BRATTLEBORO >> Twelve kids from the Empire State landed in town for a countryside summer experience.
Each year about 4,000 kids ages 7 to 18 leave their apartments from New York City and head into rural, suburban, and small towns located in the Northeast. Windham County has been one of those host communities for perhaps up to 30 or more years, according to Tom Kosiba, Southeastern Vermont Chairperson to the Fresh Air Program. Kosiba has hosted children for Fresh Air and first became involved with the program about 23 years ago. Aside from the plus for kids to experience the Green Mountain State, Kosiba mentions some other benefits for those involved in the program.
"There are some obvious advantages for families to get to experience some diversity, especially in Vermont," said Kosiba. "It also teaches children to get along by having an experience of someone new come into their house and having to share parents."
The 12 kids unloaded from a bus on Friday, July 8, at Brattleboro Union High School. Some, such as 10-year-old Favor Obasohan of Staten Island, stepped onto Vermont soil for the first time.
"I didn't expect to see so many trees," said Obasohan, mentioning her first response to Vermont.
Obasohan travelled to Pennsylvania through the Fresh Air program for the first time last year and said initially the experience was scary and she cried when separated from her mother, but as soon as she landed in her host community, she was not afraid. This year Obasohan said she had no fear when she stepped on the bus headed to her host parents Jeannette and Rick Mills' home. In addition, this year her younger brother Joshua, 8, joined her and is staying with a host family in Marlboro.
Thus far, Obasohan said she has enjoyed swimming, horseback riding and playing games with her host sisters Sadie, 10, and Haley, 13. The girls also played a game called Logo Quiz that tests players' skills on identifying logos. Jeannette said she noticed that, based on what they were able to recognize in the game, the girls have been exposed to different types of advertising.
Haley said she would like to travel on her own like Favor did, but Jeannette said she didn't know if she would be able to let her go and that it takes "brave" parents to let their child travel to another state on their own. Jeanette further noted that she was impressed with Obasohan's maturity.
"Favor called Rick when she got assigned to our home, called on her own, not her mom or anyone else," said Jeanette. "And then she was texting Rick with updates when she was on the bus headed here."
Sadie said she likes having someone to play with at home who is the same age. Haley said she enjoys having another friend to play with in their pool. The girls also noted the differences they have for animals as pets. While Favor owns a cat in New York, the Mills own horses.
Overall, Jeanette said the experience of hosting children for the Fresh Air program has been "wonderful,"
"I just think it's good for everyone to experience it, it's eye opening. Places look and smell different, there are different rules, customs and pets," said Jeanette.
Jeannette herself remembers hosting Fresh Air kids at her home when she was 10 years old and she said she has noticed a difference in volume.
"It used to feel like the whole bus unloaded, this year it was just 12," said Jeannette.
Kosiba had similar observations and speculated on why this decline may have occurred.
"I think it was a combination of kids in the city having to go to summer school, then there are working families in Vermont who are busy and a matter of kids needing childcare," said Kosiba. "I'm trying to build it back up."
For some host families, like Rhianna Kendrick of Brattleboro, it's building bonds with the Fresh Air kids that has kept them excited about the program. Kendrick is hosting Helen Gutama, 13, of Queens, New York, for the second year in a row.
"At first I was shy and scared, now I feel comfortable," said Gutama with a smile.
The other day, Gutama along with Kendrick and her daughter Brooke Castine, 12, were sitting near the window at Amy's bakery and Gutama was fascinated by the view of Wantastiquet Mountain. Kendrick said Gutama asked her if anyone lives up on the mountain and she was surprised when Kendrick told her "no." The girls decided they are going to try and hike the mountain before Gutama heads back to New York Friday morning – a place where she says they don't have mountains.
Some of the children in the Fresh Air program, like Gutama and Obasohan, said in the city they enjoy being outside and activities like swimming, hanging out with friends or visiting the park. Gutama says if people visit Queens they must try the food, as it offers a large variety. She also says a highlight of her city is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, where people enjoy leisure activities like biking, running or playing near the sprinkler system in the summer. Obasohan noted a misconception about Staten Island that she wants readers to know.
"Staten Island is not too busy like Manhattan, I don't really like Manhattan and I'm scared of all the cars rushing by," Obasohan said.
As the responsible chair person, Kosiba interviews local host families that are interested in the program, and tours each host family's house to ensure it is a safe environment. He said he looks at safety issues such as access to motor vehicles and firearms. Kosiba said they also perform background checks on anyone that is 18 years or older living in the house. Kosiba also makes sure the Fresh Air child will have a bed as opposed to a couch or the floor.
Kosiba then matches the family with a Fresh Air child, and he says the host family is usually able to choose the age and gender of the child. Three more Fresh Air children are expected to visit Windham County between now and August.
"I would encourage more families to participate, it's a really neat way to have a no-stress experience," said Kendrick.
For more information on the program visit http://www.freshair.org/ or for local information on hosting a child through the Fresh Air program contact Tom Kosiba, Southeastern VT Chairperson at 802-722-4315.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275