Zelienople family relishes opportunity to host children during summer

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

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 children to communities in 13 states, including Pennsylvania. 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.

Families in Cranberry hosting Fresh Air kids got together on July 13 at Glen Eden Homes Lake and Park Pavilion for an afternoon of outdoor activities.

Alanna Kriess of Cranberry organized the event. Kriess, who has been hosting children for eight years, says the experience 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.”

Children involved in the Fresh Air program range from ages 6 to 18. The first-time visitors usually range from ages 6 to 12 and stay with a host family for two weeks during the summer. Host families are able to re-invite a child until the child is 18.

According to many Friendly Town hosts, providing a child the opportunity to experience life outside of city streets and cement pavements is one benefit, but the relationships built from the two-week stay is the best part.

March Creeks of Zelienople and her family have hosted three children in nine years with the program. Her family has brought back Adrian Dabney, 16, of the Bronx, N.Y., for seven of those years.

“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.

Community-building Pirates games and trips to the zoo called Tickets for Kids are some of the activities offered for The Fresh Air program. Dabney said that he enjoys watching the Pirates play. His favorite player is Andrew McCutchen.

“We call his shots every time he hits a home run,” Dabney said. “He's a lot of fun to watch.”

Kimberly Loja, 10, of Manhattan, N.Y., is staying for the second year with the McMahon family of Zelienople.

She enjoys spending time there 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,” Loja said.

Mindy McMahon, Loja's host, said that despite a few nervous feelings, hosting Loja 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.”

For more information about the Fresh Air Fund, visit www.freshair.org.

Alex Klukaszewski is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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