TUPPER LAKE - Fresh air is easy to come by in the North Country, but host families for Fresh Air Fund kids are getting harder to find here.
On Monday, five local families participating in the Fresh Air Fund gave five children from New York City a chance to breathe some fresh mountain air for ten days. A sixth child will arrive in Lake Placid Aug. 9.
The New York City-based program began in 1877 as a way to get inner-city children out of the city for up to two weeks. Today, the Fresh Air Fund connects inner-city kids with host families in "Friendly Towns" located in Canada and 13 states from Virginia to Maine. The North Country region Fresh Air Fund is based out of Tupper Lake.
Brooklyn resident Samaiya Barnhardt, second from right, meets her Fresh Air Fund host family for the first time Monday. They are, from left, George, Kate and Maureen Harriman.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
Delinda Jessie has participated in the program since 1996 and has been chairperson of the North Country region's Fresh Air Fund for the last five years. She said the number of host families available in the region has dwindled since she became involved in the program.
"We used to have our own bus," Jessie said. "When I started we'd get 15 kids at a time. From that time it has slowly decreased. Now our kids ride up with the St. Lawrence region's kids because there aren't enough of them to fill the bus."
George Harriman, a Fresh Air Fund host, agreed with Jessie. He has been a host since the 1980s and was also a chairperson for five years.
"We had 60 kids on that bus about 20 years ago," Harriman said. "I think people are just busy with work these days, but this is important, too. These kids need this."
To go on a Fresh Air vacation, a New York City child's parent or guardian must apply for him or her. Fresh Air Fund staffers then try to pair each one up with an appropriate family in one of the 300 rural or suburban Friendly Towns.
Even though the number of available host families in the region has waned, interest from kids in the city hasn't. This year, Jessie said more than 4,400 kids, a number that is consistent with previous years, were looking to leave the city for a breath of fresh air in a Friendly Town.
The number of local host families has stabilized in the last few years. This year's total is actually up one from last summer, when there were five for the area centered on the Tri-Lakes villages and reaching out as far as Ellenburg Depot, Elizabethtown and Long Lake. There were seven in each of 2011 and 2010, as far back as the Fresh Air Fund could provide statistics.
In the Fresh Air Fund's greater northeastern New York region, which includes the Lake George area, there were 15 families this summer and last, 19 in 2011 and 16 in 2010.
While some are new to the Fresh Air Fund adventure, others are veterans of the program. As the children exited the bus at the Municipal Park in Tupper, some of them ran straight into the open arms of their host families, while others shyly shook hands as they met their host families for the first time.
Jante Rodriguez, from the Bronx, made a beeline for her host family as soon as she left the bus. It is her ninth time making the trip north. After embracing Stuart and Kelly Burnett, and their five children, she explained that the Tupper family feel like part of her own family now.
"Every time I leave here, I bring memories and pictures home with me," Rodriguez said. "They really are family to me. I love it here."
Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.