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Inner city youth see their first stars and suburbs

Families across the state are taking in children from the inner city for a couple of weeks to communities including Middlefield, Berlin, and Newtown as part of the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit dedicated to bringing New York City kids from low-income families who have never experienced life outside the inner city free summer experiences with carefully vetted host families. The organization also runs summer camps.

This is the first year in the program for Tancy Gemza of Danbury. She said she’s excited to meet 5-year-old Sue-naya and 11-year-old Thaily, who will be spending the next two weeks at her home.

Gemza said she plans to take to the kids blueberry-picking at Lyman Orchards in Middlefield – something the city-slickers have certainly never experienced. Gemza said she knows one of the kids likes to bake, and hopes to enjoy making her grandmother’s blueberry tea-cake recipe together.

“I think it’s really great,” said Jennifer Carroll-Fischer of Berlin. This is Carroll-Fischer’s fourth year in the program. Her daughter, an only child, relishes the chance to have a sister for two weeks, Carroll-Fischer said.

Once the relationship is established, families can keep in touch with the kids they host throughout the year, even inviting them to visit and go sledding in the winter.

These kids are amazed by things “we take for granted,” Carroll-Fischer said.

Marie and Dave Athans are co-chairs of the Newtown Friendly-Town (as the organization calls its regions) for the Fresh Air Fund host family program. Marie Athans said it’s an amazing sight when kids come off the bus, “adrenaline shooting, and they see all these posters and balloons” held by the host families, some of whom are excitedly re-welcoming visiting kids for consecutive years.

“The little ones on the bus sometimes ask, ‘are we going to a castle?’ That’s how they envision someone’s home,” Marie Athans said. It is expensive to live in the city, and ownership of a free-standing home seems amazing to some of the children, who ask whether their host families are rich. “I wish,” Marie Athans quipped.

Kids can be first timers from ages 6 to 12, Marie Athans explained.

According to the couple, many kids have never had the opportunity to leave the city before. Some even have difficulty sleeping, having never experienced the quiet people living outside the inner city take for granted.

Although this is, for many of the kids, the first time they’ve seen the stars in person, according to Marie Athans, they are most excited by seeing wildlife by the road, including raccoons, possums, and deer. The kids also enjoy catching fireflies and visiting farms where they have the opportunity to see livestock in person.

According to Dave Athans, one of the most powerful experiences for the kids can be touring the local police station.

“In New York City, the police have a tough job, and they can be very tough,” Dave Athans explained. Kids from the inner city may fear police officers, and meeting friendly officers who are there to protect and serve the public can be a transformative experience.

It’s the first time out of the city for Javen, who is approximately 10 years old. The biggest difference he’s seen so far between Connecticut and New York City is all the trees. Javen will be staying with the Athans, who are taking in older boys this year – the least sought-after demographic. The most sought after, Marie Athans said, are younger girls.

“Hopefully more families will get on board,” Carroll-Fischer said.

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