For 136 years, the Fresh Aid Fund has been an important builder of cultural bridges: between urban and rural America, between racial and ethnic groups, and between upstate and downstate New York. It's also a wonderful way to expose city kids to the joys of being outside in nature, of forests and lakes and rivers and fields and, of course, fresh air.
The New York City-based program began in 1877 as a way to get inner-city children into the country. Today, the Fresh Air Fund connects inner-city kids with host families in "Friendly Towns" in Canada and 13 states from Virginia to Maine.
Sadly, our Adirondack towns have become less friendly to these kids in the last couple of decades.
Brooklyn resident Samaiya Barnhardt, right, meets her Fresh Air Fund host parents, Maureen and George Harriman, for the first time Monday in Tupper Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
This year, just five kids got off the bus in Tupper Lake. A sixth will arrive in Lake Placid next month, and that's it for the summer for an area centered on the Tri-Lakes villages and reaching out as far as Ellenburg Depot, Elizabethtown and Long Lake.
The drop-off in host families apparently happened more than just a few years ago, and then the number leveled off - at a low level, though. This year's total is actually up one from last summer, when there were five for the above-mentioned area. There were seven in each of 2011 and 2010, as far back as the Fresh Air Fund could provide statistics.
"We used to have our own bus," said local Fresh Air Fund Chairwoman Deolinda Jessie, who has participated in the program since 1996. "When I started we'd get 15 kids at a time. From that time it has slowly decreased. Now our kids ride up with the St. Lawrence region's kids because there aren't enough of them to fill the bus."
"We had 60 kids on that bus about 20 years ago," said George Harriman, a Fresh Air Fund host since the 1980s. "I think people are just busy with work these days, but this is important, too. These kids need this."
He's right. City kids and their parents still want to take part in this program. This year's total of 4,400 Fresh Air kids was consistent with past years, according to Jessie. Interest seems to be waning more on our end than theirs.
We understand that's not just because people up here don't care about it anymore. Society has changed, too; for instance, far more families now have both parents working, compared with 30 years ago. Less often is there a parent at home to lead the fun summer activities, and local kids tend to be farmed out themselves to day care and summer programs.
Personally, the writers of this editorial have for many years wanted to sign up to host Fresh Air kids, but we admit that we have not.
Let's change that. Not everyone can host a Fresh Air child, but many can. This is a tried-and-true program. Let's try for a surge of participation in it next year and every year afterward. Let's commit to being hospitable and working toward friendships with these city kids that may, hopefully, turn into long-lasting family bonds. Let's build bridges across our state and teach kids about nature and outdoor fun. Let's prove that this is truly an area of "Friendly Towns."
If you're interested, call Deolinda Jessie at 518-359-3414. March is the usual sign-up time, but it's good to start thinking about it now.