Program gives kids a vacation from the city

Fresh Air Fund child Jayden McKenith, center, is seen at the beach last year with 'summer brothers' Pierre and Henri Maman

Princeton resident Anne-Marie Maman had been considering hosting a child through the Fresh Air Fund for a long time. “I’d been thinking it was something I’d like to do … I’d been meaning to do,” Maman said.

Then she read a blog post by a woman in Maine who was considering the program, and Maman decided it was time. So, last summer, Maman and sons Pierre and Henri welcomed 7-year old Jayden McKenith to the family for 12 days.

“It was great,” Maman said. “He was super easy. He’s as sweet as they come.”

The Friendly Towns program, run by the Fresh Air Fund, sends kids from New York City ages 6 to18 to stay in rural and suburban homes for about two weeks in states from Maine to West Virginia. The program has been helping kids take a vacation from city life since 1877, said Fresh Air Fund Mercer County Chairperson Laurie Bershad.

“It gives them the opportunity to do things they otherwise wouldn’t get to do in the city,” Bershad said. Kids who are part of the program get to do things like ride bikes, go swimming and enjoy a slower, quieter pace of life, Bershad said. The kids generally come from low-income neighborhoods, usually from families that wouldn’t be able to afford summer camp or a trip out of the city.

The majority of families who participate in the program, Bershad said, do it again the following summer, often with the same child, and many stick with the program for years. “Not everybody makes a perfect match,” she said. “The goal is to find a child you connect with.”

The majority of families who participate in the program invite the children they host to visit for a second year, and they usually continue to do so in following years, Bershad said.

The Maman family falls into this category; they will host McKenith again this summer, and Maman said she hopes to continue to do so. Having a new kid in the house does take a little adjusting to, and Maman said there has been some rivalry between McKenith and her sons.

Still, she thinks the program is a good experience for both McKenith and her sons. McKenith calls Maman his “summer mom,” and Pierre and Henri he calls his “summer brothers.” “They fight and play and do all the regular stuff,” Maman said, “so they’re like siblings.”

Besides getting kids together from different backgrounds, the Friendly Towns program also allows kids the opportunity to engage in activities that they aren’t able to enjoy as easily in the city. McKenith had been swimming before, but never had such easy access to a pool as in Princeton. Maman also took him to the beach for the first time, which he loved.

“He became a master of the boogie board, as long as the water wasn’t deeper than his ankles,” Maman said.

McKenith also joined Pierre and Henri at a nature camp held by the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, which Maman said was happy to extend McKenith a scholarship so he could attend. McKenith even got a trip to the aquarium. “Especially in the Princeton area,” Maman said. “We have so much, it’s a shame not to share it.”

But the program is not just about trips to the beach and the aquarium, Maman said. It’s about basic summer activities like running around outside or just enjoying the novelty of having a backyard.

McKenith, she said, is low-maintenance and perfectly content to just relax. “He would’ve been totally happy to just hang in the backyard,” Maman said.

If you are interested in hosting a child or have any questions contact Laurie Bershad at Bershadfamily@verizon.net.