GROTON — Remember those weeks spent on summer vacation, playing ball or building treehouses with your cousins and wishing there was no such thing as having to go back to school?
Those kinds of memories might be part and parcel of many people’s memories of childhood. But for others less fortunate, summers can mean being trapped all day in a sweltering apartment, waiting for parents to come home from work. Going outdoors might mean spending a few hours of daylight on crowded streets, with nary a tree nor blade of grass in sight.
Children suffering such a fate inspired the Rev. Willard Parsons to begin the Fresh Air Fund in 1877. It was Parsons’ idea to provide a measure of relief for children living in barren and crowded city neighborhoods in New York City, granting them a few weeks of country air by living as guests in the homes of host families.
So successful was the program that a total of 1.7 million New York City children have spent summer vacations in the country. In 2006 alone, almost 10,000 children experienced the joys of summertime in Friendly Towns and at five fund camps in upstate New York.
Indeed, it was in upstate New York that local resident Reilly Hutchinson first encountered the program.
“I grew up in upstate New York and a family friend had done it,” said Hutchinson. “They brought a Fresh Air child to their home every summer and he became a family friend who ended up going to their kids’ weddings.”
For the Hutchinson family, their experience with hosting a Friendly Towns child began three years ago when Taliek Dorsey, then age 6, came from Brooklyn to live with them.
“I talked it over with my husband, Peter, before asking the girls what they thought of the idea,” said Hutchinson, who has four daughters. “I told them the story of how I knew a family who did it growing up and asked them if they would like to do it and they were totally on board.”
“The Friendly Towns that we’re in encompass Westford, Groton, Chelmsford, Dunstable and Tyngsboro,” said Debbie Carter, volunteer chairman for the Westford Friendly Towns area, who has hosted children herself. “For a lot of years it seemed to be Westford that was doing all of the hosting so I put up fliers in other towns and what happened is that we got one family and then other families see that family with a child and the news spreads. As of last year, we had 38 families participating in the program in the Nashoba Valley area.”
Another Groton family hosting a Fresh Air child this summer will be the Chilcoats. Stacey, along with her husband, Richard, will enjoy a second visit this year from 8-year-old Tabu Harris, from the Bronx.
Chilcoat, who works as a river classroom director for the Nashua River Watershed Association, met Debbie when she was arranging a canoe trip for Fresh Air families. She expressed an interest and Debbie helped in making the arrangements.
“I was aware of the Fresh Air Fund for many years but decided to become more involved after being contacted last year by Debbie Carter,” said Chilcoat. “I happened to mention that my husband and I had always been interested in doing something like what the Fresh Air Fund did and she told me that there were children in need of family matching so we decided to host a child.”
According to Fresh Air Fund representative Kelli Hogan, Taliek and Tabu are only two children of almost 5,000 that are scheduled to visit suburban and small town communities across 13 Northeastern states and Canada this year.
“Support for the Fresh Air program has been steadily growing in the Nashoba Valley area,” said Carter. “This year it’s been slow but I don’t know if that has to do with the economy.”
Carter said people sometimes think they have to provide the kids with constant entertainment but that simply isn’t true.
“At home, many of these kids will never leave the house during the summer because their parents work and there’s nowhere for them to go. So for them to come here and to run through a sprinkler is a really big deal,” Carter said. “It’s a big deal just to go for an ice cream. These kids don’t need a lot of driving around or to be taken to places like Six Flags.”
Hutchinson said she was concerned that Taliek, then age 6, would be too young but his mother gave the go-ahead. “He’s a voracious reader and we took him to (Lawrence Academy’s) basketball camp with us and my husband took him fishing. It’s been a great experience and the kids just love it.”
Both Chilcoat and Hutchinson said that when the children arrived at their homes, the time needed for transition for both parties was surprisingly short.
“It was not a bit difficult to adjust to having someone new living with us,” Hutchinson said. “My girls baby-sit a lot and they love kids and (Taliek) literally, within 24 hours, was part of our family.”
“When Tabu came to be with us he was only 7 years old while our third boy, Graham, was 8 at the time,” said Chilcoat. “So it was a really nice match because Tabu and Graham really enjoyed each other’s company and had a lot of fun together.
Getting to know a child from a very different background was enlightening for her son, Chilcoat said.
“Groton is a fairly limited place for children to experience diversity so the Fresh Air program is a great opportunity to help them to understand how children from different places can have different experiences,” Chilcoat said.
Those interested in learning more about the Fresh Air Fund program may contact Carter at (978) 692-9673 or call toll-free (800) 367-0003. Additional information can also be found by visiting www.freshair.org.