New Plymouth remembers Robert Manwill

Five years after the young boy's death, fundraisers in his name continue, aimed at helping his classmates go to college

awebb@idahostatesman.comApril 28, 2014 

  • DONATE TO THE ROBERT MANWILL SCHOLARSHIP FUND

    Rose Advocates, Inc., a domestic violence prevention organization and shelter that serves clients in Adams, Payette, Washington and Valley counties in rural Idaho, is overseeing the Robert Manwill Scholarship Fund and is accepting donations.

    Make checks out to Rose Advocates/Robert Manwill Scholarship Fund. Mail them to 4625 Highway 72, New Plymouth, ID 83655.

    About the crime

    Robert Manwill lived with his father, Charles, in New Plymouth, but was spending the summer of 2009 in Boise with his mother, Melissa Jenkins, and her then-boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick.

    The two reported Robert missing. He was found dead in the New York canal after more than 2,000 people had come out to search for him. Police arrested Jenkins and Ehrlick for the crime shortly after. Police and Ada County prosecutors said Ehrlick beat Robert over a two-month period before killing him.

    A jury found Ehrlick guilty of first-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence. Jenkins is serving a 25-year sentence for her role in the crime.

The 2009 death of 8-year-old Robert Manwill in Boise at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend profoundly rattled New Plymouth native Katy Belanger. Her daughter was just two grades behind Robert at New Plymouth Elementary.

"I couldn't believe something like this could happen. I was so mad," she said.

A lot of people were mad. But Belanger turned her anger into something tangible - a scholarship that will one day help some of Robert's peers go to college.

Belanger was a graduate art student at the University of Idaho at the time of Robert's death. The murder infiltrated her work. She painted bold images of flowers and collaged them with news clippings about Robert.

When Belanger sold the paintings, the proceeds became seed money for a scholarship in Robert's name.

Her gesture grew into the annual Artists for Kids/Robert Manwill Scholarship art auction. The fifth annual auction took place Friday at the New Plymouth VFW Hall, a building in the heart of town that's hard to miss because of its red, white and blue exterior. Over the past five years, the auction tally has risen to more than $21,000. About $4,500 of that came from Friday's sale.

Belanger now teaches art at Homedale High. If Robert had lived, he would be finishing the seventh grade this spring.

Belanger and her friends - including Robert's third-grade teacher, Christy Morales - intend to hold the art auction every year until 2019, the year Robert would have graduated from high school.

At that time, the money, however much of it there is by then, will go to members of Robert's class at New Plymouth High.

"It's going to be extremely emotional when we give the money away," Morales said. She still displays Robert's picture in her classroom. Her voice cracks when she talks about her former student, even now.

It's unclear at this point whether the money will go to one or several students in 2019, said Morales. Those competing for the scholarship will write essays on child abuse.

Because of Robert, that topic has become familiar to New Plymouth residents of all ages.

Visible signs of him are everywhere in the town whose streets are laid out like a horseshoe, where weathered water wheels still turn lazily in a local canal.

On Friday, blue ribbons in recognition of child abuse awareness month festooned New Plymouth businesses. A little girl at the auction wore a puffy blue ribbon in her hair. The billboard at Todd's Burger Den drive-in read, "Remember Robert."

Robert's memorial bench stands at New Plymouth Elementary. The school's trophy cabinet holds his picture. A plastic green Power Ranger - his favorite color, his favorite action figure - sits beside his picture in the cabinet.

"Every time his class has any kind of ceremony, we include an empty chair with green and blue balloons. Everyone knows that's Robert's chair," Morales said.

When the class of 2019 receives diplomas, the empty chair will be there.

"We're not trying to make anyone sad," Morales said. "We just want people to know that he mattered to us."

RIPPLE EFFECTS

Belanger's works alone funded the initial scholarship. The next year, she enlisted artists to donate 15 pieces. More people got involved.

This year, more than 50 pieces of donated art, jewelry, knit caps, baskets of chocolates, gardening tools and more filled the VFW.

On Friday, teachers and their friends sped around the hall's kitchen, making chicken fajita bites, dip and fondue for the auction-goers.

The cooks included Jenny Vantrease, a second-grade teacher at New Plymouth Elementary who knew Robert and now teaches his younger sister, Hailee.

"We made sibling charts for a math lesson in class. Hailee asked me if she could include her brother. I told her of course she could," said Vantrease.

Belanger admits she's not a person who likes to put herself out in public. She's quiet - except when it comes to speaking out about Manwill and promoting the auction.

"I don't know how to explain why I do this project," Belanger said. "I prayed on it. I couldn't believe it when God told me this is what I was supposed to do. I said, 'Really, God?' "

Some years ago, she asked her mother, a neighbor of Robert's father, Charles, to ask him if he wanted to be involved with the fundraiser.

"He said it was too painful," Belanger said.

Since then, she's kept her distance out of respect. But Robert's sister, Hailee, signed up to hand out medals at Saturday's Manwill Mile and the 5K Robert's Run.

The auction inspired the two footraces. Proceeds from those events will go to a second Manwill scholarship for members of this year's graduating class.

A BEAUTIFUL THING FROM SCRAP

Metal artist Pattie Young moved to New Plymouth from Boise 11 years ago. She has donated her work to the auction since it began. This year, she took an even more active role. She worked with New Plymouth Middle School art teacher Megan Kemper and Robert's seventh-grade class to make a garden gate from salvaged metal.

The gate was among the items auctioned Friday.

North American Recycling in Nampa gave Young and Kemper free rein to collect hubcaps, bike wheels, gears, parts of old plows, rebar, fan blades and cooking stove remnants for the gate.

The students and their teachers decided how to arrange the parts into flower petals on a large utility wheel base 8 feet in diameter.

Following the seventh-graders' design, students at New Plymouth High welded the parts together.

"A majority of the students remember the crime and know about Robert Manwill," Young said.

But before the welding students started working, New Plymouth High Principal Kevin Barker came to their class to remind them why they were making the gate, and that they should do their best work.

"I know that when a lot of us make something to donate to the auction, we're thinking about Robert. The principal wanted the students to have that same sense," Young said.

The seventh-graders took a field trip to the high school to watch the older students fabricate the gate.

For Belanger, involving young artists in the auction was significant.

"I truly feel like this event is coming full circle and that Robert is actively involved," she said.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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