Open hearts and homes

Group gives inner-city kids a breath of fresh air

Sara Corrigan, a Hoboken resident of 20 years, is one of the many parents who provide a home and family setting for children participating in the Fresh Air Fund. For two years she and her husband, Michael Searls, have hosted a girl named Michelle at their second home in the Poconos.
The Fresh Air Fund is an organization that does just what its name implies – it gives children from low income communities in New York an experience in the country. Kids participating in the program are essentially adopted for a few weeks in the summer by families who live or have houses in the suburbs and can give urban kids a change of locale and activity.
The independent, non-for-profit organization also provides summer camps.
Corrigan grew up in the Poconos and saw kids from The Fresh Air Fund in her neighborhood.
She said she could immediately tell they weren’t from town because they were “beyond excited” to be there. Seeing the pleasure on their faces when they went swimming was what made her want to get involved.
Searls found out about The Fresh Air Fund from TV commercials and from seeing kids in the Port Authority terminal boarding buses to their host families’ houses.
The Fresh Air Fund has a rigorous application process to ensure the best experiences for the children participating in the program. Corrigan and Searls had to fill out forms, submit to interviews and to background checks, and representatives came to their home to make sure the child would be staying in a safe environment.
Corrigan and Searls have a daughter the same age as Michelle, their host child. Corrigan said Michelle’s family chose them after seeing information they provided about activities available to Michelle in the Poconos and with the knowledge that Corrigan and Searls have a daughter the same age as Michelle.
Corrigan said their daughter enjoyed the experience, and that she and Michelle had a “sisterly thing going on.” Their daughter is an only child, so she said it was good for her to have constant companionship from someone her age.
“I absolutely loved it,” Corrigan said about what the experience was like for her and her husband. She said she would like to do it again.
Corrigan and Searls both said that the best part of the experience was seeing Michelle’s swimming abilities improve as well as exposing her to her first experience at a beach. Corrigan said that she took advantage of what other kids in the area took for granted.
Corrigan also said that the experience was eye opening in an unexpected way, and it expanded her horizons as well as Michelle’s.
Searls also added that he enjoyed sharing nature with Michelle and taking her to beautiful places.
Both host parents said they would recommend the experience.
“Just do it,” Searls said. “Open up your homes and your hearts.”

Behind the scenes

A lot of work goes into the success of The Fresh Air Fund programs. Jenny Morgenthau, the executive director of The Fresh Air Fund, has been working with the organization for 30 years. Before The Fresh Air Fund, she worked with New York City’s Child Welfare Agency.
“I’m the big boss,” she said. Morgenthau hires staff to carry out the programs, oversees various programs, does fundraising, and works on public relations.
Seeing the kids head off to camp or to their host families is the most rewarding part of the job according to Morgenthau. She said the kids are always excited and talk about swimming and making friends.
There are also the local workers who play a huge role in the success of the organization. For example, Donna Perch, fund representative for Northern New Jersey, has been working with the Fresh Air Fund since 1996.
“They feel like part of my family,” Perch said about the connection she has with the children, now adults, that she hosted 17 years ago.

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