As the wind howls and temperatures drop, visions of hot dogs roasting over a campfire, the sound of crickets chirping at night, and the feel of cool grass on bare feet seem like distant memories. Though these experiences will be a reality for many children this summer, they may only be a dream for some Fresh Air children.
Each summer, more than 4,000 inner-city children visit suburban, rural and small town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and Canada through The Fresh Air Fund’s Volunteer Host Family Program.
Last year, approximately 80 local families opened their homes to about 100 children. Brenda McCall, who is a chairwoman and the fund representative for the Pittsburgh area, said she would like to see that number grow to at least 100 host families.
“They always are in need of host families,” said. “They never have enough host families for the number of children that sign up.”
The biggest need, she said, is for families to host older children, particularly those in the 9-12 age range.
Though concern that an older child will be too streetwise is what often inhibits families from hosting, she said the so-called campers are rarely sent home for behavior issues. Instead, severe homesickness or an emergency with either the host or the child’s family are what typically cut visits short.
To address any issues that arise, the Fresh Air Fund has a support system in place for host families that includes a 24-hour answering service and a social services department. Direct access to the child’s parents is also available.
Other concerns that are raised by potential host families, Mrs. McCall said, are that they are too busy, do not have an extra bedroom for the child, or do not have enough money to provide entertainment.
While a separate sleeping area is required, Mrs. McCall said that could consist of an air mattress on the floor. Most of the children are used to sharing to a bedroom with siblings in a small apartment, she said, and probably won’t sleep in their own room even if it is offered.
For those who fear they won’t have enough to do with their young visitor, Mrs. McCall said to keep it simple.
“They just want to play with your kids. They just want to play outside,” she said. “It’s not about spending money on them.”
Tom and Ginny Barnicoat of Peters were first-time hosts last summer. Mrs. Barnicoat said they jumped right in and didn’t give it a lot of thought until they saw 7-year-old Awa get off of the bus with a look of terror on her face.
“We were both thinking, ‘Oh, what have we done,’” she said. “She was just frigid. We couldn’t get her to say anything and when she did, it was just a whisper.”
Undaunted, the family drove home where it was their two dogs that ultimately broke the ice. Soon Mrs. Barnicoat said the girl was laughing and they were outside in the backyard playing basketball.
“The first two hours are scary for everybody because you don’t know how all your personalities are going to mesh and you don’t know how homesick the child is going to be, but it just works,” she said.
During the two weeks they hosted Awa, the Barnicoats took her and their 9 year-old daughter Natalie biking, fishing, hiking, kayaking, swimming and to Camp Invention in Peters for a week, which Mrs. Barnicoat runs.
Though Awa enjoyed all of the activities, Mrs. Barnicoat said her favorite things to do were playing with the neighborhood children outside and getting ice cream from the ice cream truck.
“You don’t have to necessarily plan an activity for every second because things may just pop up around the house that are new and different,” she said.
Mrs. Barnicoat said overall it was a good experience and they plan to host Awa again this summer.
Households without children can host as well, but Mrs. McCall recommended inviting two. When her own children were older, she and her family, who have hosted children for more than 20 years, invited two girls to visit for a month every summer for five years.
For those still on the fence about hosting, Mrs. Barnicoat offered this encouragement:
“Just go ahead and do it. It’s only a week and it’s fun,” she said.
Buses will be dropping off and picking up children July 3-17 in Indiana and Cranberry; July 10-24 in Butler and Aug. 7-18 in Kittanning and Latrobe.
For more information call 800-367-0003, visit www.freshair.org, or call Mrs. McCall at 724-283-4656.
Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.