Over the years, Childs had accumulated a unique collection of items reflecting his love of nature and outdoor skills, including antique pioneer tools, knives, tomahawks and relics from his grandparents’ farm in Michigan’s lower peninsula in the “thumb” region.

A lifetime of teaching-related materials, along with an extensive collection of rare coins and first-edition books were among the ashes as were a number of his vehicles, including a 1973 Airstream trailer and a recently purchased tool truck that he hoped to convert into a roving antique shop.

“I know my dad would say it’s just stuff, but I also know what it all meant to him and what he lost. He had a lifetime of teaching materials and so many collections that were unique to his interests,” said Jessica Childs Swan, who now lives in Asheville, N.C.

As Childs began to cope with the loss, his family and friends established a GoFundMe campaign to help financially. In the first week, they raised more than $8,400 from 93 donors, many of whom knew Childs when he worked at Tamarack.

“I’m not sure how to thank everybody for their generosity, kindness and compassion. It has been humbling to see the names of people going all the way back to Tamarack, which is so meaningful to me,” Childs said.

Mitch Rosenwasser worked with Childs in the 1980s and, although he hasn’t spoken to him in probably 25 years, was among the first to donate to the campaign.

“The Tamarack connection never goes away,” said Rosenwasser, a current Tamarack board member. “The camp has impacted so many people in such a positive way and has always been a supportive community. The opportunity to give back to someone who was a part of that community is a no-brainer.”

Childs, currently living with his son Matthew Childs in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said that before the fire he was planning his Camp Shalom retirement and exploring options for his future.

“Things obviously ended much differently than I thought they would,” Childs said.

Donations to Childs can be made at www.gofundme.com/phoenix-rising-through-the-ashes.

Matthew Childs