Fresh Air Fund provides some breathing room

Princeton family welcomes a youngster from Brooklyn.

By: Meredith Make
   You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So goes the old adage.
   For example, you don’t appreciate the simple wonder of breathing until the common cold robs you of the pleasure.
   In a similar vein, it is easy to take nature’s fragrant breezes and the green expansiveness of front lawns for granted when suburbia is your home.
   For millions of disadvantaged New York City children, these joys were never present to be missed. In other words, they might not even know what they’re missing.
   That’s why The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit agency which has provided free summer vacations to NYC children since 1877, works year after year to grant city youth a breath of fresh air.
   This year, close to 6,000 children, ages 6 to 18, will leave their city homes to visit volunteer host families in suburbs and small town communities across 13 states and Canada.
   Another 1,000 Fresh Air youngsters might swim for the first time while attending one of five Fresh Air camps in Fishkill, N.Y., and still more children take part in the Fund’s year-round camping program.
   All of these children are selected to participate in Fresh Air Fund programs based on financial need. They emerge from their experiences having seen or done things they would have otherwise never known.
   Shelly-Ann Thomas, a 9-year-old girl from Brooklyn, had never seen a rabbit or a deer, had never played with a dog or enjoyed a game of miniature golf, before visiting her host family, the Manns of Princeton.
   Dee and Don Mann and their children, Scott, 17, Mike, 15, and Catherine, 12, first opened their home to Shelly-Ann three years ago when they were living in Vermont.
   "We thought it would be fun for Catherine to have a girl to play with. It worked out very well," Ms. Mann said.
   Though the Manns just moved to Princeton in June, they didn’t hesitate to host Shelly-Ann this summer for the fourth consecutive year. She arrived July 28 on the Oxford Valley Mall trip bus, her hair arranged in perfect rainbow-beaded cornbraids that her mother had slaved over the night before as part of an annual pre-departure ritual.
   "We look forward to having her around," Ms. Mann commented with a smile.
   "She’s a lot of fun to have around," Scott added.
   According to the Fresh Air Fund, over 65 percent of all children are re-invited to stay with their host families year after year. Shelly-Ann has become an extended member of the Mann family, one who Catherine said she looks forward to seeing "all the time."
   Since they are close in age, Catherine and Shelly-Ann have had a great opportunity to become close. Shelly-Ann said that for fun in Brooklyn she will "play jump rope and hand games like Miss Mary Mack."
   Shelly-Ann has taught these pastimes, especially the complicated variety of hand games, to Catherine.
   In return, Shelly-Ann has experienced activities which she never could in Brooklyn. Over the years, she has taken swimming lessons, played on a rope swing and attended a big formal church service, complete with organ music and ostentatious decoration, which, according to Mr. Mann, was an activity she particularly enjoyed.
   This summer, the Manns are visiting new places right along with Shelly-Ann. "We’re still really exploring," Ms. Mann admitted. Shelly-Ann’s arrival has given them a reason to investigate what New Jersey has to offer.
   Some of the places the Manns have considered taking Shelly-Ann are The New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson and the Jersey shore – although the rainfall over the last few weeks has made planning these trips quite a challenge.
   "We’re waiting for the sun," Ms. Mann said.
   So are many children all over New York City.
   Families who are interested in hosting can call the Fresh Air Fund at (800) 367-0003.