For the past three summers, Janiya Hood, 10, has slipped away from the busy streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., and traveled to the rolling hills of State College to spend time with her Fresh Air host family, the Houses.
She returned Tuesday for her fourth summer, hopping off the bus at Spring Creek Park, smiling excitedly when she spotted the equally eager faces of her family.
“There’s a lot of things to do here, and they don’t have a lot of things to do at home. They don’t have a lot of events or places to go,” Janiya said.
She likes State College because, she said, “I get to do a lot of things like go swimming, go to cookouts, go to the beach and go to science camp.”
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The Fresh Air Fund, an independent, not-for-profit agency, was established in 1877 in Sherman by the Rev. Willard Parsons. Parsons asked members of his congregation to provide country vacations for New York City’s low-income children.
Since then, the program has provided 1.8 million children, selected based on financial need, the opportunity to experience summer life in 13 states — from Virginia to Maine — and Canada, entirely free.
Fresh Air kids, 6 to 12 years old, typically spend one to two weeks with their host families. If they are reinvited by the same family, as 65 percent of the children are, they may continue with Fresh Air through age 18.
This year, many of the eight host families welcomed familiar faces as the kids disembarked from the bus.
Sabine Carey, of Potters Mills, hosted Carla Reyes, 10, last summer and eagerly awaited her return.
“As soon as she left,” Carey said, “we couldn’t wait for her to come back.”
Last year, Carla and the Careys spent as much time outdoors as possible, and the same is in store for this summer.
“We live on a farm, so she enjoyed all of our critters and she loved catching fireflies,” Carey said. “It was interesting because she’s originally from Mexico in a pretty rural area, so it wasn’t new to her, but she really missed that in the city. It was really nice to see her enjoy being outside.”
Ashley Page, of State College, is hosting Tyla Payne, 9, for a second year, and keeps in touch with her.
“She calls us throughout the year, so she’s been calling us a lot, getting excited to come,” Page said. “Her request this year is lots more arts and crafts, lots of swimming, more camping, more fishing and she likes to cook, so I think we’re gonna do some cooking things with her.”
Her daughter Natalie, who is Tyla’s age, watched with wide eyes for the bus to deliver her friend.
“She’s really fun and she’s just really nice to me,” Natalie said. “I like doing stuff with her because she’s always so happy to be doing stuff.”
Beth Miller, 17, of Penns Valley, decided to host Keyna, 12, as part of her high school senior project.
“We’re going to take her kayaking and we’re going to take her to to the Fourth of July stuff because she’s never really seen fireworks,” Miller said. “You know, just letting city kids see that there’s more to life than what they’ve been brought up in.”
Her mother, Amy Miller, has been making special plans for Keyna’s visit.
“We’re looking forward to just doing real simple things like cookouts, stars at night, doing flea markets,” Amy Miller said. “I’m sure they’ve not seen Amish, so going through the community and doing that kind of stuff. We’re looking forward to just sharing our family with them.”
Among the bustling confusion of introductions and welcome signs, the Houses and Janiya found each other and exchanged warm hugs, seemingly overjoyed at being reunited.
“I think the kids just like having another friend and it’s really special to have her visit once a year,” Christopher House, of State College, said. “I think that they’ve really gotten a lot out of it and I think so has Janiya, too. They’re all just really good buddies.”
Harper House, 7, was excited to see her friend for multiple reasons.
“Well I’m really excited because my mom baked cookies and they’re really good and I can only eat them when Janiya comes,” Harper said.
While cookies were part of Harper’s youthful excitement, she also expressed mature admiration for Janiya.
“She’s really brave to go all the way to Pennsylvania,” Harper said. “When she first came she was only 7; she had no idea who we are and no idea what our names are or what we look like.”
To learn more about the program or how to become a host family, visit the Fresh Air Fund online at www.freshair.org.