BRATTLEBORO-- Nicole Aguila, a 10-year-old from Queens, N.Y., didn't know how to swim until a couple of weeks ago. She now considers herself a pretty good swimmer.
At the home of Alice Charkes and Gregory Howe on Wednesday, she chattered excitedly about what a good time she's had these past two weeks.
"We went to Lake Spofford, at the beach," she said. "I got to experience the water, and there was a dog and it was nice and friendly, and we went deeper and deeper, and I wasn't scared anymore!"
"I was like, ‘Wow! They taught me how to swim,' and now I'm going to swim more and more," Nicole added. "They held my hand and helped me to go into the water."
As a participant in the Fresh Air Fund's "Friendly Town" program, Nicole's two weeks with the Brattleboro family were coming to a close. She left on a bus back to the city with several other children on Friday.
She boarded the bus knowing that she would back next summer.
"We were just talking today and saying that maybe we would have her stay longer, maybe three weeks next year," said Charkes. "It goes by so fast."
Nicole stayed with Charkes and her family last year as well. She gets along perfectly with Charkes' daughter, Olivia, who is the same age, she said.
Despite being away from her home in the city, Nicole is up for almost any Vermont-like activity, Charkes added, whether its picking blueberries or camping in the back yard.
"In the city, because cities very close together, there's not much breathing room," she said. "Here we can just run around and stuff."
"When I'm with my family (in New York), we don't do that much stuff like go outside," she added. "In the city, it's noisy; here it's not that noisy ... it's not busy with a lot of cars like the city where I live."
Nicole is one of about a dozen New York City children who will visit the Brattleboro area this summer through the Fresh Air Fund. All the visiting children are from low-income, inner-city families, and most of them are referred to the program by social services agencies in New York, according to Tom Kosiba, chairman of the Brattleboro-area Fresh Air Fund.
Charkes said she was amazed how well Nicole adapted to life in a rural setting, but not all the children are as comfortable with being away from home.
"We had two to start off with, but one went home before the end of the first week," said Pam Baker, of West Dummerston, who opened up her home for the first time this year with her husband Bill.
Pam Baker said the mother of the child who left pushed her daughter too hard to leave home, but the Baker's second visitor, Tiffany Swindell, of Brooklyn, N.Y., embraced the experience -- once she got over the culture shock.
"She camped out, she got over her fear of dogs, she fed chickens; she even fed a draft horse," said Bill Baker.
The fact that the Bakers have no children of their own didn't exclude them from the program; in fact, the Fresh Air Fund allows families of all kinds to be hosts.
At the Brattleboro High School Friday morning, as the volunteer host families prepared the children for the bus ride home, Deborah Reed, of Halifax, and Lia Sanchez, 8, of the Bronx, N.Y., shared a tearful good-bye.
The two said they had "a fantastic time" during
"The two of us just clicked," said Reed. "She's just a wonderful child."
Lia said she's been caring for her own garden on Reed's property. She saw a bull moose during her stay, she said, and a snake.
Lia participated in a children's program in Whittingham called WINGS, where she said she learned how to survive in the woods.
She also spend quiet time with Reed, reading a book, visiting local museums and practicing digital photography. The two have become so close that Reed has worked with the girl's mother to schedule a visit this winter.
"We write all winter and send holiday and birthday gifts," Reed said. "It's tough to leave each other all year."
More volunteers like Reed are badly needed, Kosiba said. Right now there are too many children who want to participate in the program and not enough host families.
"They are always pushing for most families," Kosiba said.
He added that as people's lives become increasing busier, it has become more difficult to accommodate the schedules of both the host families, who have more working members than in the past, and the New York City children, who now often attend summer school in July.
In the Brattleboro area, the number of visiting children has declined over the past 10 years from about 30 to only a dozen.
Kosiba stressed the fact that it's not to early to start thinking about hosting a child next summer. Those interested in being a volunteer host family are asked to call Tom and Linda Kosiba at 802-722-4315.
For more information about the Fresh Air Fund, visit www.freshairfund.com.
Jaime Cone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.