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They lost their son, but his special legacy lives on

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Dustin Kazman after receiving his 10 year award at Camp Robin Hood.

Dustin Michael Kazman’s merit lives beyond his short life.

In January, he died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 36, but “he’ll live on for perpetuity. The thousands of kids that will benefit from his merit is overwhelming,” his father, Steven Kazman, said.

When he died, his parents wanted to pay tribute to his legacy. In his name, they donated an art room at Reena – a non-profit Jewish organization for people with developmental disabilities, which Dustin Kazman was involved in – a new room at Chabad-Lubavitch of Markham and a music and arts studio at Camp Robin Hood.

“It’s so fitting for him to be at camp forever. He’s remembered at camp every day, with every kid, every staff member, anyone that comes on the campgrounds – whether they knew him as a camper, a counsellor or by the building,” Dustin Stroll, Kazman’s co-counsellor for three summers, said.

At Robin Hood, when a staff member has been working at the camp for 10 years, he or she receives an award in front of the senior staff. For Kazman’s 10-year anniversary, 900 campers, staff, family, and friends attended a surprise award ceremony.

“We all learned so much more from Dustin than Dustin took away from us, it was unconditional what he gave,” Sari Grossinger, the owner and director of Camp Robin Hood, said.

Kazman started attending the summer camp when he was four. He was a camper for 12 years and a staff member for 12 years. When he started, he had minimal communication skills and was one of the first Robin Hood campers with special needs. He was born with myotonic dystrophy, a genetic disorder that affects muscle function. Now, 10 to 15 per cent of the camp’s staff and campers have additional needs.

Robin Hood subsidizes children with additional needs that can’t afford to go to camp, but once its quota is reached, the camp can’t afford to surpass it. When Steven Kazman and his wife, Carol, heard about this, they insisted on anonymously supporting any children who surpassed the quota.

“We’re selfish because the feeling that we will get knowing that we are responsible for sending these kids to camp is brilliant,” Steven Kazman said.

“One of the things Robin Hood has always excelled at … is the integration of people who have different needs into the camp environment and doing that at such a young age. Instead of being standoffish or unfamiliar with people with other needs, it drew me closer because I got so much out of the relationship I had with Dustin,” Paul Diker, Dustin Kazman’s counsellor for three summers, said.

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For Diker, the impact Dustin Kazman had on him influences how he raises his children today. “Having a friend or camper like Dustin, I truly believe makes me a better father and flows down to my children’s’ experiences in life, as well,” Diker said.

Dustin Kazman also had an impact on Stroll’s life. He now works at Reena and lived for a time in one of its community houses. In June, Reena’s art mentorship program honoured Kazman and exhibited six pieces of his artwork.

“We knew that he touched a lot of lives, but … we had no idea the extent,” Steven Kazman said.