BRYN MAWR >> On Monday, 37 New York City children, ages 6 to 18, arrived as part of the Fresh Air Fund to spend a week with volunteer host families from across the Delaware Valley. The children, who must have good grades and no discipline problems, leave behind hot city streets for swimming, playing and running in the grass. Some children are leaving home for the first time, while others are returning to visit the same host families for consecutive summers.
“We’re family,” that thought by Heather Riley of Malvern describes the bond that can develop between the families and the New York children they welcome into their homes.
Riley has literally watched R’kel grow up. This is the 12th year the Rileys have hosted R’kel, who arrived with basketball in hand ready for a game with Liam Riley, who also turns 18 this year. “He’s such a sweetie,” said Heather Riley. “Every year he brings flowers.”
The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit agency that has provided free summer experiences to more than 1.7 million New York City children from low-income communities since 1877. Each summer, over 4,000 children visit volunteer host families in rural, suburban and small town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and Canada through The Fresh Air Fund’s Volunteer Host Family Program.
“Having fun in the summer with a little girl who doesn’t have a backyard and grass, all the things the suburbs have is our opportunity to give back” said Marissa Brunetti of Media who along with her daughters Elliana, 6, Ceclia, 10, and Isabella, 12, welcomed Nehaeh to their home for the fourth year. ”It’s our attempt to give back for what we have.”
Maura Wheeler of Radnor, a Fresh Air volunteer organizer for 12 years, said they are always looking for host families, especially those willing to welcome children in the middle school years for which there are many children applying. A second group of children will be coming in August.
The week-long experience includes organized group activities including swimming lessons at Conestoga Swim Club; many of the children do not know how to swim and families are careful to monitor them near the water. Other activities include a bowling and pizza party at Devon Lanes, a hike at the Willows in Radnor and ice skating at the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Society rink in Ardmore.
In addition to the Bryn Mawr stop, children were welcomed by families in Chester Springs and Doylestown.
As families waited for the bus to arrive Monday, they talked about the program. Host, Kara McMahon of Wayne, found out about the program after living in New York. She was waiting with her children, Brady, 9, and twins Jack and Luke, 7, to meet Kinglesy, 7 for the first time.
“We Facetimed him and he seemed very excited to learn how to ride a bike and to go swimming,” said McMahon. “We’re going to take him to swim lessons, visit the aquarium, golfing and hiking.”
Kristen Stern of Lafayette Hills, a special education teacher at Devon Elementary, was waiting with her daughters, Avery, 7, and Addison, 9.
“They were up at 6 a.m. and so excited,” Stern said. They hope to take Anialay, 7, to the Elmwood Zoo, make slime and go swimming.
“It’s been great, the first year I was amazed at how helpful and polite Ben was, I said, ‘can you show my kids,’” said Megan McNeill of Tredyffrin, who along with her husband Brian and sons Davis, 17, and Devon, 11 have hosted Ben, 13, for the third year. “I feel we have a relationship with him now.
“It’s beneficial for our children,” McNeill said. “They get to understand how other people live.”
Asked what motivated him to host Brian, McNeill pulled out his phone to show an excited social media post from Ben about his Fresh Air trip. “He is so excited to come,” said McNeill. “That is why I do it.”
Interested families can apply for the 2019 summer season at http://www.freshair.org/.