City kids enjoy Fresh Air in Cowansville
For the next couple weeks, two New York City boys are trading the noisy streets of Harlem for the quiet rolling green hills of Sugarcreek Township.
Savion Hawkins, 12, and Lucius Orellanes, 11, arrived by bus at Grace Brethren Church in West Kittanning on Thursday to meet up with Kayla and Gregory Seyler, a host family with the Fresh Air Fund program.
“I live in a place called the projects,” Hawkins said. “For fun, me and my friends go to the pool, ride our bikes and go skateboarding. Here, I play with my brothers and have fun.”
Hawkins, who has a little sister in New York, considers the Seyler boys — 2-year-old Holden and 1-year-old Ezra — his brothers.
He and Orellanes are unrelated. But thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, this will be their fifth year sharing a two-week vacation together at the Seylers' Cowansville home.
“The Fresh Air Fund gives kids the opportunity to experience simple things that we might take for granted,” said Brenda McCall, a Fresh Air representative of the Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland region.
The nonprofit Fresh Air Fund agency was started in 1877. It gives inner city kids ages 6 through 18 from low-income families a chance to stay with families in rural communities or small towns across 13 states.
“They're like family now,” Kayla said, as Orellanes pushed Ezra in a stroller for a visit to the chicken coop out back.
Every year, the boys enjoy eating outside at family cookouts, taking part in nearby events like the recent Rimersburg's Cookie Daze Festival and swimming in the Belmont Complex pool.
“They absolutely love Belmont,” Kayla said. “Swimming tops it off for them.”
In a wooded section of the Seylers' backyard, Hawkins coaxed guinea hens down from the trees so he and the others could feed them.
“It's way louder in the projects than over here,” Orellanes said.
Hawkins remembered catching a frog and seeing a shooting star for the first time when he visited the Seylers at the age of 7.
Orellanes was a bit more hesitant on Friday to join the others under the trees in the buggy undergrowth.
“I do more exploring here. I see new insects, learn things like how to feed the rabbit, feed the chickens and learn how to run away from bees,” Orellanes said, swatting a buzzing bug away from his ear.
Kayla said she would like to see other families consider getting involved in the program.
“It's less than two weeks of your life, and it's really fun,” she said.
Strong bonds are formed between host families and visiting kids, McCall said. She knows of one boy who has spent every summer since he was 7 with an Apollo family. Now, he is 18, over 6 feet tall and has signed up to be a Marine. This will be his last year staying with the family.
“It's so wonderful for these kids and families knowing they will always have that connection,” McCall said.
Brigid Beatty is a staff writer.