With a high five and an exclamation of Šī ir vislabākā balle jebkad! (this is the best party ever!), two graduates of the Garezers Latvian Summer High School expressed their appreciation of the Saturday evening festivities which helped mark the school’s 50th academic summer.
The heart and soul of the Latvian Center Garezers is its six-week long summer school program (“Garezera vasaras vidusskola” or GVV). While the center itself will celebrate its 50th anniversary with four days of events next summer from July 2 through July 5, the high school celebrated its 50th summer this year from July 25 through July 27.
GVV opened its doors in 1965 within the newly purchased Latvian Center Garezers in the southwestern corner of Michigan. There was a certain amount of skepticism in the Latvian community whether teenagers would agree to spend their summers studying subjects such as Latvian language and history in rather primitive conditions in the woods. Such concern turned out to be unfounded, as the school proved to be popular and much loved by those who attended it.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the number of students at GVV grew to around 200, while today the number has steadily held around 100 for quite a few years. Approximately 1,500 individuals have graduated from the school, and the number who attended for one or several summers but did not graduate is at least twice that. Many teenagers who are students at GVV today have at least one parent who themselves attended the school.
The idea of a Latvian summer high school proved to be so popular that it inspired counterparts: Kursa in the state of Washington, now-defunct Beverīna in Pennsylvania, and later “Eiropas vasaras skola” in Western Europe and even later “Saulgriežu vasaras vidusskola” in Latvia.
This summer the celebratory weekend kicked off with a traditional Friday night bonfire, in which the children’s camp and middle school program students also participated. As is customary at these campfires, a number of humorous skits – prepared by both youth and staff – were performed. The skit which people were still discussing the following day featured current GVV principal Sandra Kronīte-Sīpola, and two former principals, Elisa Freimane and Ēriks Kore, both of whom are also GVV graduates. The action took place in a retirement community to which all three had retired after many exhausting years of working at GVV. Their nostalgic conversations made it clear that they were unable to leave their work at Garezers in the past.
Among the events on Saturday was the unveiling of the new patio of the school’s largest building, Kronvalda zāle. The patio had suffered unexpected environmental damage earlier this year, and was rebuilt thanks to donations made in memory of Ilmārs Dumpis, a long-time Garezers volunteer and neighbor.
Saturday also featured the opening of an art exhibit featuring a wide variety of artwork by GVV graduates and current and former teachers. Twenty-one professional and amateur artists were represented, and their works ranged from oil painting to sculpture, from pottery to photography.
The weekend’s highlight was the anniversary dinner, concert and party. Dziesmu leja, the outdoor amphitheatre, has been the location of many Midsummer’s Eve celebrations, Garezers song festivals, GVV graduation concerts, and basketball games, but it had never looked as formal as for this celebratory golden anniversary dinner. A sea of tables covered by white tablecloths seated 450 people, which included the current high school students and staff and many guests. Among the guests were many GVV graduates and former students, teachers and counselors who had traveled from around the United States and even Europe to be in attendance.
One of the reoccurring themes that GVV graduates speak about is life-long friendships, and this theme was particularly evident during dinner and throughout the weekend. A graduate from the class of 1987, Larisa Ozols explained that she met several of her closest friends at GVV, and that they are still friends today, over twenty-five years later. Larisa also pointed out: “GVV exposed me to Latvian art, literature, songs, furthering an appreciation for the vibrancy and uniqueness of Latvian culture.” Kaija Petrovskis graduated in 1977, and agreed that GVV had provided her with lasting relationships and a deep sense of pride in being Latvian. As is the case for a number of Latvian-American couples, Kaija first met the man who would later become her husband at Garezers. Their son will graduate from GVV this summer.
Māra Pelēcis, class of 1988, is a filmmaker, and has interviewed many individuals at Garezers this summer in preparation for a documentary which will be screened at the center’s 50th anniversary next year. She noted that in her interviews with GVV graduates and employees, the two themes that reoccurred most often were the rich cultural environment (“latviskā vide”) and the relationships. Māra is also grateful for the people she met while attending GVV – including her husband.
Three women seated at one table had attended GVV together in the 1960s. Another table was the location of a reunion between four graduates from the class of 1974. Yet another table was full of twenty-somethings who had graduated in 2002 and 2003. The class of 1979 was celebrating its 35th reunion, and to help support GVV, two graduates from that class, Katrīna Pipaste and Žubīte Streipa, had organized a unique and entertaining raffle which featured many Latvian and Garezers-themed items donated by various GVV grads.
After a delicious dinner prepared by chefs and GVV graduates Andris Antons and Dāvids Indriksons, students from GVV and the Garezers middle school program performed a moving and diverse concert featuring choral music, several instrumental pieces, as well as folk music. While it is clear that many of the students have a good deal of natural talent, kudos must be given to their teachers and accompanying musicians for helping prepare such a wide-ranging concert in four short weeks.
After the concert, tables and chairs were quickly cleared to make room for dancing. Earlier in the summer GVV graduates Mārtiņš Daiga and Mikus Kīns had asked other graduates to nominate songs they remembered from the GVV Saturday evening dances that have taken place weekly for many summers. From that list they created a lengthy survey, in which graduates voted for their fifty favorite songs. The resulting list – ranging from pieces by the Latvian groups Akacis and Prāta Vētra to those by the Rolling Stones, the B52s, Led Zeppelin, and R.E.M. – made for an extremely well-liked soundtrack which represented several decades of music. As at any Latvian party, there was much chatting and catching up to do, but often – particularly as the night wore on – the dance floor was full of enthusiastic dancers. At times there were close to 200 happy Latvians energetically dancing to the soundtrack of their youth. After the fifty songs were played, many people wanted to continue celebrating, and the DJ provided additional dance music by playing nominated songs which had not made the top fifty. Dancing continued into the wee hours of the morning.
Sunday’s church service was held in the beautiful outdoor church, and was led by Dean Lauma Zuševics and Bishop Gunārs Lazdiņš, both of whom have taught at GVV many years, and have officiated at numerous Sunday morning and Thursday evening candlelight services, and even christenings, confirmations and weddings at Garezers. Their familiarity with GVV and its students was evident in their fitting homily and words of prayer. The service was enriched by readings from three students, and by two musical performances by GVV ensembles.
When asked about the significance of GVV in his life, Roberts Inveiss who graduated from the school in 1978, said, “I don’t think you can really appreciate the impact that GVV had on you until much later in your life. Being Latvian is a critical part of my personal identity, and in hindsight I now know that GVV had a huge impact on deepening my love of that identity and that of my Latvian friends with whom I shared the GVV experience.” His eldest daughter graduated from GVV in 2012, and his youngest daughter will graduate this summer. In terms of what the school has meant to them, he explained, “GVV is the only constant in the lives of Latvian youth today; the one place they can count on to be there and to which they aspire to attend and view as the natural progression in their developing appreciation of their heritage. We absolutely need that if we hope to maintain the Latvian language and culture here in the US. I cannot imagine what our communities would look like if we did not have GVV to be the glue that binds our youth to their Latvian heritage. It’s indispensable.”
Another graduate, Laila Mednis of the class of 1975, whose daughter and son have also graduated from GVV, noted that the school has done a good job in recent years in introducing students to modern-day Latvian culture, thus creating a bridge between the United States and Latvia itself. She said that beyond creating friendships, the GVV experience had opened her children’s eyes to the possibility that they themselves could study or work in Latvia.
Quite a few GVV graduates now call Latvia home. Diāna Briedis, class of 1996, explained the school’s significance in her life: “I have now been living in Latvia for the last eight years, and GVV certainly helped to solidify my Latvian identity as the first place where I could “be Latvian” 24 hours a day.” As to what the program’s future is, Diāna says, “I see GVV’s purpose as continuing to help young Latvians connect with their heritage, discover and better understand this part of their identity and sow the seeds for participation as active citizens of Latvia whether that be here or from abroad.”
The weekend was a joyful and appropriate celebration of the Garezers high school and its significance in the Latvian community. It will be interesting to see what the coming years bring to this program which has been instrumental to the lives of so many North American Latvian youth.