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Fresh Air Fund host families in Centre County help change children's lives

by on July 03, 2017 9:44 AM

Crissy Roberts had her first s’more two years ago in the backyard of Kelly and Jerry Valeri’s State College home. Kelly Valeri says she can still see Crissy’s face when she took her first bite and how she just became quiet and savored every taste of the graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow sandwich.

Sitting around a campfire and roasting marshmallows isn’t a popular summer tradition in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, where Crissy, now 9, lives. Neither are catching fireflies and walking in grass in bare feet, both of which Crissy experienced for the first time when she stayed with the Valeri family two summers ago while participating in the Fresh Air Fund.

“We took her to a Spikes game; she had never been in a baseball stadium,” says Kelly Valeri, whose family will be hosting Crissy again this summer. “We experienced so many firsts with her. … Getting to experience things through their eyes for the first time is really rewarding, and I think it’s fun for our kids to share the things they do with someone new, too.”

Valeri’s first experience with the Fresh Air Fund came when she was a reporter for the Cortland Standard in Cortland, New York, and was asked to write a story about the Fresh Air Fund. She interviewed an 18-year-old who was in his final year of the program and had visited the same family each year for more than a decade.

“He said, and I quote, ‘They saved my life,’ ” Valeri says. “He said that because of them he knew he had an option other than gangs. He knew he had options if he stuck with his talents. “

His words were so touching and so lovely. I knew when and if I’m able I would want to participate in this program. … You can completely change and be a positive influence in a child’s life just over one week in the summer. Why wouldn’t more people be interested in doing that?”

According to the Fresh Air Fund’s Web site, when the fund began in 1877, “New York City was overflowing with children living in crowded tenements. Many of these youngsters were hit by a tuberculosis epidemic, and ‘fresh air’ was considered a cure for respiratory ailments.” Rev. Willard Parsons, a minister of a church in Sherman, Pennsylvania (a small town in northeast Pennsylvania, near the New York border), asked members of his congregation to provide country vacations as volunteer host families for New York City’s neediest children. 

Now in its 140th year, the Fresh Air Fund has “provided free summer experiences in the country to more than 1.8 million New York City children from low-income communities.” The children stay with families who live in “Friendly Towns,” where people volunteer to host a child for 10 days in the summer. “Friendly Towns” can be found in 13 states, from Maine to Virginia, and also in Canada.

Mary Henry, fund representative for Centre, Mifflin, and Juniata counties, says about 15 “Fresh Air” children visit Centre County each year, usually in July and August.

“Some families remain close throughout their life,” Henry says. “Some share Thanksgiving, other holidays, weddings, and special events over many years. … The life-changing stories are amazing.”

Crissy’s mom, Tasia Roberts, says Crissy’s life has changed, as have the lives of her other three children who also participate in the Fresh Air Fund. Crissy is the youngest of the family, and Tasia was worried the first time she left for State College since it was her first time traveling.

“The only thing that eased my comfort was the relationship and connection Kelly and myself established before she arrived, so I knew that once she got there safely I would have no worries. 

"I continue to count my blessings for the wonderful families like the Valeries who take the time to open their homes to children and give them an opportunity to experience life outside of where they live. The opportunities and experiences are ones that they will remember for a lifetime.”

The experiences are usually ones that many in Happy Valley experience every day or weekend and, perhaps, don’t think of them as anything special. Going to a park, swimming in a pool, riding a bike, sitting by a campfire — those simple pleasures in life become lasting memories for the Fresh Air children.

When a host family plans what to do when their Fresh Air child visits, it doesn’t have to be a major event every day.

“It’s easy to forget what we’re surrounded by,” Jerry Valeri says. “There’s so much to do, to see, and to experience. Some families think they might have to take the children to Hersheypark and take them to DelGrosso’s. They have to have a party. But their favorite thing is playing in the yard, catching fireflies, making s’mores.”

Maggie Ellis of State College and her family hosted Abdul for two summers in 2011 and 2012. He was looking forward to just going to a pool and learning to ride a bike. He did both.

Ellis, who has three children, says she was impressed by how local children took to Abdul and invited him to play with them at the pool.

“It was nice to see other people accept him and include him,” she says. “I liked the opportunity for my kids to see that we can help other people and share what we have.”

Becoming a host family includes being interviewed by a Fresh Air representative A background check is done on all family members who are 18 years old and older. Clearance checks according to Pennsylvania state law are completed, and families provide references, none of whom can be a relative.

The Valeries describe the application process as thorough but not invasive.

Host families may have children of their own, but adults without children or who have children who are now adults and no longer live with them also can host a Fresh Air child. 

And then there’s the rare case of what happened to Sheila West and her family, where a Fresh Air child became their child.

West and her husband at the time, Greg Fox, began hosting Shaquan Graham 10 years ago when he was 8. Shortly after that first summer visit, Shaquan’s mother died and his grandmother then raised him. Each summer for the next five years, he continued visiting State College.

“He’d get off the bus [at Spring Creek Park] and immediately want to climb trees and chase bugs and play in the creek,” says West. “Fresh Air kids want to do the same simple things that Central Pennsylvania kids do every summer.”

Eventually, West, Fox, and Shaquan’s grandmother talked, and they agreed that living in State College would give Shaquan a chance to attend a better school and become a US citizen (his family is originally from Barbados). In June, Shaquan graduated from State High. He plans to spend the next year working before deciding on any college.

While an adoption of a Fresh Air child hardly ever happens, what happened with Shaquan is an example of how a strong  connection can be made in a short amount of time.

“There’s a quote on the Fresh Air Web site, ‘Being a Fresh Air host doesn’t take a lot of money or fancy things. It just takes a big heart.’ I agree with that!” says West, whose son, Aidan, is just six days older than Shaquan and also graduated from State High in June. “You never want to put them back on the bus to go home.

“A Fresh Air host receives more than they give.”

The fund claims that the simplicity of the program is its strength, and host families not having to give much of their time or money to participate and yet still making the impact they do on children from New York City attests to that.

“We try to lead by example with our kids, and we’ve always said one of the most important things in life is how you treat other people,” Kelly Valeri says. “[The Fresh Air Fund] is a great way as parents of young children to lead by example and show them that caring a little bit can go a really long way for somebody.”

For more information about the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org or contact Mary Henry at marv. mary3@gmail.com. David Pencek is communications manager for Schlow Centre Region Library and former editorial director of Town&Gown.

 

 

 

 

 



David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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