A Breath of Fresh Air

by Annie Chapman

Last Thursday evening, in the McDonald’s parking lot, off 395, Norwich, a bus pulled up with about 15 kids from New York City.  Cars and minivans lined up, filled with eager families.   Families with “welcome” signs, balloons and flowers, waiting for their Fresh Air Fund child to arrive.  Some of the kids on the bus knew the routine, but for others this was their first time away from home; their first time out of New York City.   I’m the mom of one of those host families, a Fresh Air Fund mom.  Just typing that makes me smile.

For over 130 years now, the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit organization, gives children from some of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City free summer vacations with the help of volunteer host families.  What an amazing concept!  Every summer more than 1.7  million children ride on buses or trains to 13 states and some parts of Canada to experience life outside the city and live the life of a rural or suburban family.

I can still remember Skyana’s bright smile last year as she stepped off that bus for the first time.  She was nine- years-old and traveled hours to get to her summer vacation with a family she didn’t know.  I wondered how in the world could she be so brave?  This little girl looked around with so much excitement, searching the faces in the crowd.  She moved me to tears.  I couldn’t get to her fast enough.  She was my breath of fresh air.

Children come for a week or two, or the entire summer.  Families can request a girl or a boy, or both,  generally around the age of their own children.  Families aren’t expected to spend a lot of money or do anything out of the ordinary.  These kids just need to get out of the concrete and play.  For us, it’s two weeks of fun we wouldn’t have without Skyana.  We visit all our local attractions and get see them in a new way, through the eyes of our Fresh Air child.

Some of the things we did are visiting Mystic Seaport’s Sabino, Mystic Aquarium, and Ocean Beach, going to the North Stonington Fair, the movies, fancy dinners, and family picnics, watching the fireworks, and picking blueberries at Maple Lane Farms.

This is our second summer with Skyana.  Today, we went to our beach club.  Skyana, my kids, and their cousins were in the water for over an hour.  When she was asked to play pickle down the beach with a bunch of kids I heard her say in the sweetest voice, “This is my first time in the ocean since last summer, I just want to stay here.”  I loved that. And it’s free!

We plan on making a list of all the things we want to do over the next two weeks, but quite honestly if we went to the beach everyday, all these kids would be happy. Life with one more child is easy enough when you already have three.

I first learned of this organization from my sweet cousin Laurie back in the summer of 2002.   We crossed paths shortly before her Fresh Air Fund child was arriving.  I couldn’t believe such a program existed. Once I knew, there was no stopping me.  I’m hoping this will happen to you when you read this article.  We were blessed with a child that summer six years ago, and have hosted a child every summer since. It’s not too late for you and your family to host a child this summer.

My first Fresh Air Fund child was Miss Katrina.  She was ten years old, six years older than my daughter Maggie, my only child then.  Somehow, Katrina ended up without a host family, and there we were.  We were so excited to get that call.  It was a hard first week for Katrina, she was homesick and very shy.  And I was a mommy of a four-year-old little girl, not a ten-year-old girl, so  I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  But Katrina did. One morning she came downstairs while I was making breakfast, walked right up to me, laid her head on my chest,  wrapped her arms around me and said, “Good morning.”  That was it. We were family. She came every summer until she and her Mom moved out of the city.

And now, my Katrina, a beautiful 16-year-old teenager, travels to us on her own whenever she wants. She’s coming this summer.

So here’s the deal, I’m a single Mom of three amazing kids, Maggie 10, Rosie 6 and Forest 4. I live in this beautiful shoreline town surrounded by my big fat American family and really good friends. And, I host a Fresh Air Fund child every summer for the past six years (really two kids, because Katrina still likes to come).

If I can do it, so can you!  Trust me, not only the child, and not only you, but everyone around you will benefit from the gift of Fresh Air.  Visit the Fresh Air Fund website to learn more www.freshair.org or call 800.367.0003. It’s not too late to host a child this summer. Breathe it in…  Fresh Air.