Some Fresh Air Fund kids break new ground the minute they leave the city, often for the first time. So imagine the shock when they board the ferry in Woods Hole to head for Martha’s Vineyard — to us an ordinary experience, to them an adventure far, far from anything they have ever known.
“Some are just wowed by the boat,” says Cheryll Sashin, the Fresh Air Fund coordinator for Martha’s Vineyard. “Never mind the grass and the beach. The ferry is just a wonder for them.”
The Fresh Air Fund has been operating for more than 130 years, sending underprivileged kids from New York City to suburban and small-town communities along the east coast for one- or two-week summer vacations. The Vineyard is one of 300 “friendly towns” involved with the program. “We are totally dependent on our volunteer leaders who recruit the families and interview them,” says Jenny Morgenthau, Fresh Air’s executive director.
The Vineyard hosts two to six kids every summer, according to Ms. Sashin, who has headed the program on the Island since 2004. She hopes that the program will grow here.
Ms. Morgenthau, who has ties to the Vineyard, also hopes participation will grow here. “I think that it’s a very simple concept and we’re really only asking people to do what they would do as a family. Anything you do normally on the Vineyard is really different and special for these kids.”
Usually, hosts are parents with young children. Ms. Sashin makes an effort to match families with visiting kids of the same age and gender as their own. There are no financial requirements for hosting a Fresh Air child. First-time visitors are six to 12 years old, and reinvited youngsters may participate in the Friendly Town program through age 18.
“These kids are inspired to do better, to excel when they come here,” says Ms. Sashin, whose family has played host to a number of kids over the years. She has two sons of her own who are close in age to the child she sponsored for many years.
As much as the city kids are exposed to a different world when they come here, the learning process goes both ways. “City kids are very different from country kids so it’s an adjustment, but it’s a good adjustment because there’s diversity there,” Ms. Sashin says. “When you get right down to it, they love the same things — swinging a bat, catching fireflies, swimming. Kids are kids.”
Ms. Morgenthau notes that when the kids return to the city from vacations along the east coast, they report that swimming is the most popular activity, followed by making new friends.
And the Fresh Air kids are not the only ones who benefit from new friendships. Craig Lowe of Oak Bluffs has been participating in the program since 1977, when he and his former wife were living in Binghamton, N.Y. Years back, he formed a very close bond with Mason Gayle, one of the first kids that he sponsored. Mr. Gayle, who is now 40, is a sergeant in the army who has served both in Afghanistan and Iraq and still visits Mr. Lowe and his current wife, Edie, at Christmas time and when he is on leave. “They’re still like brothers now,” Mr. Lowe says of the relationship between Mr. Gayle and his son, who is a few years younger. “It’s really a lifetime experience.”
The Lowes have also kept in touch with another young man they sponsored who is now in his mid-twenties and works as a web designer. “He’s really part of the family now,” Ms. Lowe says, “Everybody forgets that he was a Fresh Air kid.”
Martha Winston and her family also have an ongoing relationship with Keshana, the child they sponsored for three years. Although she is now 15 and is no longer sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund, Keshana still visits the Winstons on the Vineyard in the summer, and Ms. Winston and her husband, Craig, arrange to see her during their frequent visits to New York, where they have also gotten to know her mother.
“It’s a great sharing experience,” Ms. Winston says. “It was just making a good friend — like meeting a new cousin. She’s definitely become part of the family just in the couple of years that it’s been.”
Described by Ms. Winston as “a really funny happy kid,” Keshana has completely embraced her host family and the Vineyard. “She likes to fish, she likes to cook, she helps out with the yard work and is very caring with our younger daughter,” Ms. Winston says. “She’s just a good responsible companion who just jumped in and is part of the family.”
Keshana has established a close friendship with the Winstons’ older daughter, who is heading off to college, and the Winstons are helping her plan her future. “She’s talking about nursing,” Ms. Winston says. “She’s a very motivated kid.”
Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz of Vineyard Haven sponsored a boy who was the same age as their son for two years. “It was just wonderful,” Ms. Brooks says. “He was such an incredible, open, polite, and lovely kid. He was just such an adventurous spirit. He was interested in anything we did and he remembered everything.” Although the Fresh Air child had very different interests from her son, she says that they bonded over the beach and other outdoor activities. “He loved meeting Gus Ben David. He loved the Fair. He was a softball fanatic.”
Ms. Brooks and Mr. Horwitz were not able to participate in the Fresh Air program after 2008, since they were tied up with arrangements for adopting a child from Ethiopia, but Ms. Brooks is grateful for the opportunity. “The Vineyard is such a wonderful place and we wanted to share it with someone,” she says. “We’re so lucky to live here year-round.”
To learn more about hosting a Fresh Air child this summer, contact Cheryll Sashin at 508-566-0163, call the Fresh Air Fund at 800-367-0003, or visit www.freshair.org.