VERGENNES — This week Keith, a young man from New York City, made the trek from the Big Apple to the Lincoln home of the Atocha family, just as he has each summer for the past four years.
Two of Marion Atocha’s three sons accompanied her Monday afternoon to wait for Keith’s bus to arrive in Vergennes. They could barely contain their excitement. The annual visit to the rural Green Mountain State is a great change of scenery and pace for Keith, and Atocha said her family is happy to host the youngster, who comes to Vermont through the work of the Fresh Air Fund.
“It’s really, really good for my kids, too,” Atocha said. “They get to meet someone from a totally different background.”
Atocha said the past summers’ weeks with Keith have been spent swimming and playing outside. She expects more of the same this summer.
“We don’t change what our normal family dynamic is,” Atocha said.
On Monday afternoon, Fresh Air Fund host families, including the Atochas, welcomed 15 children from New York City to Addison County when the bus arrived at the Christian Reform Church in Vergennes. The Fresh Air Fund, which has been in operation since 1877, pairs volunteer host families from Virginia to Maine with inner city children in order to give them a taste of rural summertime.
For many of the children, age six to 18, this is their first time leaving the hustle and bustle of New York. Most of them are from lower-income backgrounds and the time they spend in the country offers them a host of new experiences, from running barefoot through a field to fishing in Lake Champlain.
This year, families in the communities of Ferrisburgh, Vergennes, Starksboro, Cornwall, Middlebury, Lincoln, Bristol and Salisbury will be hosting children through the Western Vermont Committee for one or two weeks.
Kristin Hirsch of Weybridge has been involved with the Fresh Air Fund for decades. When Hirsch had children living at home, her family hosted the same child for nine years.
Hirsch was the chairperson of the area’s Fresh Air Fund program in the 1980s and she said that Addison County welcomed up to 100 children annually to the area during that time. The number of Fresh Air Fund volunteers in this area dropped for many years, Hirsch reported, a change that she thought might be attributed to more parents working full-time nowadays. This year, she returned to assist Marion Sullivan, chairperson of the area’s Fresh Air Fund program.
“I’m so happy to be a part of it again,” Hirsch said of the program.
Hirsch emphasized that host families do not need to do anything unusually exciting to make the experience a success. Common activities include hiking, biking, swimming and playing outside.
PORTER KNIGHT OF Bristol and her son Bryson, 13, have a group hug with Fresh Air camper Elijah Hedrington Monday afternoon in Vergennes. This is the 11th summer the Knight family has hosted Hedrington through the Fresh Air Fund/ / Independent photo by Trent Campbell
The Reitz family of Ferrisburgh is hosting Amarion, a Fresh Air Fund child who is returning for his fourth year.
Julia Reitz, a rising fourth-grader at Ferrisburgh Central School, looks forward to her time with Amarion.
“I want to go to Jay Peak,” she said on Monday as she and her mother, Cathy, awaited the arrival of the bus from New York.
Occasionally, a Fresh Air kid will take integration into a host family a step further.
Mellissa O’Bryan of Starksboro began hosting a Fresh Air Fund child 16 years ago, she said. She welcomed the same boy the whole time and he eventually moved in with the O’Bryan family about two years ago to finish high school at Mount Abraham Union High School. O’Bryan acknowledged that this experience is uncommon, but said that it has been great for her family.
“He’s a great kid, we really love him. He’s part of our family,” said O’Bryan, who is hosting a different boy for the first time this year.
Hirsch said that she hoped that more families would consider hosting Fresh Air Fund children in the future.
“You don’t have to do anything special,” she said. “Most of these kids have never been out of the city before and the program gives great exposure to both the country and the city kids.”
ANTHONY ADORNO IS all smiles as he walks into the open arms of Hannah Sessions after stepping off the Fresh Air Fund bus from New York City Monday afternoon. Adorno will be spending a week with Sessions and her family.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell