Giving city kids a summer to remember

My newest feature article from the Carlisle Mosquito. The link is here, with full text below.

Giving city kids a summer to remember

by Karina Coombs

Running barefoot through the grass. Gazing at stars. Falling asleep to the sound of crickets. When summer arrives, many children in Carlisle will experience these simple pleasures. But for some kids, these experiences are unimaginable. For them there is no grass, stars exist only in photographs and they have never been within miles of a cricket. For 138 years the Fresh Air Fund has been working to change this, placing inner-city children with families that can make the unimaginable, tangible. This year, the organization’s local Chairperson, Suzan Baldoumas, is hoping Carlisle families will join them.

The Fresh Air Fund

Reverend Willard Parsons started the not-for-profit Fresh Air Fund (FAF) in 1877. Parsons sought to provide fresh country air to impoverished children living in New York City’s overcrowded tenements, many suffering from Tuberculosis. Members of his congregation became host families and brought children into their homes for summer vacations.

Since then, the FAF has provided summer respite to 1.8 million low-income children across the city’s five boroughs. In addition to the 5,000 children who attend its summer camp programs in upstate New York, and educational camps and programs offered year-round, the FAF sends 4,000 children to suburban and rural communities known as “Friendly Towns” across 13 states and Canada as part of its volunteer host family program.

Children are placed with host families for one to two weeks, with FAF providing transportation, payment for medical expenses for children without insurance, liability insurance to host families and 24-hour help from FAF representatives or a local chairperson. First time participants are between the ages of six and 12. If invited, children can return to their host family each summer until the age of 18 with longer stays possible. According to the FAF website, 65% of children are repeatedly asked to return.

Changing a life

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“If you spark one child you’re going to change his life,” said John T. at a recent FAF event in Acton. John, a former FAF participant, spoke to a group of nearly 30 adults, some preparing to be first time hosts and others who have participated in the program for years.

John described growing up in Harlem and the experience of going to a host family at the age of six. “I didn’t know what to expect when my mom put me on a bus to New England,” he said, adding that after the five-hour bus ride to New Hampshire he arrived only to have the host family he was assigned to not show up. Another family took him and invited him back each year.

In New Hampshire John had many firsts. He discovered that he could sleep through any number of city sounds, but crickets kept him awake. He also learned to swim, to tell the difference between a moose and a horse and saw his first star. Each year John would return to the host family, staying for longer periods. Because of his home environment he would eventually attend and graduate from high school in New Hampshire.

“It opened my eyes,” he said of the experience and explained that it showed him a world he never could have imagined from his life in Harlem. He saw opportunity and options. At 38 he considers his host family his second family and credits his host father as being the most positive male role model he ever had. “This program has helped me grow as a man.”

Carlisle is a Friendly Town

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Baldoumas first learned of the FAF seven years ago through a friend who was hosting. When her youngest child turned seven, she and her family decided to host. They were hoping to get a “buddy” for their son and requested a boy between six and eight. In 2013 Baldoumas and her family brought six-year-old Ethan Z. from Queens into their home. This summer they will welcome him back for a third year.

Carlisle is one of approximately 300 Friendly Towns. The designation simply reflects the presence of host families within the community and local volunteer leaders. In addition to hosting, Baldoumas is also the local FAF Chairperson, covering Carlisle, Concord and Chelmsford. While Concord and Chelmsford currently have 18 hosts, Baldoumas’s family is the only one in Carlisle.

“I think a lot of people make the decision to host a [FAF] child because they feel like they are providing an opportunity for an inner-city child to be able to see what opportunities there are in life,” she says. “But [really] what you end up finding out is that this was just an amazing thing to do for your own family.” Baldoumas, her husband and her three children spent 10 days with Ethan on both visits, taking him blueberry picking for the first time and watching him be spellbound by a seal during a beach visit.

“It was so great to see how much he got out of it,” she says. “It was also such a great learning experience for us just in terms of seeing everything with a fresh eye. There are so many things that we take for granted all around us.” As Ethan prepared to leave that first summer, Baldoumas described it as “heartbreaking.” She assumed he would forget all about them until the following year, but soon learned a connection was also made at Ethan’s end: his mom called to report he cried for three weeks. Baldoumas’s family and Ethan talk throughout the year.

A summer of firsts

Carlisle’s Director of Recreation Holly Mansfield is also a host, having opened her Chelmsford home to seven-year-old Nylee G. for 10 days last year. Like Baldoumas, she had heard positive things from friends who had hosted. Nylee, who lives in the Bronx with her mother, will be returning this summer. “We cannot wait for her to get off that bus,” says Mansfield.

Mansfield’s two children had always wanted a younger sibling so when they decided to host, the family chose the youngest child they could. Like John decades earlier, Nylee was put on a chartered bus by her mother for the drive to meet Mansfield. “I can’t imagine [as a mom] putting your [child] on a bus and sending them to a family that you don’t know and you’ve never met,” says Mansfield, who made sure that Nylee spoke to her mother regularly during her stay.

Nylee spent time with Mansfield’s various pets and had an opportunity to spend time in a swimming pool. She also visited Mansfield’s parents at their Cape Cod home for a few days where she experienced her first trip to the ocean and had a turn driving a boat under the guidance of Mansfield’s father. “She is an unbelievable little girl who I know does not come from much,” says Mansfield. “She was the most warming, welcome child. Very friendly, very communicative… We all fell in love with her.”

With permission from her mother, Mansfield took Nylee back-to-school shopping before she returned home. She also put together a photo album so Nylee could show her mother everything she did while away. Once Nylee was back home the communication continued between the two families. Nylee was also part of the Mansfield family Christmas card, and the recipient of Christmas and birthday gifts.

Deep connections made

Carlisle School fifth grade teacher Margaret “Mimi” Gleason has also experienced the deep connection made between a host family and child. Gleason is preparing for her third summer hosting Bryce B. “You bring them right into your family,” she explains. “They do everything with us and you really get to know them in a wonderful way.”

Gleason’s desire to participate in the FAF host family program comes from a meaningful childhood experience. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago during the race riots, Gleason’s mother was part of an organization that brought city children into the suburbs to escape the violence. “We had a girl come stay with us,” she says. “It made a big impact on me and I really wanted that experience for my child.”

Gleason began hosting when her son was 7, opening her house in Acton to then 6 ½ year old Bryce. That first summer she gave him swimming and tennis lessons for the week. After five days of lessons Bryce was jumping in the deep end of the pool and swimming. “He was so excited,” she says. “He was determined. He knew this was a good opportunity.” Last summer Bryce received surfing lessons from Gleason’s stepsons, and was able to proudly stand up on his own.

While Bryce enjoys these activities, like many FAF children, he also needs time to just play in the yard. “He [kept] saying, ‘Are we ever going to do anything I’ve done before?’ says Gleason. “The simple things are the things they love the most. They don’t really get a chance to get out and really play [in the city]. The green they know is shared space.”

The two families talk throughout the year and Gleason’s family sends Christmas presents. They also toured New York City with Bryce’s family, a meaningful experience for both families. “There’s lots of programs that address needs of a lot of kids, but if you can focus on one at a time and go in depth? It’s a deep relationship and a deep commitment and we feel like we’re committed to Bryce for life,” says Gleason. “I’m hopefully going to be advising him about college.”

Becoming a host family

With more children needing placement than there are host families to accommodate them, the FAF is looking for new host families. The program is open to adults with or without children and the approval process takes approximately three weeks. Baldoumas speaks with each interested family by phone before sending out applications and background checks. A home visit will then take place, ensuring the entire family is on board and the home environment is safe.

Once families have decided on a week that works best and have been matched with a child, the two families can be in contact as much as needed before the visit. Summer weeks begin after July 4 and run until late August. Baldoumas is available for any questions or problems during the visit.

There is still time to enroll in the program for this summer and she hopes that as more people in town learn about it, they will reach out and offer to host. “We want to build this community [in Carlisle] because here we are with all these farms and ponds and cranberry bogs… Imagine what a difference we could make.”

To learn more about becoming a host family or donating to the Fresh Air Fund visit: http://www.freshair.org.

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