Fresh air fund brings Westport to city kids
Della Chen's favorite thing about Westport is going to bed.
"In the city it's so noisy, and at nighttime there's lots of lights, and I can't go to sleep without putting a pillow over my head," the 8-year-old said. "And there wasn't that much noise in Westport."
Chen, a third-grader at Public School 205 in Brooklyn, has for the past two summers spent 10 days in Westport for vacation. Her trips have been organized by the Fresh Air Fund, a 133-year-old program that sends underprivileged New York City children on trips to leafy communities up and down the eastern seaboard and to towns in Canada.
Each summer has three sessions: a two-week and a 10-day session in July, and an eight-day session in August.
Last summer, Chen stayed with 9-year-old Lauren Beranek, and Lauren's two brothers and parents. During her stay, she learned to ride a bike and a horse; played in the Long Island Sound and on the playground at Compo Beach; and shared Lauren's toys.
Her horse? "An all brown horse named Sweetie, with a little white line down her forehead," Chen remembered. "She was easy to ride. The people that worked there said she was good with beginners; I guess they were right."
Her bike? "I couldn't ride it before, but then I learned that if you keep peddling you're not gonna fall; and if you want to stop, you grab onto the breakers. I've been riding a bicycle in New York City, too. I used to ride before dinner."
Lauren's toys? "She let me play with her favorite American Girl doll, even though she wanted to play with it. I think it was Josephina. She had the coolest outfits; some of them had cute little pockets and inside they had a fake iPod."
According to Martha Mintzer, of Weston, who oversees the program for much of Fairfield County, 25 families in Westport, Weston, Easton and Fairfield hosted children during the summer two years ago. Last year, 37 hosts signed up.
"That was a big increase, but we need to grow the program even more," Mintzer said. "We've had families of all different types: people who don't have children, people who are single, a family in Fairfield that's divorced, older couples whose kids have left the house. We've had two moms host, though we haven't had two dads yet since I've been here."
Signing up is easy. A family can specify if it would like a boy or girl to visit, and pick out a particular age. If the trip goes well, the family is encouraged to host the child in successive summers. To qualify, children must live in New York City, be between 6 and 12 years old, and come from a disadvantaged family. The children can continue to visit until they reach 18, provided they started visiting before 12.
Anyone interested in joining should e-mail Mintzer at Martha_Mintzer@yahoo.com, or call her at 203-226-6627. Workers from the fund will conduct an interview, run a background check, and walk through the home to make sure it's safe. The program, Mintzer said, runs mostly on trust.
Emily Langham, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, still keeps in touch with her Fresh Air Fund sister, Natasia Scott, of Harlem, who's now a nursing student at Hunter College. Both are now 20.
In fact, the two were subject of a Westport News article in July 1996, the first summer they met. From St. Louis, while talking with this reporter Wednesday, Langham shot an instant message to Scott telling her to prepare for her second interview with the paper.
Over time, the two became so close that they started organizing trips outside of the program. Langham recalls with a chuckle how Scott still refers to her back yard as a "park." And Scott remembers vividly her first night in Westport.
"I pretty much cried; I wanted to talk to my mom," she said. "But once we got into the activities, it started going well."
Scott and Langham started going to camps: for tennis, for theater, for art. Then, as they grew older, they hung out more at Compo Beach or went shopping downtown or at the mall.
"Westport's nice, a nice quiet place," Scott said. "That's why my mom took a step in signing me up for the program; just wanting your child to get out, explore different people, do different things."
Connie Chen agreed.
"We come from China and a lot of our family is Chinese," she said. "This is a very good experience for Della to go to a family and to learn a different culture."
The connection often lasts all year. Over the winter, for example, the Beranek family sent Della a Christmas card. At Chinese New Year, the Chens sent the Beraneks an envelope with "lucky money" inside.
"It says good luck for the new year," Chen said.
Asked for any drawbacks, Connie Chen was brief. "Of course I miss her when she's gone, but we keep in touch."
But Della likes the night time in Westport, she said. "Here, it's hard to see the stars, but there Della can see them. And we live near the subway station and it's very noisy in the night time."