Fresh Air Fund city kids take to the Berkshires
Kenzie and Shawn Fields swing into summer mode with their children and two young visitors from the city.
Photos by Gregory Cherin
The makeshift lemonade stand at the base of Kenzie and Shawn Fields’s driveway is a sure sign that summer is in full swing. Their three children and two Fresh Air Fund guests are thick in the throes of collaboration.
“Having city visitors is fun!” says Odie Fields, age 10, explaining how others’ perspectives help him appreciate his own move from Brooklyn to Mill River six years ago. The Fields are just one of the Berkshire County families participating in the Fresh Air Fund’s 140-year tradition of welcoming New York City kids to the country for one week each summer.
“Our first motive is the compassionate one,” says Kenzie Fields, who has welcomed Vanessa, age nine, from the Bronx, for three summers. “We’ve lived in the city with kids and know what it’s like not to be able to get out.”
This summer, Fanbo, 12 (or Bobby, as he introduces himself), joined them from Zhengzhou, China, via Flushing for a week in July. There are reciprocal benefits, says Kenzie. “For my kids to be around kids who have a completely different lifestyle, this is not an experience that can be replicated on our own.”
Lelia Bruun of Great Barrington, local coordinator with the Fresh Air Fund and a host for 19 years, says that 12 Berkshire County families welcomed 14 Fresh Air Fund children for a week in July, and another eight families will welcome nine children from August 2-12. Host families offer each visiting child an experience that can have a positive, lifelong effect—and vice versa.
“Our own children become young leaders by sharing their knowledge and by learning about others’ cultural differences,” says Bruun. This viewpoint is shared by June Powell of Housatonic, who with husband Mike and their 15-year-old twins have welcomed Jason, age 15, for five consecutive summers from the Bronx. She recalls asking Bruun which demographic posed the most challenge to finding a host family, and at that time it was older boys. Powell said, “Put us in that category,” and Jason fit right in.
“It was fascinating the first summer to see how Jason viewed our surroundings, which of course gave us a deeper appreciation for the Berkshires,” says Powell.
Jason’s fascination with the Powells’s freedom to walk to the store, the library, and the playground provided fertile ground for interesting conversations among the kids—and how different a city child’s experiences are compared to those of a country child.
For the Fields, the Fresh Air Fund has bridged a gap that comes from having lost the diversity that was so important to them in the city. Vanessa, sporting a dazzling smile and festive beads in her ponytail, says she likes “swimming in the lake and river and taking care of the animals,” opportunities she is not afforded in the city. The Fields have chickens and ducks at their home and the Konkapot River across the street.
In a flurry of inner tubes and old sneakers, swimsuits and goggles, the group of giggling kids makes their way across the street for an impromptu dip in the river. “This is better than swimming in a city pool, but it is so cold!” says Bobby, who floats lazily down the stream before diving beneath the water’s surface, enraptured by the tiny crayfish scrambling along the river’s rocky bottom. Within minutes, he has scooped up six of them for closer examination.
As with any guest, there are challenges and adjustments that need to be made. Honey Fields, 10, says sharing space can sometimes be hard because Bobby and Vanessa want to be with her and her siblings the whole time. Kenzie likened it to a playdate or sleepover that lasts a week. But the benefits far outweigh any of the challenges.
June Powell looks forward to lots of flexibility and collaboration when it comes to what their week each summer with Jason will look like. This year, Powell will be chaperoning the bus to New York City for the return trip. “This will be the first time, face to face, I’ll get to meet Jason’s family,” she says. Jason, who has technically aged out of the program, is still eligible to participate until age 18 as a result of the connection he has forged with the Powells. And he keeps agreeing to come.
Of his first year participating in the Fresh Air Fund, Bobby says, “I came, and now I don’t want to go back.” It’s a bittersweet feeling surely shared by the family who welcomed him—perhaps for many adventures to come.
An enriching, memorable time
Each summer, nearly 4,000 children visit volunteer host families in the Berkshires and other rural, suburban and small-town communities along the East Coast. Fresh Air children are given the opportunity to experience a world outside of New York City.