OSWEGO – Exceptionally excited children recently brought from the crowded streets of New York City have come to Central New York for some fresh air.
Through the Fresh Air Fund, these children will live with host families in the Oswego County area including Fulton, Oswego and Phoenix.
“The Fresh Air Fund has been around since 1877. It was originally created by a minister trying to get children out of the city because of diseases. The kids were living in overcrowded apartments and the illnesses would spread amongst them. So, he decided to bring them fresh air,” said Fresh Air Fund volunteer, Kathy Froio.
From its beginning in 1877, the Fresh Air Fund has provided over 1.8 million children from low-income families in the New York City area with the opportunity to experience the freedom and beauty of the countryside either with a host family or in one of the Fresh Air Fund summer camp programs in Upstate New York.
The children, anywhere from age 6 to 18, come to their host families for up to two weeks in order to leave the bustling city streets behind and run freely in the grass.
Each summer the Fresh Air Fund sends almost 4,000 NYC children from low-income families to small town communities throughout 13 states.
While it may be the first opportunity to leave home for some, many of the Fresh Air children are returning to host families that have invited them for another stay.
Such is the case for Cindy and Mike Bouffard of Oswego, who were excited to welcome back two of their Fresh Air children from the previous summer.
“We have animals, so we spend a lot of time outside. The kids love seeing the goats and sheep. They ride bikes, we have a big swing set they play on. They love to be able to run,” said Cindy.
The kids get to experience new things and live a life entirely different to the one they are accustom to in the noisy suburbs of the city.
“Last year, the kids went swimming in the pond. They thought that was great because they’d only ever swam in the city pool. We took them out on kayaks. The youngest one started off deathly afraid of the water, but by the end of the day he was having a great time,” Cindy added.
“It’s a really great program,” added her husband, Mike. “The community does a great job of supporting us. In Auburn there’s a sports facility where we can bring the kids for the day and they get pizza, a lot of restaurants provided coupons. We took the kids to Rudy’s last year with a coupon they provided. They always hold a day at Captain’s Quarters in Oswego for the kids to swim and at Bayshore Grove with games. Everything free of charge just to bring the kids and let them have fun.”
This is the Bouffards’ second year hosting Fresh Air children, but they are certainly not new to the process as they have hosted foreign exchange students and are adopting three children from Africa.
Their 9-year-old son, Anthony, enjoys the company from his Fresh Air friends.
“I just like playing with them. Walking the trials in Sterling was one of my favorite parts,” said Anthony.
Froio, Fresh Air Fund volunteer and host, will also be taking in a Fresh Air child.
Froio started working with the Fresh Air Fund ten years ago.
“I lived alone. My husband had passed, so my friend got me started with the program. At first, I was just finding children families in the area, then I hosted and I’ve been doing it ever since. I just love spending time with them, they’re like grandchildren. We have so much fun when they’re here!” Froio explained.
Froio takes the kids to enjoy amusement parks, the Adirondacks, out on the boat, dinner and even craft events like sewing clothing for underprivileged families.
She recollects the time one of her Fresh Air Children really noticed the stars.
“They had been coming for years. We’d always seen the stars. They’d even seen shooting stars a few times. One night, she looked up at me and said, ‘There’s so many stars here. Why do you have so many?’ She was so amazed and just realized she had never seen so many stars in the sky” recalled Froio.
Froio really enjoys and appreciates the annual use of Captain’s Quarters and Bayshore Grove for swimming and game day each summer with the kids.
“Cathy Broadwell owns both places and she graciously lets us use them for the kids to enjoy,” said Froio.
Broadwell used to host Fresh Air children as well, but now with businesses and life the time to host has escaped her and she uses this as a way to stay connected to the program.
“The kids enjoyed the pool so much, they all asked if we could go eat lunch and go back to swimming,” said Froio.
Then the kids arrived at Bayshore Grove, and they quickly found themselves having just as much fun.
Everyone was provided with a box lunch, wrap sandwiches, homemade brownies, fruit, chips and a drink.
Then they were able to run free in all the grass available at Bayshore. They played games like volleyball, Frisbee, bocce ball, and jump rope.
They did arts and crafts and – they just enjoyed the big, beautiful lake, skipping rocks and seeing who could throw the furthest.
Jessica and Christopher Courtney brought their Fresh Air Fund child back for the second summer in a row this year and are continuing to enjoy her company and show her new things.
Thirteen-year-old Kizahra Watson from Brooklyn is taking advantage of all the new experiences she is getting and all the fun she is having.
“I’ve seen farm animals and crops growing, I don’t see that at home. There’s a lot of grass and land, I like that. My favorite part is just experiencing new things, and cherry tomatoes,” said Watson.
Her host mother, Jessica Courtney, explained that they were in her father’s garden and Watson was picking the cherry tomatoes right off the vine to eat and thought they were absolutely delicious.
Growing up as a Fresh Air Fund host family, Courtney loved having the children from NYC come stay at her house. However, as she grew older she did not have the time to host on her own until a new job with flexible hours gave her the opportunity.
And, the opportunity doesn’t go to waste.
In the time that Watson is able to spend with Courtney and her family, they have visited Wonderworks at Destiny USA, Cracker Box Palace, an Alpaca farm in North Rose, and the drive-in for movies under the stars.
“She’s like our other daughter now,” said Courtney. “It gives her an experience, but it gives us one, too. There’s no fighting amongst the children when she’s here, they just enjoy their time together. They matched us perfectly, and I’ve loved being able to show her everything she can do here and give her these new experiences. She can sit outside all night with no worries, it’s wonderful.”
Makahi Reed, a 12-year-old boy from Harlem recalls how different CNY is from his home.
“It’s very different. It’s quiet, and not crowded but still fun and exciting. I get to experience new things here,” Reed said.
One of those things is fishing.
Reed loves fishing; but is only able to do it during his Fresh Air trips to New York to stay with his host mother, Ellen VanZandt.
Eleven-year-old Nicolas Ronan from New York City says his time in Upstate New York gives him a more active summer.
“There’s not as much technology when I’m here. We get to go outside and be active, doing something fun. I love the outdoor stuff,” said Ronan.
Both Ronan and Reed said they would be able to attend other camps at home in the city, but they prefer this program and look forward to it every year.
Fresh Air Fund is continuing to provide freedom, excitement, friendships and of course, fresh air to NYC children trying to escape the bustle of city life. For more information on the program or to get involved, visit www.freshair.org