For the second year in a row, Wilton resident Courtney Lilly and her family are hosting eight-year-old Melanie from Bronx, N.Y., for a week as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.

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 like Lilly’s since 1877. First-time Fresh Air children range in age from 7 to 12, and stay with host families for a week or two.

Lilly said her family decided to participate in the Fresh Air Fund program after she read an article about another family who had done it and “thought it would be a very positive experience for [her] family.”

Melanie took a coach bus from New York City’s Penn Station to Darien, where the Lilly family picked her up Saturday, July 29.

“The Fresh Air Fund has been in existence for a long time and they arrange trips of kids to come to towns like Wilton,” said Lilly. “They have coach buses that take the children to various communities throughout the summer depending on where the host families are.”

As far as she knows, Lilly said, Fresh Air Fund hasn’t been scheduling stops in Wilton “and it might be because we don’t have a big enough critical mass here yet of host families.” Lilly said she hopes that will change as more people learn about the program.

Hosting


Being a host family is a “big responsibility,” said Lilly.

“You are assuming the responsibility of caring for another person’s child during the time that they’re here,” she said. “That means making sure there’s food that they like to eat, that their sleeping arrangement is comfortable, and that there are things planned that are of interest to them.”

Hosting a Fresh Air child is not only a “special” and “priceless” experience, said Lilly, but a learning experience as well.

“She introduces us to new things and we introduce her to new things,” she said.

The first year Melanie stayed with her family, Lilly said, “we couldn’t believe how well she acclimated to a super new situation at a very young age.”

Lilly said having two children of her own in the home — nine-year-old Clara and 12-year-old Darien — “definitely helps” makes hosting an easier experience.

“I think it’s definitely helpful with regard to having toys and being in that frame of mind of what children enjoy,” said Lilly.

Lilly said her nine-year-old thinks of Melanie as a younger sister and “goes out of her way to make her super comfortable.”

“They’re just thick as thieves,” she said. “We all feel so much affection and connection to her.”

Lilly said Melanie and her daughters “share some of the same interests … with regard to pop culture.”

For example, she said, they’re talking about going to see the Emoji Movie later this week.


Activities


Melanie is spending some of her time this week attending camp at the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club — one of several places that allow Fresh Air Fund children to attend camp free of charge, said Lilly.

“She had fun there last year,” said Lilly, “so we got her in there a couple days this week.”

Aside from that, Lilly said, “we kind of try to keep our plans simple because she enjoys a lot of the simple pleasures like getting ice cream together.”

“We live next to a pond and she likes to catch fish and dig for worms. If a frog is found, that’s thrilling,” she said. “It’s just the simple pleasures of being in a different setting.”

Lilly said there are also plans to teach Melanie — who had never put her head under water before last year — to swim.

“Last year, we scheduled a swim lesson and she made a lot of progress,” she said.

“This year, we hope to get her to the next level of being safe and more comfortable in the water, so we do a lot of swimming and splashing around.”


Takeaways


Being a host family, Lilly said, has helped her family realize how fortunate they are to have things like a garden, a yard and access to a swimming pool — and that Melanie is lucky to live in an environment where she doesn’t have to travel by car everywhere.

“Last year, Melanie talked about how much driving there was [in Wilton]. I laughed and agreed,” said Lilly. “There are different things about our lifestyles that are lucky on both ends.”

Lilly said her family also feels “lucky” that Melanie wants to come and stay with them, “and I think she feels lucky that she gets to do it as well.”

“We plan a lot of special trips and do different things throughout the summer,” said Lilly, “but the week that we have her is kind of in the top experience of the summer.”

Information: 1-800-367-0003, freshair.org.