Experience hosting Fresh Air Fund child enriches summer

After six hours on a bus, the 7-year-old disembarked and greeted me with a shy hug. I introduced her to the rest of my family, told her how excited we were to meet her and asked if she’d like a Popsicle.

That earned a smile.

Joy would be staying with us for 10 days through the Fresh Air Fund – a nonprofit group that matches low-income kids from New York City with volunteer families in rural areas to provide them with a positive summer experience.

Little did I know at the time that she would provide us with an incredible experience, too.

On the way back to our house, I asked Joy to describe where she lived. My 6-year-old’s jaw dropped listening to her explain they had a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom on the second floor of a six-story building in Harlem. And she has to use the steps because the elevator is broken.

“Do you have a backyard?” my daughter, Allison, asked incredulously.

“No, but there’s a park across the street!” Joy said. “And the swings go really high.”

I could see Allison’s mental gears turning. She had probably never given our grass much thought before.

In the weeks leading up to Joy’s arrival, I tried to temper my expectations. I knew there would be bumps and blips, but I certainly didn’t expect her to warm up to us so quickly.

I tried to imagine going home with any of the other host families we had met briefly before the bus arrived. Even as a grown woman – with all of the capabilities that come with adulthood – I still would’ve been a little overwhelmed and uneasy being invited into someone else’s home at first introduction.

Add in the fact that this was Joy’s first trip away from home? And her first nonfamily sleepover? I told her how brave I thought she was, and I promised her a great vacation.

We packed an immense amount of summer into a 10-day span: a parade and fireworks, grilling dinner outside, a baseball game, visiting area playgrounds, water balloon fights and sprinklers, chalking on the driveway, swimming, a late-night campfire, two amusement parks, catching fireflies and even indoor ice skating to beat the heat on a 90-degree day.

This area has so much to offer, it was honestly tough to choose our daily activities sometimes.

But it wasn’t always perfect. Some revelations about her life make my heart ache and wish we could do more. The girls didn’t always get along. And on occasion our 3-year-old son would get left out.

But the moments that really counted? The look on Joy’s face when she bit into her first s’more. Or when she sat down for the first time inside a baseball stadium. And when she grabbed me around the waist, jumping up and down screaming how happy she was anticipating her first official fireworks display.

It’s amazing seeing things through a child’s eyes. It truly is. She gave us such a wonderful gift to be able to take a fresh look at our surroundings and really appreciate the little things it’s easy to take for granted.

To us, it might just be a patch of grass to mow every few days. To a little girl who is typically surrounded by pavement, it’s something to celebrate.

Maybe even pure joy.

Former Mirror copy editor Kelly Valeri lives in State College with her family.