The Fresh Air Fund is looking for Westport families to host children from New York City for one to two weeks during the summer.
Line Blanco, a Westport woman with three young children, said her family eagerly awaits hosting 7-year-old Isaiah Foster of Brooklyn, N.Y., for the second year in a row. Isaiah spent a week with them in August, and they expect him back for another week in late July.
"As he gets older, we hope to have him longer, and when he becomes a teen, we hope to have him all summer," Blanco said. "I would encourage (hosting a child)."
The Fresh Air Fund was founded in 1877 as a nonprofit organization by the Rev. Willard Parsons, a minister from rural Sherman, Pa., according to the agency's website. Today, the program provides needy city kids with vacations in suburbs ranging from Virginia to Canada.
Martha Mintzer, the fund's Fairfield County coordinator, said she hopes 35 families in Westport and Fairfield will host children this summer.
The children come from families who receive help from community outreach programs based on family needs, according to Bonnie Dubson, the program's Westport coordinator. To be considered, the child must qualify for free or reduced school lunch, and a family of four cannot have annual income of more than $60,000.
In 2012, about 4,000 kids were hosted in suburban areas, referred to as "friendly towns," on the East Coast and Canada, according to the website. Since its founding, the fund has hosted 1.7 million children.
"About 75 percent of kids are expected to be invited back to the family they were hosted by last year," Mintzer said.
First-time host families are paired with kids from 6 to 12 years old, Dubson said. Families that have hosted before may host the same child until he or she reaches 18, she said.
"I think people decide to host for a variety of reasons," Dubson said. "But the most rewarding aspect of hosting is by far the friendships that are built, some which can last a lifetime."
The organization also runs five summer camps in upstate New York for children who cannot get placed with a host family because of certain medical conditions or special needs.
A family interested in hosting a child must apply and go through a detailed screening process, which includes background checks for family members 18 and over, Mintzer said.
Children have physical exams before leaving home, and host families are informed in advance of any allergies or dietary needs children may have, she said.
Rianne Sappern, of Fairfield, said she is looking forward to hosting 9-year-old Donte McKenzie, of Brooklyn, for the second time this summer. Her family took in McKenzie in August and hopes to have him back in early August this year.
"I loved the idea of it, since I grew up in Brooklyn," said Sappern, who has a son the same age as McKenzie and a daughter three years older. "It's great for the family and the child."
Blanco's children are 3-1/2, 6 and 8 years old -- a good fit for their guest Isaiah, who is 7. She recalls Isaiah last year being puzzled by the idea of walking around barefoot. When they went to Compo Beach, it was the first time he had felt sand squishing between his toes.
She called hosting him "a positive experience" for her family.
"It's not all about what we gave him, it's about what he gave us. It made us come back to what's important, like friendship," Blanco said.
Her kids did not want Isaiah to leave last summer and could not wait for him to return this summer, Blanco said.
"There wasn't a dry eye on the day he left," she said. "My 3-1/2-year-old always asks `When's Isaiah coming back?' "
For information on hosting a child through the Fresh Air program, call 1-800-367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.