BENNINGTON -- Greeted in Vermont by 90 degree temperatures, swimming was the first thing on the mind for many arriving Fresh Air Fund children and their host families Friday.
"Yeah I know how to swim," said 10-year-old Savika from Brooklyn, adding, "But it's been a couple of months since I swam."
Kathy Gaffney of Pownal, Savika's host for the week, with Frank E. Giorandino, said she would put a lifejacket on her guest (just in case) when the group goes swimming at the lake in Woodford later this week. They were also planning to go paddle- and row-boating.
"I've never been on a boat before," piped Savika, on her fourth trip through the Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit that has provided free summer vacations for New York City youth from low-income communities since 1877.
On Friday, seven children were dropped off in Bennington, and eight more in Manchester and Dorset, for a week-long trip to the Green Mountains. First-time visitors are between the ages of six and 12, and they are invited to return up to the age of 18. The program includes about 4,000 children each year, who visit volunteer host families in rural and suburban small-town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine, and Canada.
Savika said she had previously explored parks and this year was looking forward to the 4th of July. But she couldn't put a finger on anything in particular that drew her to the program.
"I don't know, I just like the experience."
"My mom's friend, her son always used to go to the program. And then my sister started going. Then she finally said that I was old enough and that I could go."
Gaffney and Giorandino said they had always been interested in participating, "and finally this year Frank and I said, ‘Let's go for it, we have the room,'" said Gaffney.
"And my children are all married off, so it's sort of like empty nest syndrome," said Giorandino.
Sheila Spurr of North Bennington, a host and co-chairperson for the Bennington area, said the only requirement to become involved is a willingness and an extra bed. "We're asking families to open up their homes and hearts for a week -- or, in August, it's actually 10 days."
"People wonder what are we going to do with the kids. But you don't have to plan every minute," Spurr continued. "Tomorrow our little boy will visit; he just wants to go out and play in the backyard, and just touch trees."
Host families can pick a gender and approximate age, and children are then matched based on their interests. The limiting factor is the number of hosts, Spurr said, with more interested children awaiting matches.
"The majority of the kids end up getting re-invited for a couple of years with the same family. It's a good experience on both sides. Our kids get the experience to hear about another way of life, and they get to experience ours."
Shaftsbury resident Jessica Smith said this would be her family's first time participating, as they waited for seven-year-old Imani in the parking lot at Grace Christian School. Smith said her interest was piqued through word-of-mouth among other Farmhouse Nursery School parents, including Elizabeth and Edward Woods, publisher of the Banner.
"When we were growing up we had a lot of foreign exchange students, so we're not strangers to having extra kids in the house," said Elizabeth Woods. With a four-year-old son adopted from Ethiopia, "we wanted to open up our home to a little more diversity and let our kids see the world is not all green and trees and clean lakes," she said.
"They are just polite and excited and -- a little nervous, first time away from home." Woods said they were looking forward to establishing a relationship, and she said she was sure the week would fly by quickly.
"I think the best thing for them is to take it easy and just sort of, ‘A day in the life' kind of thing, you know?" she said. "Do what our kids do."
A second Fresh Air trip to the area is scheduled for this August. To learn more information or to become involved, call 802-442-8687 or visit www.freshairfund.org
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