The stories of kids who have traded the stifling conditions of the city for a few weeks in the untapped wilderness—or something close to it—as part of the Fresh Air Fund program fill the archives of the New York Times. Actor John Leguizamo, in a June 2004 Times article, credits his Fresh Air Fund family with helping to nurture his love of the outdoors, despite his initial struggle to adapt to a slowed-down template of living.
The Fund was founded in 1877 by the Reverend Willard Parsons as a way, in part, to help curb a tuberculosis epidemic effecting children living in crowded tenements by exposing them to “fresh air” in the country. Members of Parsons’ congregation in Sherman, Pennsylvania began initially hosting children and, today, over 1.7 million haven benefited from the program.
For Village of Mamaroneck Judge Christie Derrico—a mother of four—the decision to become involved with the Fresh Air Fund began two years ago when her daughter, Chloe, asked for a playmate her own age to share activities with at their Lake George vacation home.
Before long, the Derrico family was hosting Ateira, an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl who Judge Derrico describes as “very sweet.”
Describing the way Ateira interacts with her children, she said, “They play music, do karaoke, go swimming…Ateira likes being outdoors.”
She added, jokingly, “She’s better behaved than my own kids.”
This year, several photos depicting Ateira and Derrico’s daughters enjoying their time together won the Fresh Air Fund’s 2012 Photo Contest in two categories: Summer Sisters and Splashin’ Around.
When she found out the photos were chosen as winners, Judge Derrico’s initial reaction was shock mixed with pride.
“Ateira has a magnetism that comes out in photos,” she said.
Although approximately 4,000 host families in 13 states and Canada currently participate in the Fresh Air Fund program, only a small percentage of those—about 8—are from the Sound Shore area.
“Westchester has never been a strong area for us—we’d like to grow it,” said Jenny Morgenthau, executive director of the Fund, who said that the greater number of families hail from neighboring Manhattan and NJ.
Many participants become convinced through hearing the testimonials of friends, said Morgenthau, though, “personal characteristics determine more [willingness to participate] than anything else.”
Children involved in the Fresh Air Fund program are New York City residents between the ages of 6-18; kids on first-time visits are between the ages of 6-12. The average length of a trip is two weeks and, according to the Fund’s website, more than 65 percent of kids are invited back after their initial experience with a family.
The Fund has established relationships with 90 social service agencies in the city, said Morgenthau, that serve as referrals for children to the Fund.
Parents, who are used to scheduling activities for their children, even in the summer, may be surprised to learn that it’s often the simplest pursuits that will excite a child, particularly those for who the country is a novel environment.
“They don’t have to do fancy things—just getting to play in the backyard and riding a bike is fine,” said Morgenthau.
For Judge Derrico the rewards of hosting Alteira have already paid off, but she hopes that others in the community will consider the possibility of providing kids a life-changing experience.
“You can do this,” she said.
For more information on hosting a Fresh Air Fund child, please visit the Fund's website here.