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For city kids, Vermont visits offer a breath of 'fresh air'

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NAOMI, LEFT, A Fresh Air Fund child, and her hosts, Emily and Kate Gosliga, take a break from their swim to pose for a quick snapshot last summer. Though Naomi was a timid swimmer during her first days on the farm, said host mother Julia Gosliga, by the end of her stay all three girls “were just fish.”

By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON — Jeff and Julia Gosliga are expecting not one but two children this summer — the first, their fourth child, due in just two and a half weeks, and the second, a seven-year-old resident of the Bronx, N.Y., returning for her second summer vacation on Gosliga Farm in Addison.

Despite the busy summer ahead, the Gosligas are welcoming their out-of-state visitor with open arms. When she arrives in August, Naomi, who spent two weeks with the family last year, will join 50 other children visiting Addison County this summer through the New York City-based Fresh Air Fund. The Fund, an independent nonprofit organization designed to create opportunities for children living in disadvantaged communities to enjoy free summer vacations, has served more than 1.7 million children from low-income households since its inception in 1877.

For Naomi, the Gosligas’ farm — home to not only the Gosliga clan but also the 450 cows they milk daily — could not be more different than the hustle and bustle of her home in the city. The open spaces — and yes, fresh air — are a welcome change of pace for many of the children the organization serves.

“If you think about where these kids come from, you say, ‘Man, these kids deserve a break to just be kids and have fun,’” Jeff Gosliga said.

A trip to the farm, he continued, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of these children.

“They love it,” he said. “They have so much fun.”

Naomi is the second visitor to have stayed with the Gosligas through the program; they first hosted a Fresh Air child in the summer of 2004. The couple is continuing a tradition started by Jeff’s parents, who hosted children over 30 years ago. Julia and Jeff were inspired in part by this family history —  but also by the encouraging stories of other Fresh Air hosts, including members of their church like Vergennes resident Marion Sullivan, local chairperson for the Friendly Towns Program (which sponsors the family visits).

Sullivan, who has served as a chairperson for the program for four years, has hosted Fresh Air kids for 18 years.

“Things that we take for granted are real special moments for children from the city,” she said. “Just seeing the joy and the excitement in the eyes of the children when we do some pretty normal things,” she continued, makes the experience worthwhile.

Still, inviting a child into your home is, according to Julia Gosliga, not without a measure of anxiety.

“There’s a certain amount of wondering,” she said. “Is this going to be the longest two weeks of my life or is this going to fly by?” In the cases of both children her family has hosted, she added, the vacations passed smoothly — and quickly.

Six-year-old Emily Gosliga is eager for Naomi to return — especially, she said, because she has missed her playmate in the pool.

Julia laughed. At the beginning of last summer’s visit, she said, Naomi was timidly easing herself into the family’s aboveground pool.

“By the end of three weeks, though, they were just fish,” she said. “She adapted very quickly.”

Emily’s advice for children sharing their homes with Fresh Air kids?

“Say nice things,” she said. “Share a bike if you have one.”

It is activities like these — swimming and riding bikes, said the Gosligas, or “running around in your backyard and playing under the sprinkler,” said Sullivan — that ultimately make these visits so special. According to Sullivan, though, the time spent with a Fresh Air family is often more meaningful to a child than a simple summer vacation.

“It’s not a fly-by-night, here today, gone tomorrow type of relationship for most of these kids,” she said. “People don’t realize the impact they could have in someone’s life in just a week or two.”

This is especially true for families who host children summer after summer. With 65 percent of children returning to their families for a second summer, these lasting relationships are not uncommon. The Sullivans, who have hosted half a dozen children in their many years with the program, attended the high school graduation of one of the children they met through the Fresh Air Fund. They are still in touch with another who is studying for her doctoral degree. These relationships, Sullivan stressed, last long after children grow too old, at 18, to participate in Fund trips.

Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are able to participate in the program for the first time. During their first visit to a family they can stay for up to two weeks, and are eligible to stay as long as the full summer during subsequent visits. Once they start the program, Fresh Air kids can visit their host families through the Fund’s Friendly Towns program until they turn 18.

There is still time, Sullivan said, for families interested in hosting a child to get involved this summer. Individuals can contact her at 877-3028 or any of the regional volunteer coordinators through the Fund’s Web site, www.freshair.org. All volunteer coordinators are on call around the clock to support families during their Fresh Air child’s visit.

“I just want to encourage people to open their hearts and open their home,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t take much.”

The Gosligas and Sullivan all agreed that the chance to host a Fresh Air child is beneficial for everyone involved.

“I see it as an opportunity not only for a child from the city but also for our own children to see a different way of life, to really be blessed by the presence of another child in our home,” said Sullivan.

At the Gosliga Farm, as their daughters — Emily and four-year-old Kate — scampered off to play on their swing set, Jeff and Julia offered similar sentiments. The exposure that Fresh Air children offer to a new worldview, they said, is invaluable.

“To hear them talk about how they live in New York City…” said Jeff. His wife glanced up from her seat on the picnic table in their yard.

“… it’s an education for your kids as well,” she chimed in.

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