Wilton resident Vanessa Elias and her family recently hosted an eight-year-old named Savannah from Queens, N.Y., for a week as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.
The Fresh Air Fund is a cultural exchange program that has been providing New York City children from low-income communities the opportunity to spend a week or two with volunteer host families since 1877. First-time Fresh Air children range in age from 7 to 12.
Elias said she was first introduced to the Fresh Air Fund when she was a child.
“My parents signed up to host a child when I was five years old and living in Pennsylvania,” she said.
“When we went to pick up the little girl, she had ended up not coming and we instead hosted a little boy whose host family wasn’t there for some reason. The short 24 hours left such an impression on me as to someone else’s reality that I knew as an adult I wanted to do that with my family.”
Not only can the program provide a child with a “powerful experience,” said Elias, but can help “create lifelong memories and change.”
While there are no specific responsibilities when it comes to being a Fresh Air Fund host family, Elias said, it’s important to treat each child “as one of your own.”
The Elias family has hosted three Fresh Air children since 2015, including a seven-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., and a six-year-old from Bronx, N.Y. This year was the family’s second consecutive time hosting Savannah.
After her first visit, Elias said her family kept in touch with Savannah through phone calls and by exchanging photos. Savannah arrived for her second Wilton visit on June 28.
“Since this was Savannah’s second year, we wanted to know if there was anything special from last year that she wanted to do again,” said Elias. “We also talked to our kids and reminded them that it’s important that we do this.”
Elias has three daughters — 16-year-old Chloe, 14-year-old Mia and nine-year-old Libby.
During this year’s weeklong visit, Savannah went to the beach and the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, played in the Eliases’ yard, took swim lessons, saw Mamma Mia! at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) of Connecticut in Ridgefield, attended camp at the Boys and Girls Club in Ridgefield for two days, and watched Wilton’s Fourth of July fireworks.
A ‘rewarding’ experience
“Like most rewarding and worthwhile things in life, it’s not easy but has a lifelong impact on her and our family,” said Elias.
“There are lots of things that we don’t think twice about that are part of our lives that are brand new to her like a first picnic, first time to an aquarium, first theater experience and first time trying a plum and a peach. To see the joy that these experiences bring makes your heart burst. Not only are we opening our world to her, but she opens her world to us.”
Elias said being a Fresh Air host family gives her family “perspective and insight into a different reality.”
“We learn we have many similar experiences and feelings, but also many things are so different,” she said. “Even though we live in the same country, it’s like having a young cultural exchange student.”
Elias said she and her family are fortunate to have the life they do in Wilton.
“We don’t need to be perfect family or have a perfect house to host,” she said. “All we need is an extra chair at the table and mattress to sleep on to make a difference.”
Elias said hosting a Fresh Air child is a “win-win experience” and encourages other families to consider doing it.
“It won’t be the easiest thing you have done, but it will be one of the most rewarding,” she said.