LANCASTER- For many children it is literally a breath of fresh air when they come and visit their host families in the summer time.
Romping barefoot through the green grass of the countryside, star gazing or simply just spending time part of a small town community; the Fresh Air Fund, an independent, not-for-profit agency, provides free summer vacations in the country to inner city children from low-income communities.
Every summer, numerous volunteer host families open their hearts and homes to New York City children to simply share the joys of their community.
Each summer, more than 4,000 children visit volunteer host families in rural, suburban and small town communities across 13 states. These children typically live in apartment buildings, and are more familiar with busy city blocks than quiet country roads.
Participating in the program for the last three years, Lancaster resident Jennifer Kreutz-Castro, who now serves as the co-chairperson for the Fresh Air Fund of Northern Erie & Niagara County, is hoping to get more families involved in the program. With 25 families in Western New York who already participate in the program, Kreutz-Castro said she would like to double that number.
Kreutz-Castro explained that in this area the kids are bused in from New York City to the ECC North campus to be picked up by their host families. Families wait eagerly with balloons and banners to welcome their new short time family member, but the only problem is there are so many empty seats on the bus.
“If you can imagine a big Greyhound bus with the tinted windows there are so many empty seats,” said Kreutz-Castro. “They’re not empty seats, because the kids aren’t signing up in New York. They’re empty because they don’t have a host family.”
Fresh Air children are boys and girls ranging in age from six to 18 years old. Children on first-time visits are six to 12 years old and stay for one or two weeks or more. Children who are re-invited by host families may continue with The Fresh Air Fund through age 18 and can enjoy extended trips.
Host families may request the age group and gender of the Fresh Air youngster they would like to host.
“These kids have never been in trouble,” remarked Kreutz-Castro. “Their sought out by outreach programs, counselors, and teachers. These are good kids with good grades. These kids are not necessarily on welfare or have all kinds of economic problems; they just don’t have the opportunity to have a vacation.”
There are two summer sessions families can invite a child to stay with them. The dates are: July 9 to July 19 or Aug. 6 to Aug. 16.
“All these kids really want is some fresh air,” said Kreutz-Castro. “We take for granted that we have grass in our yard, because these kids don’t.”
Kreutz-Castro became involved in the program when her and her husband decided they wanted to become foster parents. In 2010, they took the necessary classes to be foster parents and it was at that time she learned about the program from a fellow class member.
Three years later, Kreutz-Castro has invited three children into her home who she has formed a once in a life time bond with. The first child, Eric, came to her home when he was eight years old.
“He is such sweet little boy,” she said. “He’s the center of our family for that one week.”
And then two weeks later, Yarod came and spent time with the family.
“He was a little older,” Kreutz-Castro said. “He was 10 going on like 15. His mother was part of the military so he didn’t have the opportunity to go on vacation. He is such an amazing kid.”
The second year it was a full house for the family inviting Eric and Yarod at the same time to stay with them, plus fostering two children, and having four children of their own.
“I’m not wealthy. I don’t live in a subdivision. I live here in the village, but its volunteer and I’m telling you it costs nothing to open up your heart, open up your home, and give these kids a gift for a week,” commented Kreutz-Castro.
The third year Tamiha had the opportunity to spent time with the family. Tamiha is a nine year old girl from Jamaica, Queens, where she lives in an apartment with six other people.
Coming from a completely different background, Tamiha shared with the family some of her ideals such as she doesn’t eat pork or celebrate Christmas.
“I think it is wonderful for my children to see that there are differences in the world,” Kreutz-Castro. “That not everything looks like Lancaster or Western New York.”
The Fresh Air Fund does provide some money toward a couple of activities. For the last few years, Kreutz-Castro said they have provided the Fresh Air kids with free Bison tickets and tickets to Fantasy Island and discounted tickets are provided to the rest of the family. She hopes in the future to raise funds for a zoo trip, or a night at the museum or one big picnic.
Beyond that, Kreutz-Castro said these are just kids who want to swim, play in the yard or play in the park. She personally likes to take them camping.
“If I haven’t heard about this program I wouldn’t know these kids and I don’t know if I am just lucky or what,” said Kreutz-Castro. “I love these children. And this is the year to do it. These poor kids went through Hurricane Sandy and some of them lost things that they had and some of them are not taking a vacation, because mom has to replace the car. This is the year to do it.”
A host family must live in the suburbs, small towns, or rural area to participate in the program. A host family is required to fill out an application, have a home visit, and personal references are needed.
“I liked to say that I give to these kids, I change their lives, but they changed my life and they changed my children lives,” remarked Kreutz-Castro. “Just to see how accepting my children can be with somebody who has come from a different background, who looks different, talks different, and just to see how comfortable and blended we all become as one big loving family is amazing.”
An informative meeting will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 4007 Main St., in Eggertsville. For more information call 901-4222 or visit “The Fresh Air Fund of Northern Erie and Niagara County” page on Facebook.