By Michael Kelley
SHEFFIELD— For at least two weeks this summer, inner-city children from New York will be swapping their blacktop basketball courts and playgrounds for life in the countryside as part of the annual Fresh Air Fund visit to the Berkshires.
The Fresh Air Fund program, which started in 1877, is aimed at providing inner-city kids from New York City opportunities to experience the joys of a summer vacation, a joy that their families, many of which receive governmental support, cannot afford otherwise.
Now in its 130th year, the Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to more than 1.7 million New York City school-children.
The program is open to nearly 6,000 6- to 18-year-old children every summer. The children are invited to stay in one of the more than 300 participating towns in over a dozen Northeastern states and Canada.
Last year, 21 children visited the Berkshires as part of the program.
Lelia Bruun, organizer for the Berkshire County chapter of the Fresh Air Fund program, expects a similar number this summer, with seven families participating in July and 14 families participating in August.
Anna White and her husband Fred Stevens, of Sheffield, are among the local families participating in the July program.
White said she first learned of the program when she was studying social work in college. As part of her social work curriculum she was encouraged to work at different camps and social institutions to earn credit towards her degree.
One of the camps she volunteered at was one of the Fresh Air Fund’s summer camps, just outside of New York City.
This marks the third year White and Stevens have hosted a Fresh Air Fund student since moving back to the area five years ago.
In that time, the couple has opened its home to three different students.
This summer, they were matched up with 7-year-old Semira Charles of Brooklyn.
White said the program offers the children a change of pace from the hustle and bustle they are used to at home.
"I think [the program allows the students] a little bit of a sense of independence and freedom," White said. "In the city you always have to watch out, but in the Berkshires they can just go in the backyard and play."
"We get the opportunity to show [the Fresh Air students]...possibilities that they don’t see everyday," she added.
Through the support of the Rudolf Steiner School, Charles will join White’s daughter, 10-year old Kiana, for two weeks at the school’s summer camp.
While White sees this program beneficial to the visiting students, she also feels her daughter can take something away from the experience and that a program like this is a great way to impart life-long lessons to her daughter.
"I think it is really important to teach children to be grateful for the things they have," White said. "I think this is a great life learning lesson for her. It shows her a different lifestyle."
Since her daughter is multi-racial, White said this is a good opportunity to introduce Kiana to another culture, one that by living in the Berkshires, she isn’t too familiar with.
"Not only is it a great opportunity for us to open our home, but it also creates a way to bring more culture to [my daughter]"
White has found that despite both her and her husband working a full-time schedule she has found time to participate in the program.
"I think a lot of people who work full time think they can’t [host a student], but it is very do-able for people," she said "You just have to be willing to be flexible with what the child’s needs might be."
Over her three years involved with the program, she too has learned a thing or two.
"[In the beginning] I had an idealistic view that a child would come and be life-long friends with my daughter," she said. "[But I learned] bringing two children together who have never met each other takes effort...but is [possible]."Semira, Auntie Lenea and Kiana (Fred and Nefertiti are in the background).