Inner city program can be breath of Fresh Air

There were a handful of stories I wrote my very first year as a journalist that really stuck with me.

Gas hitting $2 for the first time ever.

Sept. 11.

And, surprisingly (at least to me at the time), a feature piece about the Fresh Air Fund.

I remember it was a really hot June afternoon and the summer sunshine was calling me away from my desk. But I did my homework before leaving for interviews. I found out the Fresh Air Fund is a nonprofit organization that links low-income New York City youth with volunteer families in rural communities to provide them with a positive summer getaway.

A bus full of kids would be arriving in town that afternoon, and I would be there to meet them.

I opted to observe from a distance at first, and this amazing thing happened. Kids with seemingly no connections to waiting groups ran with open arms to be reunited with their summer hosts. Others were introduced for the first time, hugs were exchanged, plans made and there was this incredible excitement about sharing a common experience.

As arranged ahead of time, I spent the day following a teen and his Fresh Air family. I listened with genuine interest as he talked about how they had impacted his life, how much he looks forward to seeing them every year, and they reciprocated his sentiments.

He had never seen fireflies. Roasted a marshmallow. Or even walked barefoot on grass.

Seven years later, and they shared nicknames and inside jokes. Memories of summers’ past spilled out in snippets abbreviated with everyone’s laughter. I remember jotting down a note that he greeted the family dog as exuberantly as the dog greeted him.

After everyone had sufficiently caught up, I asked to borrow him a moment. Lemonades in hand, we excused ourselves to the front porch and each claimed a waiting rocking chair. Then he said something I’ll never forget.

“They’ve made me believe I have options in life.”

When I asked him to explain, he talked about how his host family annually sent him to basketball camp. And because of their encouragement, that year he tried out for and made his school’s varsity team. He started hanging out with more supportive people and said he hoped to get a scholarship and attend college — something he hadn’t ever considered a possibility before.

To a recent college graduate, it made a lasting impression.

The premise of the organization had seemed so simple in type on a website, but after experiencing it for a few hours, I realized it had incredible potential to benefit everyone involved. I left feeling humbled and appreciative of all the little things it’s easy to take for granted.

I vowed to volunteer as soon as I was able.

Late last year, after much discussion, finally furnishing our guest room and crossing fingers that we’d be a diaper-free household by this summer, my husband and I applied to be a host family. We were interviewed over the winter and were told we’d be given a match by spring.

We found out a few days ago that 7-year-old Joanna will be staying with us for 10 days in July. We called to introduce ourselves, and she can’t wait to collect rocks, go swimming in a pool for the first time and milk a cow.

I said we’d make it work!

I have no expectations, just excitement to finally be fulfilling a promise I made to myself over a decade ago. And what the heck. Maybe I’ll try milking a cow for the first time, too.

Kelly Valeri is a former Altoona Mirror copy editor who lives in State College. Go to for more information on the Fresh Air Fund.