Each summer, thousands of children living in poverty from the five boroughs of New York City are given an opportunity: to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, to experience nature first-hand, and to make new friends and lasting relationships. And it’s all thanks to The Fresh Air Fund.
The Fresh Air Fund is a non-profit whose goal is to connect children in the city with families in the country, and give both a summer experience to remember. Since its founding in 1877, the fund has helped more than 1.8 million children, and operates in over 300 rural and suburban communities in the U.S. and Canada. It is truly a massive undertaking. But how does it work on a local level? I met with Erica Brinton at the King Arthur Flour bakery in Norwich to find out.
Erica is the co-chair of the Upper Valley region, tasked with recruiting families from the towns of Norwich, Woodstock, and Hanover. “Basically, it means I reach out and see if there’s anybody interested in being a host family,” she tells me.
The Fresh Air Fund can not exist without local families willing to host the children, so a large part of Erica’s job is to spread the word as best she can. In the past, she has put up advertisements and distributed brochures at local schools for kids to take home to their parents.
“I was all gung-ho a few years ago to put things in the schools, put up posters, and have little events.” Recently, though, Erica has utilized the Upper Valley listserv, and touts it as a great way to reach members of the community. “I think that has been the most effective,” she says.
After the outreach is complete and a family expresses interest, Erica’s next duty is to evaluate the family via a home interview. The interviews take between one and two hours, and are the primary tool the Fund uses to determine whether or not a given family is right for the responsibility of hosting.
“Not only do I interview the family, but I look at the house, the property, the neighborhood, and find out a little bit more about them through references. And I give them these.”
Erica hands me a host of documents, and carefully explains each one. The first sheet is e the families are provided with during the interview: The Fresh Air Fund’s Expectations for Volunteer Host Families. It lists what Erica calls “common sense policies” about proper child care.
“Fresh Airs” Back in the Day
“Should I have my firearms out?” Erica jokes, and then points to the sheet. “No! It’s right there!”
A background check and formal application round out the process, after which accepted families receive a “Host Family Invitation” from the fund. This is where they can specify the gender and age range of their prospective child in accordance with what would work best for their family.
“The office in New York does a fantastic job of matching children and families,” she tells me.
But the experience of bringing someone else’s child into your home and caring for them, if even for one or two weeks, can be nerve-wracking, and Erica understands this. “That’s why we give the families this,” she says, extending the second sheet across the table.
Its heading reads, “Some Fresh Air children…,” and is followed by a list of possible qualities, like, “May be in Foster Care,” “May be first generation Americans,” or “May love ice cream.” Erica laughed when I pointed out this last one.
“We want to let families know that, despite their life experiences, these are normal children,” she tells me with a smile. “They still like to have fun.”
As with any complex system, though, The Fresh Air Fund has to deal with its fair share of unexpected problems. In Erica’s domain, this is largely a matter of host-child matches falling through and demanding an immediate fix. Could the family change their hosting dates? Are they opposed to a last-minute match? Would they be willing to take a different child? This doesn’t sit well with Erica, but it is an unavoidable part of the job that, as she tells me, “someone’s gotta do.” When I asked her how she liked to handle these situations, she emphasized the significance of communication and understanding.
“It’s so important,” she says. “And it’s good to keep in mind that there are a lot of factors on the other end, in New York, which may delay or conflict with making a match.”
With the applications in, the interviews done, and the families paired with Fresh Air children, Erica’s job should be done. But, each year, she takes it upon herself to go the extra mile and meet the kids when they arrive.
“I like to greet the bus when it arrives in Lebanon, and make sure the right child goes to the family that is waiting. And I won’t say I feel as though I know these kids just because I’ve seen their names on the computer, but the second time around, when they go back, I feel more familiar. And that’s really nice.”
Erica grew up in a household that participated in The Fresh Air Fund’s summer programs, and remembers fondly her experiences with the three children her family hosted over the course of five years. She referred to them as “her siblings.”
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she tells me. “They were members of the family.” It’s no surprise, then, that her job bringing people together is so fulfilling. The benefits are ones she herself has experienced.
As The Fresh Air Fund’s 2018 season gets under way, Erica has her work cut out for her. Host families need to be located and interviewed, their references checked, and any problems that arise need to be solved quickly and with compassion. But Erica is the right person for the job, and assures me that this coming summer is going to be another great example of the Fund making a difference in people’s lives.