Last summer, we hosted our first inner city Fresh Air Fund child for a week here in Wilton. The Fresh Air Fund is a nonprofit organization started in 1877, with the simple mission of providing inner city children the opportunity to enjoy a free summer experience in the country, away from the hot, noisy city streets.

This time last year, we filled out our application and were interviewed by Fund representatives. We asked to host a girl between the ages of 6-8. They went over some of the possible challenges that many hosts face, like a child’s food choices, fear of dogs, not able to swim, and homesickness.

We knew little about Samia, the girl we were matched with, from the paperwork they sent a few weeks before her time with us; we gleaned a little bit more in our phone conversation with her mom the day before she was to arrive. Samia was six years old, living in an apartment in Rockaway Beach with her mom, her mom’s boyfriend, her 3-month-old sister and her wheelchair-bound, 8-year-old sister with cerebral palsy.

Samia called her week with us “camp.” She was very energetic and excited about what our plans were for the week. She was a big sponge with so many questions, and a few verbalized observations. “Wow,” she’d say as she marveled how big our refrigerator and dishwasher were, or looked wide-eyed into our pantry, “so much food in your cupboard.” She also announced that we have too many places to sit with all our tables and chairs! She loved being in the yard, running around, and our small buildings. Within a day, she called us Mom and Dad, and my girls, her sisters. I signed her up for swim lessons—she learned how to swim underwater within just one lesson, she was so eager to learn.

It was not all roses–ask my friends, I was exhausted! My little one and Samia fought like crazy – my six year old, Libby, had expected a shy, needy girl and didn’t realize she’d instead be competing for Mommy’s attention. It was too hard for Libby to understand (in fact she was completely offended) why Samia would “lie” about her life–Samia told us she had a dog (she didn’t) and that her sister was a fast runner (she was wheelchair bound).

My biggest challenges were pretty basic:  I needed to watch that Samia buckled her seat belt–and kept it buckled–for our car rides; another one was that she needed reminding to wash her hands after using the bathroom. Glimpses of her life at home gave us perspective:  “I don’t need a booster seat in my mom’s car–my mom is a good driver, even though she is not allowed to drive”—on her reality.

Before Samia came to us, her mother asked me multiple time to be sure that Samia would call home on her birthday. When that day came, we tried to call multiple times, leaving messages every time. “Does your mom work?” I asked. “Maybe she can’t answer because she is working?” Six year old Samia responds, “If my mom doesn’t answer her phone she is sleeping, clubbing, or at a party.” Jeez. Round one of the wind getting knocked out of me.

One night, after I had tucked the two little ones in bed, I eavesdropped outside their door. They were making wishes. Libby said, “I wish for 100 dogs and that there are no mean kids in my class in first grade.” Samia said, “I wish I was white.” The wind was knocked out of me again.

Samia wanted to stay. Really, she didn’t want to go back home. She lay on the bedroom floor on her departure day trying to slow down her last hour in Wilton.

Wilton is a bubble in the world—a wonderful bubble, but one that limits our exposure to the realities of so many other people. We have so few chances to gain a different life perspective. We also live in a predominately white area with very few opportunities to get to know people from different races and backgrounds. My then 13- and 11-year-olds really had their eyes opened to Samia’s reality and it helped them see how lucky we are. By broadening Samia’s horizons, my children’s horizons’ were broadened too.

For most families, the Fresh Air Fund child they host returns summer after summer and they build a deep, life-long relationship. One host family I met was about to launch “their” son into college–the first person in his real family to ever go to college. As hosts, we have the potential to make a difference in the life of a child, simply by including them in our lives for just one week each summer. By doing so, we have the potential to make just as big a difference in our own lives as well.

We Wilton families are so lucky. In reality, we don’t need to be the perfect family or have a perfect house to host. All we really need is an extra chair at the table and mattress for someone to sleep on in order to make a huge difference. Hosting is a win/win experience for everyone. Please join us and consider hosting a Fresh Air Fund child this summer—it won’t be the easiest thing you have done, but it certainly will be one of the most rewarding.

For more information visit the Fresh Air Fund website, or email the local representative, Ann O’Brien. The application deadline is June 1 to be a host family in July, and July 1 to host in August.

Summer 2016 Fresh Air Fund Dates for Buses Coming Near/to Wilton

July 7-14 Ridgefield
July 7-14 Newtown (different bus from Ridgefield)
July 9-16 Katonah
July 12-19 Stamford/Darien/Fairfield
July 28-Aug 4 Newtown
July 30-Aug 6 Katonah
Aug 2-11 Fairfield
Aug 12-19 Ridgefield

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