Host families needed for New York City children who come here for outdoor experiences

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They are the simple pleasures of summer -- swimming, a walk in the woods, an evening spent by a campfire under a starry sky. What may be a daily routine for many children can be foreign for those in New York City, where fresh air is rare and the night lights are from skyscrapers.

More than 130 years ago, the Rev. Willard Parsons, minister of a small, rural parish in Sherman, Pa., recognized the need for city children to enjoy fresh air. When he asked his congregation to provide country vacations as volunteer host families for New York City's neediest children, the response was overwhelming.

In 1877, the Fresh Air Fund -- an independent not-for-profit -- was created with this simple mission: to allow children living in low-income communities to get away from the hot, noisy city and enjoy free summer experiences in the country.

Each summer, more than 4,000 city children visit suburban, rural and small-town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and in Canada through the Fresh Air Fund's Volunteer Host Family Program.

Locally, some 50 families open their homes each summer.

Brenda McCall of Butler, a chairwoman and the fund representative for the Pittsburgh area, has been hosting for more than 20 years. She said it was a "no-brainer" for her and husband John, who were foster parents for 18 years and raised four biological and three foster children.

The family often hosted two children at a time, including one memorable little girl named Perrier with whom her children developed a close relationship. When Mrs. McCall's son Seth got married, he asked if they could invite Perrier, who was then 15.

"It really touched me that my son was saying, 'She's a part of my family and we want her here,' " Mrs. McCall said. Now, her son and his wife have three boys and host Fresh Air children, too.

Mrs. McCall said the experience of hosting is something she wouldn't trade for the world and described the joy she gets from seeing the wide-eyed expressions of the city kids when they see the countryside for the first time.

"When the kids get out here, they're just so surprised that there are so many trees, there's grass, and there are stars in the sky," she said.

Sometimes, Mrs. McCall said, fear creeps in as the children are exposed to unfamiliar things such as quiet nights -- and bugs.

"After dark, they'll say, 'I'm not going outside. It's too dark out,' but after a week, they're out there running around and playing like all the other kids catching the fireflies and are not afraid of animals that might be in the woods," she said. "It's neat to see it through their eyes."

When Gary of Bronx, N.Y., arrived at the home of Lisa and Denny Pry on 27 acres of farmland in Butler County, Mrs. Pry said he was scared because it was so quiet and he was used to hearing sirens all of the time.

"He wouldn't even go outside the first few nights because it was dark and there were mosquitoes," she said. Now his favorite thing to do at night is sit by a campfire and roast hot dogs.

The Prys have hosted Gary, now 15, since he was 8 and re-invite him every summer to stay from the beginning of July until the end of August.

The Prys have two girls they adopted out of foster care and two sons.

In addition to summers, the family tries to see Gary at least once during the year. In the spring, they flew him to Orlando, Fla., to include him on their family vacation to Walt Disney World. He joined the family for a weeklong break at Christmas.

The family also has established a close relationship with Gary's mother, Ebony, and plan to visit her in New York in March.

"She's so grateful that Gary comes here every summer," Mrs. Pry said. "She knows he's safe, she knows he's well taken care of, and she's very appreciative of that experience that he gets."

Theresa Tosi of Butler got her start with the Fresh Air Fund when she was just out of high school and her parents hosted an 8-year-old girl. The young woman, now married and expecting, still keeps in touch with the family and told Mrs. Tosi she recites a prayer at mealtimes that she had learned during her stay.

"It's amazing. She still says how great it was," Mrs. Tosi said. "Obviously, it meant something to her."

Mrs. Tosi and husband Curtis, daughters Emily and Elizabeth and sons Zach and Jacob began hosting children seven years ago.

The family likes to take their host children to nearby Moraine State Park in Portersville, where last summer a little girl refused to go into the water because she said there were stones in it. After about an hour, Mrs. Tosi said, she finally went in the water and didn't want to come out.

Another highlight for most of the children they host, Mrs. Tosi said, is seeing cows in a nearby pasture.

"We drive past cows all the time and never even look at them," she said.

Mrs. Tosi said serving as a host family has given her own children an appreciation for what they have.

"It shows my kids that not everybody has what we have and not everybody gets to do what we get to do and take for granted," she said.

Laurie Lucas of Butler also sees the importance of helping her children appreciate what they have. She and her husband, Raymond, have 11 children who range in age from 2 to 31 and have been hosting children for five years.

She said one young girl touched her heart when she said that she plays in the hallways of her apartment building because it isn't safe to play outside.

"That just stunned us," Mrs. Lucas said. "It's such an eye-opener. You just wish you could do more."

Details: 800-367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.

neigh_south

Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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