BENNINGTON -- Thirty-seven children -- participants in the Fresh Air Fund -- arrived in Bennington on Wednesday afternoon from New York City. They will be spending the next week or two with a host family in Vermont.
The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit agency that has provided free summer experiences to more than 1.8 million New York City children from low-income families since the program was founded in 1877. Each summer, the fund sends 4,000 children to homes in rural areas across 13 states and parts of Canada. Of the children who were dropped off in Bennington on Wednesday, about half were participating in the program for the first time.
Some of the host families were participating for the first time as well. One host, Kim Phillips, said that she had heard about the program from a friend. "I've been thinking about it for a number of years," she said, "it seemed like such a great opportunity."
Six area communities
The host families for this group of children come from six area communities: Bennington, Manchester, Dorset, Wilmington, and Williamstown, Mass. The children arrived in Bennington at the Grace Christian School via coach bus, and were greeted warmly by their hosts, despite the torrential downpours that began just as the bus pulled in.
One of the host parents, Betsy Woods, wife of Ed Woods, publisher of the Bennington Banner, said that her family has been involved in the program for three years. This is the third year the Woods family has welcomed Shantel, now age 8, into their Bennington home.
First-year children are between the ages of 6 and 12, but families can re-invite children each summer until they are 18 years old, according to the fund's website. This year, said Betsy Woods, they invited a second child, Jordan, age 6, to spend two weeks in Bennington with them as well.
This trip is Jordan's first time away from home, but Shantel was excited to be back. Her favorite part of being in Vermont, she said, was swimming, but she also enjoyed bike-riding and participating in the Everyday Enrichment Day Camp in Shaftsbury. She first learned about the program from her sister, who, now 18, is out of the program but still keeps in touch and visits her old host family. Asked what the strangest thing about Vermont was, she responded, "The houses, they're so big."
The program provides transportation to and from Vermont, but the host families are expected to provide everything else for the child during their stay (save any medical expenses not covered by insurance). Host families go through a rigorous screening process, as do the kids themselves. "There are very few bad kids in the program," said Woods. Many host families seem to agree, as, according to data from the program, over 65 percent of children are invited back by their host families the next year.
For Shantel, the Woods family has become something like a "summer family." They send birthday presents and Christmas cards, said Woods, and Shantel often calls to say hello, especially after her first summer. As with Phillips, Woods said she had first been recommended to the program by a friend. Now, she hopes others will open their homes, saying, "There need to be more families that do this. It's such a great opportunity."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB