Cultural exchange: Fresh Air Fund host families say they benefit too
MANCHESTER CENTER — Nine children from urban areas of New York City were welcomed at the Manchester Elementary Middle School on Tuesday as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.
Deborah Reed, a special education teacher, has hosted Taliyah from Bronx, N.Y., since 2009. Reed's family has participated in the program since she was a kid herself. She looks forward to spending summer time with Taliyah every year and considers her as a daughter.
Since 1877, the non-profit organization has allowed children from low-income communities to escape city streets and explore other areas of the country. Its programs include summer camping, host a family, and camp rentals.
"If more people understood that what you have is extraordinary, it's extraordinary to someone else," Reed said. "We just feel like Vermont is such a great place and they would have a great summer."
Reed has a dog, loves to swim in the lake, hike, canoe, and read. Taliyah chose her out of several other applicants. The 14-year-old has a brother and two sisters and would rather join Reed in those activities than be stuck in her one-floor apartment in the city. Reed didn't think she would be able to host a child because she's divorced, but since she has the summer off because she's a teacher, the organization accepted her.
The first time Taliyah went to Reed's home, she was given a disposable camera and took many pictures of the stairway because (coming from a one-floor apartment) she had never seen one lead to a bedroom. Reed said Taliyah was baffled to have her own room and bathroom.
Reed's mother hosted a child on her farm in the 1930s in Middlebury. Later, she grew up in North Bennington and had a son, who now gets along with Taliyah as if they were natural siblings. Reed's son was diagnosed with cancer last year and Taliyah wrote him a letter in the winter saying she would pray for him. On July Fourth, Reed celebrated her father's 95th birthday and Taliyah was sad she was coming the next day and would miss the party, but still decorated a card for him.
"It's about getting to know this wonderful human being that comes from a very different ethnicity and family structure than what I'm used to, so it's been a great learning experience. She's Hispanic and exchanges recipes with me and even how her family does things and thinks about things," Reed said. "It's been broadening and opening. I have a son and it's been wonderful to have a daughter. It's a big learning experience to be a mom of a little girl. She teaches me things every time I'm with her. It's just a complete positive in my life."
Reed was at first hesitant about becoming a host parent, but contacted Taliyah's mother to make sure it was the right decision. They still communicate often. One of Taliyah's sisters even joined Fresh Air with a family in northern Vermont.
Kyle Cheng has never been to Vermont and is one of the four Fresh Air children being hosted for the first time. His host family is Greg and Pat Meulemans, who is a Fresh Air local chair volunteer. They live in Jamaica. Cheng is from Queens, enjoys soccer and chose the Meulemans based on their profile of loving to hike, canoe and camp. He's only visited New Jersey and upstate New York.
"Last year I went to camp, but this year it was full," Cheng said.
"This is our staycation," Pat Meulemans said. "We've been doing this for 12 years and have had 14 or 15 host children. This is our second Kyle."
Most children are staying in Vermont for one week, but repeaters can stay longer. Taliyah will stay for three or four weeks, Reed said. Cheng will stay one week.
Reed said she's unsure of how the children get involved with the program, but presumes they push it in the school systems.
"The reason I wanted to do it, is because if you live in Vermont, you have so much – places to go to that are free and always things going on with kids you can join in on," she said. "It's just pleasant here. It's really not very much time to have a little one with you. My family always did it."
For more information on the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org.
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.
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