Zelienople family relishes opportunity to host children during summer
Since the late 1870s, The Fresh Air Fund has helped more than 1.7 million inner-city children living in New York City experience the joy of the great outdoors.
The nonprofit agency brings youths ages 6 to 18 to communities in 13 states, including Zelienople, and Canada. Volunteers hosting these children from low-income neighborhoods are called Friendly Town hosts and strive to create everlasting memories with the help of a strong community.
According to many Friendly Town hosts, providing a child the opportunity to experience life outside of city streets and cement pavements is one thing, but the relationships built from the two-week stay is the best part.
March Creeks of Zelienople has hosted three children with her family in nine years with the program. Of those nine years, her family has brought back Adrian Dabney, 16, of the Bronx for seven.
Creeks said that thanks to The Fresh Air Fund, Dabney is like family.
“The best thing was building a relationship with Adrian because I feel like he is part of our family, and I treasure him like I do my kids, my nieces and my nephews,” Creeks said. “When he comes, he just fits right in, so that's my favorite part of the program.”
Pirates games and trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium enabled by a program called Tickets for Kids are just some of the many activities offered for program participants.
Dabney said that he enjoys watching the Pirates play. His favorite player is All-Star Andrew McCutchen.
“We call his shots every time he hits a home run,” Dabney said. “He's a lot of fun to watch.”
First-time visitors in the program usually range in age from 6 to 12 and stay with a host family for two weeks during the summer. Host families are able to re-invite a child who they previously hosted and can continue doing so through the program until the child is 18.
Glen Eden Homes Lake and Park Pavilion in Cranberry hosted an afternoon of outdoor activities on July 13 for families from the area hosting Fresh Air children. The event was organized by Alanna Kriess of Cranberry to provide participating families with an afternoon of games and fun.
Kriess, who has been hosting children for eight years, said the experience of bringing in a child is rewarding for her family.
“Even from day one, when Elijah, our Fresh Air child, first started coming, right away we treated him just like our child or brother, and he treated us the same. It was an instant connection,” Kriess said. “It's gotten better year after year because everybody has matured, including my own children, and that's what's made it easier. I think seeing my kids connecting or forming a brotherly bond with him has been the most rewarding experience.”
Kimberly Loja, of Manhattan is staying for the second year with the McMahon family of Zelienople. The 10-year-old enjoys spending time with the McMahons and rates going to Kennywood amusement park as her best experience with The Fresh Air Fund.
“My favorite ride is the Thunderbolt, and I really love all the roller coasters,” Kimberly said.
Mindy McMahon, Kimberly's host, said that despite a few nervous feelings, hosting her has been a wonderful experience.
“It was a match made it heaven,” McMahon said. “Having Kimberly has been really great. She is so comfortable around our family, and we are close with her family in New York.”
The next wave of Fresh Air children to visit Western Pennsylvania is set to take place during the weeks of Aug. 7 to 18 in the Latrobe area.
For more information on The Fresh Air Fund, visit www.freshair.org.
Alex Klukaszewski is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.