The massive bus pulled into the parking lot and came to a stop. The small crowd of onlookers cheered. One by one, names were called and the children stepped off the bus and into the bright July sunlight. It was the tall ones who got me, some of them almost men, faces breaking into bright, child like smiles as they spotted their host families. Heart strings pulled, I overheard someone saying one of the boys had been coming for over ten years. One spends the whole summer with his host family. Another vacations with his.
There were little ones too. Tiny girls clutching luggage and stuffed animals, braver than I ever could have been at the same age. Children who were traveling for the first time, sight unseen, to a house full of people they had never met, were smiling too.
The smiles kept coming. Host families beamed as the name of their visiting child was called. Families ran to the bus to greet each child. There were hugs and more smiles. One by one, each Fresh Air child got into his host family’s car and began his adventure. In my car, were myself, my husband, my three children and a seven year old boy from New York City.
As he began chatting with my own seven year old, I thought about how lucky I was to have been in that parking lot that day to witness all those smiles and learn what the Fresh Air Fund means to these children and to the families who host them.
Last winter, an acquaintance shared on social media that a friend was looking for someone to host a child through the Fresh Air Fund. This friend hosted a girl the previous year and was looking for someone to host the girl’s brother this year. Curious, I commenced researching and discovered a program that has been in existence for over one hundred and thirty years! The Fresh Air Fund gives city children an opportunity to experience summer outside the city. I commented to the acquaintance that it sounded like a great program and that maybe I would look into it in the future. She immediately connected me to her host friend and by the next day, I was hearing first hand all about what it would be like to host a child myself.
The child was a seven year old boy. We considered what it would be like to add a second seven year old to our house for ten days, bringing our grand total to four wild and crazy kids. There were lots of questions. What would we do if the child got homesick? What if he didn’t get along with our children? How would he relate to our son with special needs? What if he behaved badly? What if our kids did? What if he got bored?
Knowing the answers to those questions could only come from the experience itself. We forged into the unknown and agreed to host the child. Nervous and excited, we scheduled a home visit. A representative from the Fresh Air Fund met with us in our home. She talked to our kids and to us. She looked in every room of the house, the basement and the garage to confirm the house would be a safe place for the visiting child.
She shared a lot of information with us about what to expect and answered all our questions. The visit eased some of our concerns and demonstrated that there were avenues for support during the child’s stay if needed.
Our experience was unique from this point because we were now connected with the family who hosted the child’s sister the previous year. We had a lot of background information about the child and family. Generally, you can share your preference for the age and sex of the child when applying to be a host. We already knew we were hosting a seven year old boy. I was able to talk to his mom many times on the phone in the months leading up to his visit. I also shared pictures over email so they could put faces to names. My kids had several opportunities to talk to our Fresh Air child on the phone too. We also talked to another Fresh Air Fund representative specifically about our child who has special needs and how we thought he would relate to our Fresh Air child. After answering some questions about our son, they were confident that we would be a good host family for the child.
Once he arrived, things went pretty smoothly. All three of our children got along well with him. He and my seven year old were fast friends and had only occasional disagreements (typical of seven year old friends) during his stay. He was polite and up for anything. He occasionally got a little homesick, but it was very short lived and he was easily brought back to having fun.
While he was with us, we did the same things we usually do in the summer. We played in creeks, went on mini adventures, went to local outdoor events, ate on our deck and spent lots of time in our yard. He ate what we ate (better than my own children). He slept in my boys’ room with them. There was not a lot of extra work involved and having a fourth child often changed the dynamics of my three for the better. Overall, it was easier than I imagined it would be.
You do not have to have a huge house to host a child. (We don’t.) You do not need to be rich. (We aren’t.) You do not need to plan anything really extravagant. (We didn’t.) It costs nothing to host. The only extra cost was paying for one additional child if we chose to eat out or visit places with admission, which was minimal. To host a child, you only need to be willing to share a little bit of summer. Playing in the yard, catching lightening bugs, having picnics or hitting the pool are all simple activities a child may not be able to do in the city. You can give them summer memories they will never forget. They can do the same for you.
Hosting a child through the Fresh Air Fund gives your family the opportunity to look at your home, yard and town in a different way. It motivates you to look for every opportunity to explore nature, to learn, to savor summer. It is a chance to connect with the child and his family and to learn how their lives differ from yours and also in what ways they are the same. It encourages your own children to share, to be grateful, to cooperate. It will sharpen your focus, not only on the visiting child, but on your own children. It might make you aware that a seven year old from New York City is far more independent than your own seven year old. It could make you loosen the reins a little on your own child and admire the self sufficiency of the Fresh Air child a lot. It will remind you how well you know your own child, that you know exactly how to comfort him, distract him, get him to focus. It will remind you those things don’t come as easily when you are caring for another child, but that you are capable of doing it anyway.
It will remind you of all the good in the world. There are good people in the city, good people in your town, good people in your house, good kids everywhere. You will recognize what it took for the parent of your Fresh Air Child to let him go. You will know all the worry she had to put aside to give her child the opportunity to experience summer in a new way. You will feel the connection of motherhood. You will keep her baby safe and happy while he is with you.
You will discover that the Fresh Air Fund is an opportunity to connect with a child and family you may have otherwise never met. It is also an opportunity to connect with your own family. Both will give you summer memories you will never forget.
This bus gets you in the gut whether it’s coming or going. Saying goodbye after ten days with our Fresh Air kid was not easy. Departure day was full of tears, hugs and included far fewer smiles than arrival day. We watched our little guy board the bus. As we waved our final goodbye through the window, I was thankful.
Thankful to have met this smart, funny, adventurous boy. Thankful to have shared our passion for nature with him. Thankful my children had a new friend whose life was very different and yet so similar to theirs. Thankful to have gotten to know his family. Thankful to be sending him back to his mama safe and sound and full of memories. Thankful to have read a social media post at the right time. Thankful to have made the decision to be part of the awesomeness that is the Fresh Air Fund.
To learn more about the program or to apply to be a host, visit http://www.freshair.org/host-a-child.
- Kennett Symphony Orchestra Children’s Concert and Instrument Zoo
- Slow Down for World Down Syndrome Day on March 21st