As the Fresh Air fund Bus arrives at the Old Greenwich Train station, the sidewalk is filled with animated Greenwich families, anxious to meet the child who they will host for a week or more.
As the inner-city children, all 7 or older, inch down the bus steps with both apprehension and excitement, they scan the sea of smiles and balloon animals for a colorful sign bearing their name.
One homemade sign is decorated with rhinestones and glitter. One arriving boy named Brandon is bombarded with silly string while he reaches for his luggage, laughing and then grabbing his own can to join the fun.
Anticipation permeates the air as these local families bend down to hug their young guests, and then drive away to swim at Tod’s Point, catch fireflies on a grassy lawn or ride a bike down a tree-lined suburban street.
During the next couple of weeks, some host families may even venture to Legoland, Playland, or the Adirondacks for more fresh air and fun.
This excitement is typical for the Fresh Air fund, a program which unites welcoming host families along the East Coast with New York City children from disadvantaged neighborhoods for a summer of outdoor activities previously unknown to these urban children. Nicole Heath, the Chairperson for Greenwich and Stamford, emphasized the need for these children to escape the growing danger of gun violence in their communities.
“We’re getting the children away from the not-that-safe streets of New York,” she said. “A child we have had for several years, he didn’t see it, but a person was shot on the corner half a block from his home.”
This program removes them from the threat of violence and allows them to enjoy the simple joys of a childhood summer.
This non-profit program also permits local families to learn a valuable lesson. Greenwich mother Ellen Sweeney noted that the experience of hosting a child makes her family aware of how fortunate they are. “It allows us to spread that joy and love to other people beyond our small surroundings,” she said.
The Fresh Air fund continues to show local families the importance of simple childhood activities, like learning how to swim and riding a bike, that Greenwich residents often take for granted.
The Fresh Air Fund is an enlightening experience for the host families as well as the children it benefits. It offers inner-city kids the opportunity to try new activities and meet new people, but it also teaches the host families important lessons.
The Fresh Air fund gives host families a fresh perspective on their privileged lifestyle. Returning participants such as host parent Meredith Lovejoy shared her experiences from past summers, and the lessons that her family has learned.
“A valuable lesson was when we saw Brandon at Christmas time. We discovered that he didn’t get any presents, and that Santa didn’t go to his house,” Lovejoy said. “We gave him a present, but we also had a conversation at home about how lucky we are. ”
Lovejoy shared another eye-opening experience which gave her family better perspective.
“I gave the kids, all three of them, corn on the cob one day, and Brandon had never seen one,” she said. “He didn’t know where it came from or how to eat it. He just thought corn always came out of a can.”
Participating in the Fresh Air fund also allowed local host families and children to meet diverse children from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Heath explained this important aspect of the program: “I want to give the host families an opportunity that is very
rewarding and fulfilling, but also a chance to know someone from a very different culture. You don’t even have to go to a different country.” Host families are able to expose their children to life outside the bubble of Greenwich while also making a difference in an urban child’s life and giving them a new perspective.
The Fresh Air fund encourages local families, with and without children at various ages, to volunteer for this heartwarming experience.
Heath said the program is always looking for people with an open heart who like the idea of giving a child, who would probably not get out of New York City all summer, a vacation.
“It takes very little effort to change a kid’s life,” she said.
The Fresh Air Fund not only gives urban kids a summer of simple childhood pleasures, but gives host families the chance to see the world through fresh eyes and appreciate the all that Greenwich has to offer.