Fresh Air Fund seeking host families in Norwich area

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Region - posted Tue., Apr. 2, 2013
Contributed. Fresh Air Fund
Leyah Walden and her New York City friend, Brazil, take a dip in the pool. The Walden family hosts Brazil as part of the Fresh Air Fund Friendly Town program. Courtesy photo.

Each summer the Fresh Air Fund helps disadvantaged kids from New York City enjoy the simple pleasures of country life through summer visits to small towns and rural areas throughout the northeast. The Fund is currently seeking host families in the Norwich area who are willing to share their homes for a week or two with a child who would otherwise be stuck in a city apartment.

The Walden family of Preston has been hosting a Fresh Air child for the past three years. Dawn Walden said that Brazil, the child they host, first came to their home at age 7, and they have invited her back each year since then. “She’s a fun little girl. She and my daughter get along great,” Walden said. Walden’s daughter, Leyah, who is two years older than Brazil, prompted her family to host a child when she met another Fresh Air child in the neighborhood.

During their summers together, the Waldens have taken Brazil swimming and horseback riding. But on her first visit, Brazil was just amazed at having a swing set in the backyard. “She told us, ‘I saw the park,’ and we told her, ‘That’s not the park, it’s the yard,’” she recalled. “You don’t have to have a ton of money to take them everywhere.” For city kids, it’s a treat just to be able to go outside and enjoy the green grass and sunshine, she said.

Summar Lyons was one of those children. She spent two weeks with the Diobro family in upstate New York every summer starting at age 7, and continuing until she aged out of the program as a teenager. She tagged along on the family’s annual Fourth of July trip to their lake house in the Adirondacks. “It was a great vacation just to be able to get away from the city,” she said. “My favorite memories are the ones of us going out on the boat. Of course, at first I was scared I was going to fall. But we always brought food along and we’d always be laughing and carrying on. They would let me steer the boat when I was a little older.”

Lyons said she learned to swim and ride a bike along with the Diobros’ two daughters, skills that city kids cannot easily pick up. “In New York there’s not many green areas to be able to do that at such a young age,” she said. “You always had to go with an adult [to the park]. To go to a pool you had to jump on a train and figure out where the public pool was.”

Lyons said she keeps in frequent touch with her former host family; she has been invited to the weddings of her “host sisters” and they in turn have attended her graduation from high school and college. The family’s encouragement was a key factor in her own academic success, she said. “They motivated me a lot and made sure I kept on with school and kept up with my studies,” she said. “That added to my path to where I am now.”

After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in political science and Spanish, Lyons spent three years in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps. Now a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., Lyons hopes to work for children’s rights in developing countries. That first step out of her city apartment gave her a taste for travel on a wider scale, she said.

The program is rewarding for the host families, too. Liz Clardy, Fresh Air Fund director of community outreach and Friendly Town, said that host families come to see their rural surroundings with new, more appreciative eyes. Visiting children are enthralled by a simple thing like running through a sprinkler, she said, “all the cool stuff they’re able to do over the summer, things [host families] take for granted.”

Walden said that her daughter has gained a new appreciation for what she has, but more than that, “we love Brazil. That’s why we want her back.”  Like the Diobros, the Waldens keep in touch with their Fresh Air kid throughout the year.

The Fresh Air Fund dates to 1877 and has provided 1.7 million children over the years with a taste of summer life outside the confines of the city. Each year it serves about 9,000 children from ages 7 through 18; of that number, 4,000 spend a week or more with host families in the Friendly Town program.

Potential host families fill out an application, provide references, are interviewed and undergo a background check prior to participation. The weeks for this year’s Norwich/New London Friendly Town visits are June 28-July 5 and Aug. 7-19. To learn more about becoming a host family this summer, contact Norwich/New London fund representative Sharyn Benjamin at 860-861-8208, or call 1-800-367-0003 or visit

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