By: KJ Mushung
Every summer for the last three years 9-year-old Fantejah Barker has left her crowded apartment, gotten on a bus in the Bronx and headed to a 10-acre respite from the city in King George, Va. But she's not heading to camp. As part of the Fresh Air Fund's program, Fantejah gets to spend two weeks every summer with a local family out in the country.
The Fresh Air Fund is a not-for-profit agency that provides free summer vacations to New York City children from low-income communities. Volunteer host families from Virginia to Maine open their homes to inner-city children for two weeks or more in the summertime. Host families are not paid. The Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to more than a million New York City children since its inception in 1877. It's similar to taking in a foreign exchange student but from New York instead of another country.
It's a whole new experience for some city children who may have never seen the stars at night, been fishing, climbed a tree, run across a field trying to catch fireflies or just relaxed in a hammock over a large grassy plot of land.
Marci and Edmund MacGregor, along with daughters Ashley and Kaleigh, welcomed Fantejah into their home for the third time this year. Marci learned about FAF through her daughters' school. After applying, Donna Bryant, chairperson for the Fredericksburg region of Virginia for the Fresh Air Fund, went to the MacGregor home for a mandatory inspection.
"Donna... came out to the house and talked to everybody. The whole family had to sit down, and she asked a bunch of questions," said Marci MacGregor, who spoke with Fredericksburg Parent and Family about the experience.
One question family members were asked was, 'Are you willing to share your mom and your life, really, with another child.'
"When a family's interested in hosting, they contact the chairperson. In this region it's me. And I go to their home, and we do an interview. And it has to be an interview that everybody in the family who lives in the house has to be present for because it's not really a one-person kind of job. It's something the family signs up to do," said Bryant.
"It's a lot of responsibility because they're here for two weeks," said MacGregor. "It's 24/7. It's not like they're at day camp and go home."
Bryant admits that not all pairings work out. "Sometimes it's just not a good match. What's on paper doesn't necessarily always match up... When we do the interview, one of the questions that I ask is 'If you thought about the child in your kid's class that you could not stand, would you be able to have that child stay at your house for two weeks? Could you handle it?' Because sometimes it gets hard, but most of the time it's very rewarding."
"We go through the interview process, talk about different situations that could come up and check out safety features in the home to make sure this would be a safe place for a child from the city to come and talk about precautions that that family needs to take. You know, things that are different in the country than they are in the city. Things like, they don't get to ride the lawnmower," added Bryant.
According to MacGregor, having a pool -- as her family does -- is OK, but a trampoline is not allowed.
"There are background check forms that the family fills out. And those go to a processing center that does background checks. And then they have to provide four references, and we check references. And if everything comes back OK -- the interview goes well, the reference checks are good and the background checks are fine, then they're accepted as a host family," reported Bryant, who added that every person who lives in the house who's old enough to drive gets a background check.
"Most of the time what comes back are... traffic tickets."
"They have to have their own bedroom. They have to have their own space, if they want it. So the guest room essentially is hers," MacGregor noted.
Sometimes, however, the girls sleep together in one room. It's essentially Fantejah's choice.
Fantejah was paired with the MacGregors because they wanted a girl the same age as one of their daughters. Other factors, like pets, factor into the pairing process as well.
After the children are matched with families, they come from New York City to FAF towns on a bus where they are met by their hosts.
"She got off the bus, and within five minutes the girls were playing. We went to Dairy Queen right away and got an ice cream to sort of break the tension and introduce everybody," said MacGregor of Fantejah's first visit.
For that summer, the MacGregors took her to Colonial Beach. At first she was intimidated by the waves even though she could swim. It was clearly a first experience for her. Every year the family tries to do something different, like go to Kings Dominion or the National Zoo.
"I want to take her to downtown Fredericksburg to see all the sights down there," said MacGregor. She also said Fantejah and her daughters spend much of the two weeks swimming in the family pool and riding their bicycles in the driveway.
According to Bryant, each host family is given the name, phone number, age and gender of the child who's expected to come for vacation. Host families are encouraged to contact the child's family before the trip. To prevent separation anxiety, FAF children can also call home, as Fantejah does regularly during her visits to King George.
"It is very, very hard for some of these families to let their kids go all the way to Virginia," she said.
"The Fresh Air Fund has an enormously good reputation in New York City, and it's been doing this for over 132 years... If the Fresh Air Fund didn't have the reputation that it has, I don't know if we'd get any kids to come. It's a very big trust factor."
KJ Mushung is a Stafford parent and reporter.
The FAF matching process:
Family interviews then fills out application
Application goes to NYC and is converted into invitation
Families in NYC apply for their children to go on FAF vacations
Agencies in NY that work with the FAF handle the invitations
Agency gives NYC parents some feasible invitations to look through and choose from.
Narrowed down by age, gender, pet allergies, etc.
Application questions according to Bryant:
What does your family like to do in the summertime?
How many kids do you have in your house?
Do you live in a suburb or a farm or whatnot?
Do you have any pets?