Be Our Guest
Opening local hearts and homes
While a student at Bedford Hills Elementary School, Gabrielle Sussman was given the following writing exercise: Describe a time when you were shocked at how someone treated you. As volunteer hosts for children of women incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, her family had become intimately connected with several inmates. Sussman’s essay explained that she always thought people in prison were mean. Not anymore.
Our area is full of opportunities for families to serve as hosts for visitors from a wide variety of backgrounds. But no matter the circumstance, the result is typically the same: everyone benefits.
As Hour Teen Program Coordinator at the prison, Sussman’s mother, Rebecca, oversees summer homestays for inmates’ children. Over the course of a full week, kids visit with their mothers during the day, then stay with local hosts overnight. The program grew out of necessity since children aren’t allowed to spend the night at the prison. With hosts involved, the kids can extend their time nearby. And the positive effects are felt long-term.
Rebecca Sussman says, “During short visits no one wants to bring up touchy subjects, because they don’t want the day to be ruined. With the whole week, there’s an opportunity for meaningful family dialogue. It’s very special for these kids to say to their mothers, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
Bedford also provides a nice backdrop for The Fresh Air Fund, a national non-profit that provides low-income youth with a free week of summer fun. Several local families have developed deep relationships with their kids and have been instrumental in passing on new skills like swimming and riding a bike. For host parent Cristina Magidson of Bedford, it’s a family affair.
She says, “My husband’s parents hosted two children and so did his brother. Something that’s so little for us makes a huge impact.”
For Chris Fernandez of the Bronx, the mastery of a new skill has set his life on a completely new course. In 6th grade, Fernandez was tapped as a team member of CitySquash, a program that introduces the typically uber-preppy racquet sport to inner city kids. CitySquash teammates travel all over the east coast, Bedford included, attending tournaments and staying with host families rather than hotels. Having never before been away from home, it took him some time to adjust.
Fernandez says, “The first couple of times it was hard to sleep, but my parents talked to the families, and we built trust in each other. Now I have all these people supporting me like we are one big family.” And this big family has had many opportunities to share in Chris’s success. Most recently, as co-captain of the St. Lawrence University varsity squash team, he was the first urban player to appear in a collegiate national championship.
CitySquash Executive Director Terence Li says, “Ultimately, the goal is to create academic opportunity, but college can be a foreign environment. The transition to campus life has often been more seamless for our kids because they already know how to build relationships with people of different backgrounds.”
Perhaps nothing is harder to imagine than being on the frontlines of war. Every fall, Tzahal Shalom of Northern Westchester, brings a group of young soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to share their stories with our community. While staying with host families, the soldiers’ busy schedules include stops at local high schools and synagogues, as well as individual dinners. The connections they make locally are what Tzahal Shalom co-founder Anita Greenwald calls “magical.”
Mom of four Kate Paletta, of Bedford Corners, agrees. She has been a host parent for the prison’s program for over 14 years and says, “It’s so good for my children to see how other kids live. It teaches all of us to be grateful.” And when the differences are stripped away, everyone simply enjoys each other. As Paletta says, “They want to hang out and have fun. They’re just kids.”