Written by Betsy Abraham Friday, 30 August 2013 00:00
When Janice and Michael Cunningham first signed up to host an inner city kid in their home for two weeks through the Fresh Air Fund, they never imagined they would be adding a new member to their family.
They first joined the program in 2005, but their initial experience didn’t meet their expectations. The child they were matched with didn’t have the same interests as their family, who loved playing sports and being active, and the couple had hesitations about continuing another year.
“Our child just wanted to be inside and play video games. And then the coordinator talked us into it and said certain kids are a match to some people but not every family,” Janice said.
But then they met Sean, a young boy from the Bronx.
“I’m so glad we stuck with it a second time,” Janice says. “He’s a great match.”
The match is so good, that Sean has been returning to the Cunningham’s for the past six years. Every summer he returns to the Cunningham’s for two weeks of playing baseball, going to water parks, swimming, playing video games and enjoying the simple pleasures of unadulterated childhood.
But the fun extends past the Fresh Air Fund. Sean has become a part of the family, visiting regularly and going on vacations and day trips with them throughout the year.
Michael motivates Sean, as well as his own two sons, Brian, 16, and James, 11, to get good grades so that they can all go on vacations together. Sean also keeps in touch with Brian, and James through texting and Xbox.
“He fits in and he’s another part of the family,” says Michael. “The kids are best friends with him.”
“Having him over is really fun because normally when I don’t have any friends over, I have to do something (boring) but when I have him over I always have a backup plan,” James said.
The Cunninghams found out about the Fresh Air Fund from Michael’s sister, who had hosted a child in her home in Levittown. Seeing the positive experience they had, they decided to participate in the program. And since they got involved, they have benefited just as much as Sean.
“It’s nice opening your home to other people and giving them new experiences and tools for learning and growing that they might not get in the city,” Janice said. “There’s a lot more freedom here. Just the thought that we exposed him to all of that has been a very positive thing for all of us.”
The Cunningham’s home in Westbury is an oasis for a kid like Sean, who lives in an apartment in the Bronx with his mother and grandmother.
“I like how when I come out here I get to play sports a lot. There’s more open space,” Sean says.
The Fresh Air Fund has been partnering up inner city, low-income children with families in suburban and rural communities since 1887. Kids are treated to a free, summer experience away from the city and often make bonds that last a lifetime. Many have a misconception that hosting a child is full of costly activities, but Janice insists that the kids are always happy to do normal things such as riding bikes or playing outside.
And as for Michael and Janice, they are glad they didn’t give up on the program.
“If you get a kid who’s not a match to your family, don’t give up because you might not meet your special child. You can become a true family. It’s definitely life changing,” she said.
To find out more about the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshairfund.org.