Berkshire dads give kids breath of Fresh Air
Joe Nicolosi grew up with his family in the Bronx, but he remembers how his aunt would be hosted by a Pennsylvania family through the Fresh Air Fund.
Through that acquaintance, he too got to meet the family and was also invited to spend time away from the city to enjoy the countryside.
"I looked forward to biking and fishing and other things I couldn't do in the Bronx," Nicolosi recalled.
So when he and his wife, Wendy, retired and moved to Alford about six years ago, they talked about returning the favor and hosting a couple of children for a week in the summer. They ended up hosting two sisters from the Bronx.
"They lived not too far from where I grew up," he said.
Though they didn't always see eye-to-eye, Nicolosi said the girls would really open up when they made the time to have three meals a day with each other.
"For 51 weeks out of the year, they live in one setting and that's all they know. For one week, we hope to give them a chance to come here and try to detox" from the life in the city, Nicolosi said. And for one week out of the year, Nicolosi, whose children are grown and living away, gets to be a father again in his own home.
The Fresh Air Fund, since 1877, has had a mission as a nonprofit organization, to afford children living in low-income and urban communities the free opportunity to experience farmland, woodlands and other suburban and rural community life while staying with host families.
This summer, according to Berkshire County region Fresh Air Fund coordinator Lelia Bruun of Great Barrington, more than 40 local families will host youths in their homes during July and August. She said there's still time for single- and two-parent homes to apply to open their homes to city kids in August.
"Really anyone can be a host, so long as they offer a loving, safe, caring home," said Bruun. "It opens up a such a world to some of them."
For about five years ago, Bruun said, Padraic "Paddy" Spence convinced his wife, Julie Michaels, of West Stockbridge, to host a Fresh Air Fund youth. They ended up hosting the same girl for four years, keeping in touch with her throughout the rest of the year.
Spence became diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, and passed away last September. Bruun said the girl Spence and Michaels had hosted made it a point to come back to the Berkshires to attend Spence's funeral services.
"Even though he's passed away, his spirit of fatherness was very strong. They welcomed her in to be a part of their household," Bruun said.
Last year, Dan and Rachel Louis, of Williamstown, decided to try being Fresh Air Fund host parents. They talked it over with their twins, a boy and a girl, who were 8 at the time, and as a family, they welcomed a then 7-year-old Mahasen Dabbagh to their home.
"We were really lucky. The child they placed us with, we absolutely adored," said Rachel. The Louis family will welcome the girl back to their home for 10 days this August.
They've also tried to keep in touch beyond summer.
"I remember one time we called to talk on the phone and she talked to me an then to our kids (Clarissa and Elliot). When the phone came back to me, she asked, ‘Where's Dan?' So we got him and put him on the phone too," Rachel said.
Both Dan Louis and Joe Nicolosi said that, as with any family, having an additional young person in the home requires a little more energy and a little more patience, but both said it was worth the experience of being able to show a child new things, to give them a chance to experience the outdoors.
"We got to introduce someone to things we like to do, like swimming and visiting lakes, and see it through [Mahasen's] eyes," said Dan Louis.
He said he took for granted the fact that the girl hadn't been able to learn how to swim, so the family taught her.
"It's heartwarming when they arrive and sad when they leave, and its good to hear her voice on the phone" throughout the year, he said.
To reach Jenn Smith:
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink
More info ...
To learn more about the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org.
To learn more about hosting a Fresh Air child this summer in the Berkshires, contact Lelia Bruun at (413) 528-6701.
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