Fresh Air Fund provides enriching experience for local families
This summer more than a dozen Darien families hosted children from the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing New York City children to new outdoor experiences. Fresh Air children ages seven to 18 spend a one or two week period during the summer with host families in different towns along the eastern seaboard.
First established in 1877 the Fresh Air Fund was established to benefit children suffering from a tuberculosis epidemic that was spreading across crowded New York housing. More than 1.8 million children have participated in the program since its genesis 140 years ago and the organization has expanded to offer summer camps and year-round outdoor activities.
While the primary goal of the program is to bring children from lower income families to a fresh environment, volunteers from Darien have found their own lives enriched by the experience. About 15 families volunteered as host families this summer and local volunteers work each year to match children with appropriate host families. Hosts can request a child of a certain age or gender, but families often invite the same child to vacation with them each year.
Minina Johnston has served as a co-chair for the local arm of the Fresh Air Fund alongside Yvette Eenkema Van Dijk for five years and has played host to a Fresh Air Child for seven years. During that time the young girl learned to swim, rode a bike for the first time and became familiar with Darien’s parks and beaches. She also grew to be good friends with Johnston’s daughter Anne, who wrote fondly of her “Fresh Air Sister” after their experience last year.
“Whether it is watching a new movie all together on the sofa, or trying new foods that look scary, or reading together on the beach- everything brings about the chance to learn something new for everyone,” Anne wrote while reflecting last year. “We have hosted our fresh air sister for six years already and I still have not been able to express the pure amazement and excitement she bring us every day when she is here.”
Shawn and Christine Sullivan became Fresh Air parents during the summer of 2015 and the relationship between their son Flynn and their Fresh Air child Tionbre has budded into a year-round friendship. Mr. Sullivan said he had been a donor to the Fresh Air Fund prior to starting his own family, recalling the sentimental ads for the organization. When it came time for the Sullivans to host a Fresh Air child the two boys met before embarking on a trip to the family’s home at Lake George.
“There were little adjustments at the beginning; you have two boys who don’t have siblings so just start there,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And the backgrounds could not be more different, but that’s part of the whole idea right?”
As Tionbre was introduced to the sights of Lake George for the first time, Sullivan said the boy’s excitement helped encourage his own son Flynn to be more active. Their bond has grown beyond the two week span of Fresh Air to include birthday parties, holidays and just regular excursions together throughout the year. Mr. Sullivan took the pair on a trip to New York City’s Intrepid museum on Monday and described the boys as nearly inseparable.
“Flynn has four close friends, four compadres,” Sullivan said. “Three are from Fairfield county and the other is Tionbre. And Tionbre is now part of this whole crew; when they hear they’re getting together they ask ‘is T coming?’”
Sullivan acknowledged the impact that Darien families can have by introducing children from New York City to a new atmosphere and expressed hope that more families will take the time to volunteer.
“You don’t need fancy lakes or oceans, they’d be totally happy with a kid coming to Darien, going to the Nature Center or going to Weed Beach,” Sullivan said. “I think some people think these kids need something amazing, they don’t. They just need trees and the occasional jump in the water.”
Tionbre and Flynn are now close friends after their Fresh Air Fund experience.
During their Fresh Air visit, the Sullivans invited Tionbre to Lake George for the first time.