Local Kids Get Fresh Air

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A 135-year-old non-profit pairs city kids with country retreats

Eli Figueroa, age 7, is excited, like most kids, for summer activities like fishing, sticking his toes into waves at the beach and diving into a pool. But unlike many kids his age, this is a rare treat for Eli, who lives on the Lower East Side with his parents. He is just one of the 9,000 inner city children ages 6-18 who participate in the Fresh Air Fund, a 135-year-old non-profit citywide organization that sends children, whose families cannot afford to go on vacation, away for one or two weeks. The children, who are selected based on financial need, spend their vacation in a volunteer host family's home. Host families are located all over the East coast - from the Hamptons on Long Island, to rural Pennsylvania, Maine and even Canada.

This will be Eli's second year visiting Susan and Victor Benson's summer home in East Hampton, New York, and he will be leaving on July 11th. Melissa Figueroa, Eli's mother, could not be more thrilled with the program. In fact, her daughter just left for her Fresh Air Fund trip to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Melissa and her husband both participated in the Fresh Air Fund when they were children, and her husband still keeps in contact with his host family.

"Eli has experienced things there that he would not be able to get staying in the city," she said. "He can't wait to go back on the 11th, and my daughter is already having a blast in Scranton. Plus, it gives me a little time to rest. Whoever invented this was a genius."

The non-profit organization was actually formed by Reverend William Parsons in 1877. He asked his small congregation to provide country homes for poor children living in tenement houses in the city. The organization has since grown exponentially to not only include the individual trips, but also an annual camping program in Fishkill, New York.

The backbone of the Fresh Air Fund, according to Hannah Beck, a representative from the non-profit, is the volunteer families, who are not paid a dime for hosting these children. Susan and Victor Benson have hosted four children over the past 13 years, and say that their experience has been enriching, to say the least.

"Having grown up in New Jersey with a spectacular childhood running around outdoors and going to the beach, I wanted to give back in that way to a child," said Susan Benson. "Any child that can be exposed to experiences outside their own little box, especially living in an inner-city community, is a good thing."

Benson said, however, that she keeps it simple - she takes the kids clamming, or they go out on the family boat. She also helps them with reading and homework, and they watch movies or swim in the pool. She said that kids' reactions range wildly. Eli, although shy, was comfortable with her as soon as he got to Long Island. One girl, Fatima, she said was extremely nervous at first, and had to be reassured. But, said Benson, she likes to think that the experience has a strong influence on these children, especially since before getting involved with the Fresh Air Fund, Fatima's summers consisted of her sitting in front of the TV all day, because her grandmother felt that her Harlem neighborhood was too dangerous to play outside in.

Benson is also still in touch with Andre, one of their first Fresh Air Fund guests, who is now 20, and still inquisitive. Benson said that he was majoring in graphic design in college, but dropped out to figure out his path and is in the process of getting a job.

She said that sometimes the disparities between her own nieces' lives, and the lives of children not as fortunate, can sometimes be alarming, or disheartening.

"When Andre stayed here he one time asked us 'what is it like to be rich?'" said Benson. "I told him just because you're rich doesn't mean you're happy, and he asked if I was not happy. I then told him that 'the best thing about being rich is being able to share it with you,' and he was happy with that answer."

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