Finding fresh air, and friends, through program
Elizabeth Gilrane of Massapequa Park, a mother of five, said there is always room for one more child in her home.
For the last six summers, that extra youngster at the dinner table has been 12-year-old Alana Stout of the Bronx.
Alana has enjoyed her two-week summer vacations at the Gilrane's Long Island home, taking in the fresh air on their quiet neighborhood block, thanks to the Manhattan-based Fresh Air Fund.
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She was matched up with the family after Gilrane read about the fund and decided to volunteer. What started as way to help an inner-city child breathe some fresh air has become something much more, she said.
"The kids get so excited when Alana comes," said Gilrane, whose children range from ages 15 to 1-month-old daughter Emily. "Alana is definitely part of the family."
The Fresh Air Fund started in 1877 when a rural Pennsylvania minister urged parishioners to open their farms to city kids during the outbreaks of tuberculosis in New York City's crowded tenements.
The tenements are gone but 136 years later the need still exists for more host families, said Jessica Ingram-Bellamy of the Trust for Public Land.
"I think people in rural communities know the benefits of fresh air; an opportunity to climb a small mountain or swim in a lake," said Ingram-Bellamy, the trust's director of marketing. "Nature is transformative in a child's development and we want to make sure that kids in all five boroughs who may never see such expansive beauty have the chance. It's life-changing," she said.
While Massapequa will never be confused with rural farm country, Gilrane said her home sits on a safe, friendly block where kids play outside all summer.
"We have a lot kids on our block who are always outside playing baseball, basketball. It's just a fun place for kids and why not share the experience," she said.
At night the children play the hide-and-seek game "Manhunt" and roast marshmallows on an open fire, Gilrane said. The family has banded together to teach Alana how to ride a bike. Gilrane said she feeds off all the youthful energy around the house all summer, including what Alana brings to the family for two weeks.
"The children are so full of energy they make me feel like a kid again."
The good feelings are mutual. "I like to hang out with the family and meet their neighbors," Alana said. "They are all very nice and I feel that they really appreciate my company."
Alana's mother, Latoya White, was a Fresh Air Fund kid. She went to its sleep-away camp and was looking for an opportunity for her daughter to meet new people and make new friends like she did.
"I wanted Alana to be with a family and develop a special bond," said White. Alana has developed friendships with the Gilrane children and has taken on their interests, said White.
"They are already talking about what colleges they want to go to. Maybe they will be college roommates."