NYC kids get a breath of ‘Fresh Air’

Children from inner-city New York will get a healthy dose of fresh air in coming weeks as roughly 30 families in Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan participate in the Fresh Air Fund program.

The Fresh Air Fund is a nonprofit agency connecting children from low-income communities in New York City with volunteer host families in small-town communities across 13 states to provide more than 4,000 kids with free one- to two-week vacations each summer.

According to Nicole Heath, a long-standing Fresh Air Fund volunteer for the towns of Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan, the organization was established in 1877 and continues its success today.

On a child’s first “Fresh Air vacation,” he or she must be between the ages of 6 and twelve. After the first trip, a child may take part in the program up to the age of 18, which often allows for long-term relationships to be established between the children and their host families, Ms. Heath said. In fact, most families invite the same child back to their home each year.

 

Along with the volunteer families, the children’s parents should also be given credit, Ms. Heath said. Some children are as young as 6 years old when taking their first Fresh Air vacation. Parents “must love their kids so much to let them do that at such a young age.” Their trust in the organization is “amazing,” she said.

At the heart of the program is the children’s chance to escape.

“Without a doubt, the inner city children come away [from the program] with a vacation,” Ms. Heath said, adding the kids get to participate in activities that are hardest to do in the city, especially swimming.

Aside from the “obvious fun” of it all, both the children and their host families are essentially exposed to a different culture, Ms. Heath said. Children from both sides of the spectrum are given “a different frame of reference” to learn from.

Throughout the tenure of the organization, the racial makeup of the children who participate has changed as diversity in the city has shifted, Ms. Heath said. The first participants were generally Italian-American children. Twenty years ago, the children were primarily African-American and Latino, and today there are many eastern Europeans and southeast Asians who participate in the program. The one thing participating children have had in common over the years, Ms. Heath said, is that “they are wonderful little kids who need a vacation.”

For Hilary Glassman, a Greenwich resident who will not be working over the summer for the first time in her adult life, participation in the program this month was an opportunity to do something “useful” with her newfound free time.

With no kids of their own, Ms. Glassman and her husband look forward to the time they’ll share with the 12-year-old boy they’ll be looking after over his two-week vacation. Ms. Glassman, a Queens, N.Y., native, said she should have plenty in common with her guest, who is also from Queens. She has a number of activities planned for him, including day camp, a trip to Fire Island, a visit to local horse stables, and a chance to play with her nephew, who is also 12, she said.

The Ornsteins, a Greenwich family participating in the Fresh Air program for the third time this summer, will be welcoming back 8-year-old Alexandria, who stayed with them last summer for the first time.

According to Ali Ornstein, the family is no stranger to the Fresh Air Fund. Ms. Ornstein’s husband, a Greenwich native, grew up in a family that participated in the program several times, she said.

As for Alexandria’s agenda, the family will send her, along with their 7-year-old daughter, Lilly, to camp at Riverside Yacht Club for a few days. Aside from camp, Alexandria will have plenty of free time to unwind, according to Ms. Ornstein.

“Two years ago when we did it I sort of went crazy doing all sorts of different activities, and what I learned last summer was it was OK to sort of just let her relax with the family, go to the beach … she’s just happy to be out of the city,” she explained.

Ms. Ornstein and her husband plan to continue their participation in the Fresh Air Fund program for several reasons, including the exposure their children get to a different lifestyle.

“I think it’s good for our kids, too, to see how lucky they are and just to be exposed to somebody who’s from a completely different environment,” Ms. Ornstein said. “Alexandria and Lilly wrote letters back and forth all winter. It’s been really valuable [for the girls] to form a relationship.”

Ms. Ornstein’s experiences with the Fresh Air Fund have opened her own eyes as well. “It’s really interesting talking to a kid who’s never been to the movies, who never gets to go to the beach, who’s never been in a swimming pool — all these simple little things that we totally take for granted,” Ms. Ornstein said. “I think it’s a good reminder for all of us that we’re incredibly fortunate.”

For more information on the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org.

 

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