Program forms lasting bonds between A-K Valley families, N.Y. children
Almost 50 New York City children arrived in Butler on Friday to spend time in the Alle-Kiski Valley and other Western Pennsylvania suburbs with volunteer host families through the Fresh Air Fund.
The organization is a national nonprofit dedicated to providing urban children with safe, outdoor summer experiences.
The children, ages 6 to 18, were greeted by their host families around 3 p.m. when they stepped off the bus at Nixon United Methodist Church along Airport Road.
For some, it was a welcome reunion. For others, it was an introduction.
Lorri and Cliff Harding were among the dozens of couples greeting their Fresh Air child for the first time.
For the next two weeks, they'll open their Washington Township home to 9-year-old Leilani Schindler of Brooklyn.
“I think there was a little bit of anxiety on both ends,” Lorri said. “But we are so excited to give Leilani a new experience where she can run around and play outside in a safe environment.
“She's never had the opportunity to run barefoot in the grass or even lay out and stare at the stars.”
First-time host families play host to just one child between the ages of 6 and 12 for a maximum of two weeks.
The Hardings are considering whether to participate in the program annually, but are unsure how the experience will impact their 11-year-old daughter.
“I think it's going to be a really positive experience for both of them,” Cliff said. “They can learn a lot from each other and benefit from one another's company. Maybe next year we could have multiple kids.”
Also participating in the program for the first time are the Claxons of Allegheny Township. The family is hosting Trevon Underwood, 6, of the Bronx, who has overcome his homesickness by exploring the family's 14-acre property.
He's learning to swim with the help of the five Claxon children, ages 7 to 21, after being in a pool for the first time. The family matriarch, Kim, said Trevon also enjoys fishing the property ponds with her 7-year-old son.
“It's just as good for us as it is for him,” she said. “It opens your eyes to how blessed we are and the things we're able to do on a daily basis that Trevon appreciates so much.”
The Claxons intend to host Trevon each year that he's registered in the program. The mother of five said the Bronx native won them over on the first day he stepped off the bus and greeted her with a hug.
The 47 New York City children who arrived Friday were preceded by 22 others that were bused into Harmony a week earlier.
An estimated two dozen more will arrive on Aug. 8 in Latrobe, said Brenda McCall, Pittsburgh-area chairwoman and fund representative.
The Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer experiences to more than 1.7 million children from low-income families since the nonprofit's 1877 inception. Each summer, over 4,000 children visit host families across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and Canada through the Volunteer Host Family Program.
McCall was in Harmony on July 5 to pick up 11-year-old Patrick Zheng.
The meet-and-greet was less nerve-wracking for both parties than the Hardings'. The Brooklyn native is in his fifth summer with the McCalls and is making himself at home with the Butler family. He typically spends three weeks with the McCalls each summer and even returns in December for the holidays.
“He's become hugely popular in the family,” said McCall, whose eight grandchildren make frequent visits to the house to play with Zheng. “It used to be my children who formed relationships and benefitted from the program. Now it's my grandchildren, and it's pretty cool to see.”
McCall is used to having a full house. In addition to raising her four biological children, she continually cycled at least three children in foster care through her home at a time.
And if seven children weren't enough, she began participating annually in the Fresh Air Fund 20 years ago, often hosting multiple children.
One of the girls staying through the nonprofit formed close bonds with her children and stayed five consecutive summers with visits that spanned months. When the area chairwoman's oldest son got married, he requested that she be in his wedding party.
“That was really touching to me,” she said. “It made me realize that they were all family to each other. That's what's great about this program.”
In their fifth year with the program, Linda and Dan Harold of Leechburg know how strong the bonds with the Fresh Air children can grow. The couple has hosted Raziel Selitiano of the Bronx since he was 6.
Now 10, his favorite part about staying with the Harolds is that he “can go to sleep without hearing gunshots at night.”
“It's fun because I usually don't get to play outside,” Raziel said. “I never play in the park because my mom and stepdad are always working, and I have to help my baby-sitter take care of my baby brother. I get to play outside and go swimming with Luke here.”
The Harold's 10-year-old son, Luke, views “Razi” as a brother, according to Luke's mother. The two are inseparable in the summer weeks and are each exposed to different perspectives during their time together.
“Luke always gets upset when Razi leaves at the end of his stay,” she said. “They learn so much from each other and its really positive on both ends. (Razi) loves it here because he said he feels safe.”
“Fresh Air is a really unique program that more people should get involved in,” Linda Harold said. “You don't have to be rich, you just have to have an open mind and an open heart to give these kids an unforgettable experience.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.