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Fresh Air Fund families open doors—and hearts

Children from New York City made their way to the Fredericksburg area to spend this week away from the urban hustle and bustle as part of the Fresh Air Fund’s summer vacation program.

Area families who are part of the East Coast nonprofit met for a picnic Sunday in Orange County to give the children a chance to meet one another. The kids quickly took to playing in local organizer Shannon McCartney’s pool in the Meadowland subdivision in Locust Grove, splashing water at one another and sharing stories about which of New York’s boroughs they are from and what fun they are having in Virginia.

Fredericksburg-area families host children through the organization, which aims to give inner-city children a chance to experience country life.

Established in 1877, the Fresh Air Fund has a long, successful history and has been operating in Virginia for decades. The organization began as a way to help tenement children get away from the city, and it has benefited 1.8 million needy children to date.

Fredericksburg resident Jen Greven first heard about the program through an article in the Fredericksburg Parents and Family magazine.

But after calling her mother, she discovered her family had a tradition of hosting Fresh Air Fund children for a week in the summer.

“My mom told me my aunt in Harrisonburg used to do it 25 years ago,” Greven said.

The Grevens are hosting Adrianna Geraldo, 8, for the second year in a row.

Adrianna is from the Bronx, and she has noticed some distinct differences between the Big Apple and the Old Dominion. Mostly, she noted that there is more room in Virginia for things that simply don’t exist in her New York neighborhood.

“They have a wishing well [in Virginia],” Adrianna said.

But even more important than seeing a new place was seeing her friends here.

“My favorite part of coming here is staying with my best friends,” she said.

The Grevens have two children, Lily and Jack, who at 7 and 10 years old sandwich Adrianna right in the middle, age-wise.

Adrianna finds it easy to play with both Lily and Jack because she is so close in age to both, said their father, Greg Greven.

For the Grevens, having Adrianna stay with them gave them a chance to see local attractions that they had missed in the daily grind of work and school.

On Saturday, the family headed out to the Caroline County Fair, where Greg Greven entered a pie-eating contest.

“He had to eat one whole pie and a third [of another pie],” said his daughter Lily.

Greven walked away the victor of the contest, and Adrianna and the family had a new memory to enjoy.

“Having Adrianna visit is a good reminder for us to do stuff from Richmond to D.C. with our own children,” he said.

Another Fredericksburg family, the Nelsons, have been hosting a New York child for three years.

Annie Nelson said her grandson, Sareel, and Nicholas Batiste, who is 12, stay up all night chatting whenever Nicholas visits.

“He’s pretty different,” Sareel said of Nicholas. “He likes a lot of different stuff than I do.”

Still, the two boys find quite a few activities to keep them busy during the weeklong stays. Among their favorites are playing baseball and basketball, Annie Nelson said. She keeps in touch with Nicholas even when he returns to his home in the city, and she said he always talks about his basketball games.

Sareel said he enjoys having someone around who is so different, and has a lot of fun when his friend visits.

This year, the Fresh Air Fund is sending two sets of children to the Fredericksburg area. The first group is here from July 11 to July 21; the second group will arrive in Virginia on Aug. 7.

Fresh Air Fund children range in age from 6 to 12, but once a child has been matched with a family, she can continue to visit every year until she’s 18, said McCartney, the local volunteer leader who organizes the area program and its annual picnic.

About nine families in Fredericksburg are hosting a child this summer, and 19 children are slated to visit the area.

Overall, the organization aims to send 4,000 children on a summer vacation away from the city to 13 states, McCartney said.

Before a family can host a child, they have to undergo an interview and a background check. Then the Fresh Air Fund tries to match the family and a child, McCartney said.

If the child is a good fit, then the family can keep hosting them in future summers, she added.

Annie Nelson said it is a joy to host a child every summer.

“It’s great that they get to see a world that’s bigger than the one they live in every day,” she said.

Katie Shepherd 540/374-5417