Not long after the 2009 death of Robert Manwill, people in his hometown of New Plymouth looked for a way to remember the 8-year-old while creating something hopeful out of a horrific event.
Robert was a victim of child abuse. His body was found in a Boise canal, and police later determined that his mother’s boyfriend, now in prison along with Robert’s mom, had killed him.
Under the leadership of art teacher Katy Belanger, the community began holding an annual sale and auction of donated art, jewelry, sculpture and other items to raise money for the Robert Manwill Scholarship Fund. The money will go to students in what would have been Robert’s graduating class at New Plymouth High School in 2019. At that point, said Belanger, the auctions will end and it will be up to the scholarship recipients to “continue Robert’s legacy.”
Since the first sale eight years ago, the fund has grown to just more than $35,000.
“The goal of this project is to turn the tragedy of a murdered child into the opportunity for our community to take a stand against child abuse and recognize April as Child Abuse Awareness Month,” said Belanger.
The eighth annual Robert Manwill — Artists for Kids Event will take place on Friday, April 28, at the Payette County Fairgrounds in New Plymouth in the 4-H building. Live bidding will start at 6:30 p.m.
Parents of the New Plymouth sophomore class — Robert would be in that class — are making soup and chili for the auction. It will be available for a few dollars — and a few more dollars than that if you want the soup and a ceramic bowl handmade by Belanger’s art students at Middleton High.
The annual auction and related community events have grown and taken on their own spirit, said Belanger.
“I really just planted this seed. There are so many people now who are helping and who are a part of it. It’s a community thing,” she said. “People come together and work really hard. Some are people I don’t even know.”
Memories of Robert still linger throughout the community. In a case in the hallway, New Plymouth Elementary still displays his second-grade class photo and a green Power Ranger figurine that belonged to him, said Carrie Aguas, school principal.
“Anytime there’s a milestone — the 8th grade graduation, for example — there’s always a bouquet of green balloons for Robert,” said Aguas. It was his favorite color.
The annual fundraiser is “a great tradition to remember him, and it helps us talk to our kids about how they can protect themselves and ask for help if they need it,” said Aguas.
The annual remembrance of Robert is now a two-day event that, in addition to the auction, includes Robert’s Run, a 5k or 1-mile course. The run will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 29, at the track adjacent to New Plymouth Elementary School.
Proceeds from the run benefit current graduates of New Plymouth High in Robert’s name. Entry fees from the 2016 run provided two $500 scholarships.
“I want this run to be something special and continue to be special until 2019,” said Erica Oxnam, its co-organizer.
Her daughter was in kindergarten in New Plymouth at the time of Robert’s death. She still remembers the days when Robert was reported missing, before his body was found in the canal.
“There was just this uncertainty, not knowing what had happened to him and hoping that he would be found,” said Oxnam. “I didn’t know him or his family, but when it was happening, it made you hold your own kids closer.”
With two weeks to go before the event, 80 runners and walkers have signed up to participate. Oxnam is hoping to break the 100-runner mark.
Registration is $15. Register online through Four Rivers Healthy Communities, the organization that manages the scholarship fund, at 4rhc.org. Bikers Against Child Abuse will also be present at the run and the auction.
The Artists For Kids Event at the fairgrounds will have raffles for baskets donated by local businesses and community members. The money raised from the raffles, as well as from a sculpture donated by artist Tonya Kopp, will go to Rose Advocates to help domestic violence victims and their children. Rose Advocates has a room in its shelter named for Robert, Belanger said, and his picture hangs on the wall.
Belanger has collected around 70 pieces of work donated by artists for the auction. Among them is a necklace designed by nationally known jewelry artist Valerie Ostenak. Idaho artist Pattie Young reached out to Ostenak and shared Robert’s story, and Ostenak donated the original piece.
How to help
See some of the pieces that will be auctioned, including the special jewelry made by Valerie Ostenak and paintings by Belanger, at 4rhc.org.