March 17, 2015 Leave a comment
Imagine growing up where all the trees are ringed by concrete, where the only forest to explore is a crowded public park, where the sounds of rumbling trucks, honking cars, and air conditioners never cease.
Imagine never hearing a cow lowing, a creek running, or seeing a night sky filled with stars.
For many children living in New York City, this is their world.
In 1877, an independent not-for-profit organization began taking underprivileged children out of the city’s summer heat to experience life in rural areas of the Northeast. Many children suffered from tuberculosis, and “fresh air” was thought to be a preventative. Thus, the Fresh Air Fund began.
Today —138 years and 1.8 million children later — the Fresh Air Fund still provides city children respites with host families as far south as Virginia.
One of those families is Brian and Julie Van Pelt (‘91) Lohr of Rockingham County. Fifteen years ago Julie was a stay-at-home mom with three small children and another one on the way. What could she do to make a difference? she wondered.
“My husband’s family had hosted [with the Fresh Air Fund] when he was a child,” Julie said. “It was a pleasant memory…..We could bring a kid in.”
The Lohrs became a host family that year and have hosted nearly every summer since.
The benefit to the city children is great, Julie said. “They are unable to see past the city; this is the way we live, this is where we live, this is the way things have always been — and this is the way things will always be. If you’re stuck in a poverty cycle, that’s debilitating. What Fresh Air gives those kids is an opportunity to see outside the city, to see a different lifestyle. For some kids, it’s their first opportunity to see two parents in the same family. For others, it’s an opportunity to go outside without shoes, to see the stars. Really simple things we take for granted are brand new and thrilling for them.”
The Langridge family would agree. Last summer Nick (’00, ‘07M,’14D) and Jill Ruppersberger (’00,’04M) Langridge and their three children became a first-time host family.
“It really was a joy,” Jill said, “to see the ‘little things’ in our lives such as seeing a dragon fly buzz along the lake, roasting marshmallows over a fire or playing in a sprinkler bring so much happiness to our Fresh Air Fund child, Sincere.”
While the unknowns can be scary at first for host families and their guests, Julie estimates that 96 percent of the visits are successful, in large part because of the care taken with placements and the support both children and host families receive.
Julie reminisces about a 6-year-old boy name Taquan who had a rough start with the Lohrs. When Taquan arrived, it was apparent that he was very homesick. It didn’t help that it took him several days to muster the courage to tell the Lohrs that his name was “TAquan” not “taQUAN,” as they were pronouncing it. Between Taquan’s homesickness and managing a household of lively children, Julie worried. When the local chairman called to check on them, he heard the concern in Julie’s voice. “Do you want us to come pick him up?” he asked.
“That was probably the moment I fell in love with Fresh Air,” Julie said. “I realized I wasn’t on my own.” The fund offers 24/7 support to host families and the children. In the end, Taquan stayed with the Lohrs and the visit was a success.
In addition to hosting, Julie is the regional representative for Fresh Air, a job she took because she understood its importance. In that role, she accompanies children to the valley. Busses leave from NYC’s Port Authority station and deliver children throughout the Northeast to what the organization calls “Friendly Towns.” Last summer, 65 children visited the Shenandoah Valley.
“The friendly town department is made up of field managers and support staff, social workers, and people who contact the families in NYC,” she said. There is a small support staff in NYC. Outside of the city, though, everyone is a volunteer, including Julie.
To encourage families to try the program, Julie started 7-day trips, which are shorter than the usual 10-day visits.
After hosting boys for several years, the Lohr’s invited a girl, Dejhanay (pronounced “Dee-zha-nay — like the mustard,” Julie said). Dejhanay had been in and out of foster homes with little stability in her life.
“My kids loved her. I came in one day and they had taken out half of her braids ….. She loved the attention. One thing Fresh Air asks is that you have a bed available for the child, but most of the time, they would all sleep in the floor together or all pile in the bed together….One of them would come over from her room and sleep in the room with them. They all had to be together. All three girls. They just loved it.”
Each child comes with a different personality and that impacts the entire trip. Julie fondly remembers Jesco who found a snake in the Lohr’s yard. “He was very sensitive,” Julie said. “He had picked up that I was not comfortable [with snakes]. He said, ‘I probably won’t pick one up again. I probably won’t play with one. I’m gonna need to put it down now.’”
“[The children] would be playing Legos, and Jesco would stand up and walk out on the patio and just sit there. Sometimes he’d draw. Sometimes he’d pet the dog…..just soaking it up. He was made to live in the country.”
Benefits are not limited to the city children, Julie said. “For my kids, it’s an opportunity to appreciate what they have and to see life from a different perspective, particularly since they are homeschooled. It’s an opportunity — in a safe environment — to make new friends. They have friends now in NYC, and they’ve learned things.”
Nick Langridge, senior vice president for advancement at JMU, agreed: “For us the Fresh Air Fund was an experience that touched the whole family. I enjoyed watching our kids welcome and invite a new friend into their room, their home, and their lives, and who they became as a result. Just as we hope we offered some fresh experiences to our 6 1/2 year-old boy on a farm, at the pool and at the beach, Sincere in turn gave us great memories, lots of laughs, and a sense of what it means to really get ‘to know and be known’ as a whole family.”
Julie and the Fresh Air Fund are beginning to match NYC children with host families in the Shenandoah Valley. Anyone interested in hosting a child can contact Julie by calling 540.810.0474 or 800.367.0003 or emailing her at Julie.Lohr@friendlytown.org or the Fresh Air Fund at their website: http://www.freshair.org
See more Fresh Air Fund stories on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdTbJS2wSBg&feature=youtu.be&list=UUqs_7ueSjwYmmO4RKsTDltw