A Deep Breath and the Fresh Air Fund

So if you haven’t noticed the news is rife with turmoil and controversy regarding the BlackLivesMatter movement, the tragic situations that ended in people’s lives being lost. I haven’t had a chance to really get sucked into the vortex because it’s summer and I tend to lose all sense of time, date and day chasing after my boys. As a result, this is probably going to be one of the only posts I successfully write this summer. I have read a lot of articles and responses and watched some of the news, currently watching the DNC after the RNC. I sometimes feel I just throw more fuel to a fire if I spit out comments without really holding back and discerning much of the big picture. This entry of my blog is really to serve a bigger purpose than politics, which is to challenge anyone who truly cares about our communities but wonders how they can help beyond the voting booth.

I’ve lived in a predominately black neighborhood in New York City at a time when New York was for the most part being “gentrified” which was a slow but beneficial economic process for most but not all. We forget that not all people benefit from directly from economic gentrification. I think that is what some in our country is basically saying. When a neighborhood improves, people want to live there. Artists and middle class chasing after lower rents and housing prices you have to be willing to live on the fringe a bit. This will always include issues of security, mixed with complicated social issues and keeping people, especially kids safe is a real challenge. One thing that I noticed living in Harlem and NYC during the early 90s however, was my own fear at times walking through the projects to access either a grocery store or park. Why was I afraid? Was it because I was a young girl not from the projects or was it because the potential for being a target of a crime, being misconstrued as someone with money simply because I was white? I had to deal with my own fears first and honestly, I met some real people who lived in real poverty and had real problems. When I became a Mom in the city, it became a great equalizer for me as I often met other Moms at the park or even I went to the projects playgrounds because they were simply a great place to play. Some of the families lived for generations in the same apartments, subsidized by the government because not everyone can rent a 2 bedroom apartment in Trump tower for 14,000 a month. Affordable housing is essential to a community’s stability especially as neighborhoods like Harlem and the Lower East Side were quickly becoming a viable option for artists and young professionals that couldn’t afford a million dollar mansion in the sky.

I moved out of the city 12 years ago but also a part of my heart remained in Harlem. This is why I also chose six years ago to be a host for the Fresh Air Fund. I personally know the plight of many of the kids that grow up in city, even if I don’t share their life I can honestly say I’ve witnessed much of the pain and dysfunction that broken communities find themselves struggling to rise above and make a clean exit. The year I decided to host a Fresh Air kid I remember sitting in a heat wave in Red Hook, visiting a friend who lives close to some projects and my kids love playing in the park with anyone. My kids make easy friends in NYC because I still take them fearlessly to the playgrounds in the park. It’s always hard to tell their new friends we don’t live in the city, that we are just visiting. I used to make a point of taking our Razor Scooters to the park and letting whoever wanted to use them share in the fun. One woman wouldn’t let her son ride our scooter because she didn’t want me to think her son was going to steal it. I profusely said told her it was okay, that’s why we bring them to the park for all the kids to use. Finally she allowed her child to give the scooter a try. That same visit, I watched as kids filled garbage cans with water and dumped them with water to refresh themselves from the massive heat wave that frequently oppresses the city. NYC is like an oven in the summer and rarely do you really get a break. Nighttime is always a bit cooler but if you live in the projects, you rarely can afford air conditioning and rarely do you even get a breeze or a break from the oven like temperatures. It was the first year I had moved to Massachusetts and realized I was “privileged” to live in a place that has creeks, ponds and lakes that are free. Many of the kids in the city do not have money for camp, their parents work low paying hourly jobs and they are going to summer school to access the subsidized food programs. Some of these kids are left to their own devices at a young age simply because they have no other alternative available to them.

Now over the last couple of weeks, I admit I have had a couple of rants to myself when I see quite honestly very privileged middle class people passionate about the BLM movement and spouting more politics than actually getting their hands dirty to help solve the societal issues. I equally get that burning itch under my skin when I see God fearing evangelicals with two jobs, a mortgage, going on vacation and sending their kids to expensive camps spout off about the same inequalities yet still never reaching out beyond their white picket fences. These are the same types of people who were scared to death to walk the streets of NYC, and lock their doors for fear of someone stealing their precious TVs, computers and cars. You see, here in the Pioneer Valley we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers of host families participate in the Fresh Air Fund program. We used to have BUS LOADS of kids, and hundreds of families sponsored a child. What has changed? The needs certainly haven’t. The change has happened on OUR privileged end. We no longer feel like making sacrifices for the good of society because we feel we would have to give up something. Time. Vacation. Food. Space. And most of all, money. The Fresh Air Fund is free but trust me, when that Fresh Air kid adds to the meal portions or the activity cost your pocketbook feels it.

The Fresh Air Fund is America’s OLDEST nonprofit. It started during a time in our country when we didn’t have labor laws that kept 10 year olds out of hard labor and dangerous manufacturing in our industrial revolution. Kids were having severe medical issues with asthma from the city’s poor air quality. Kids couldn’t just be kids. A minister from Pennsylvania appealed to his congregants.

“If we all took just ONE child” the founder of the Fresh Air had a vision

And so, the people heard and they acted upon that call in obedience to caring for the plight of the poor, the widowed and downtrodden and the Fresh Air Fund was born.

Now I can tell you firsthand. I benefit from having our Fresh Air kid in our home. My children learn to share everything including their valued space, toys, and even pets. Some of my friends know the details of our Fresh Air Fund’s circumstances that brought him into the Fresh Air to begin with. I will say this. His Mom took the first step to find something better for him, to expand his horizons and show him another way in life. His life continues to be fraught with complications that I won’t share on my blog but I will say this. His Mom has said his time with us has dramatically impacted his life, and therefore hers as well. From one Mom to another we chuckle on the phone when I tell her what we did for the week and she’s also told me he comes home talking about his time here for weeks after. I wish I could do more. I wish I had more resources, more time, more space, more of the opportunities that Fresh Air has afforded me to love on this kid. The Fresh Air can’t solve every social or cultural problem of urban youth, but neither can the government nor the policies that both the left and the right think will. When we realise that we have the capacity to change ONE life by hosting a Fresh Air kid or sponsoring mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters I believe we will overcome the rift currently ajar in our society. Don’t just post political memes and articles. GET INVOLVED.

So in this post I would like to challenge people…. instead of posting Memes about race and politics this summer, I challenge everyone who is from Maine to Virginia to consider hosting a Fresh Air kid or get involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in your city/towns. If you have older kids, host two younger kids. If you are a grandmother, host a child and teach them to bake cookies or treat them like one of your own grandchildren that you spoil and shower with affection. I hear the same excuses year after year that I used to make and I get it.  Two jobs, limited vacation, limited resources. But here’s the thing, many of these kids don’t have two parents that work, they have never left the city and they certainly don’t have the resources nor do their parents. Some are homeless and live in shelters, some are foster kids, some have disabled parents, single parents with special needs kids or  even parents that are in jail. Some of these Fresh Air kids have never put their foot in a body of water other than the bathtub. If we are to bring healing to this country in the face of these deep seated relational and societal fractures why can’t it start with ourselves? I am here to say it is so so so worth it.

This year marks our Fresh Air kid’s 5th year coming to stay with us. We actually were placed with him sort of by accident as the little guy we had the year before didn’t continue the program and our kid was a last minute placement. I don’t believe in coincidences but I do believe that God divinely placed him with us to fulfill some of his “wishes” in life, like to learn how to swim. The first year he came to us, he didn’t have a bathing suit. We took him to Target, bought a suit and introduced him to our local town beach on that 98 degree day. He was petrified of drowning and insisted on wearing a lifejacket but he made it into the lake with our encouragement. He spent much of that first year bobbing up and down with that life jacket on. Fast forward to this year. I’ll just post this video to show you what five years and some consistency that he can do this year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2pOdvBfOKQ

As our visit with our Fresh Air kid came to a close, we actually opted to drive him to his home in the Bronx. I wanted MY kids to see where he lives. When kids get to be 13 they seem to loose all perspective of gratefulness. When we see him off I can’t see straight and our car is silent with sadness letting him go back to his everyday life. I hold his head in my hands and tell him that we love him, and that God cares for him even more than we could express. I cry because I know the life he lives even though I don’t experience the same life. It rips a part of my own heart to know what he faces everyday and the battles he has to fight even within his own surroundings and culture to overcome. Once, someone close to me challenged the difference my relationship with my Fresh Air Fund child actually would really make. Do you know the number one issue that keeps people in the status quo of poverty and dependance? Despair. Do you know the number one combatant to that is HOPE. Mentoring a child is hope in a concrete relational means to have access to HOPE.

Here’s the thing about mentoring. Hearts get involved. Love gets involved. Showing these kids that someone out there is willing to sacrifice SOMETHING to show them another way, another life, dreams and goals that we “privileged” people are willing to help them achieve. In the Old Testament, God blessed Abraham so that he could be a blessing to others. God also blessed the nation of Israel for the sole purpose of blessing others as well. It wasn’t to bless the already rich, the morally corrupt but the weak, the vulnerable the ones that couldn’t speak up for themselves and the ones trapped in a system that provides no incentive to break out of a destructive dysfunctional cycle of despair. WE can do this, YOU can do this. If you have a spare bedroom, or a spare place to sit at the table…consider hosting a Fresh Air kid for two weeks out of your life. I personally would love to see the Fresh Air buses filled to the gills again with nervous expectant kids going to host families that were unafraid of the emotional effects that come when your heart gets tangled with a Fresh Air kid’s.

2016

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