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Aug 12, 2019 11:44 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Fresh Air Fund Program Creates Bonds To Last A Lifetime

Jenny, Brianna, Madison , and Madison's friend, Courtney.
Aug 16, 2019 9:15 AM

When Madison DeFelice was 6 years old, there was a flier in her school take-home folder that caught the attention of her mother, Lorie DeFelice. Most of the papers that come home from school are worth no more than a quick glance before ending up in the trash. But this one was different: It promoted the Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns Program, which pairs New York City children from low-income communities with host families along the East Coast for weeklong visits in the summer, giving the children a chance to experience summer fun in a non-urban environment.

The Fresh Air Fund — an independent nonprofit — has a long legacy of providing such opportunities; it was created in 1877, and has served 1.8 million children in that time.

Ms. DeFelice and her husband, Frank, were intrigued by the program, mainly because they could see the benefits for both parties.

“God only blessed us with one child, so we thought that this would be a great way to influence the life of another child and broaden their horizons — and our daughter’s as well,” she said.

The child they hosted the first year was unable to return the second year, and Ms. DeFelice said they were unable to stay in touch. They signed up for another year — and that’s when they met Brianna, 13, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, most of the year, but also stays in the Bronx in the summer months.

They developed a bond with Brianna, and she has returned every year since, recently finishing her eighth summer visit at the DeFelice’s Eastport home.

The DeFelice family hosted two girls for the first time this summer, thanks to a communication issue that ended up being a happy accident. It was unclear for a period of time if Brianna would be able to make it, so the Fresh Air Fund matched the DeFelice family with another girl, Jenny, 12, from Brooklyn.

Once Jenny’s visit was scheduled, they heard that Brianna was also available — so they didn’t hesitate in welcoming her back as well.

For a week in August, the DeFelice home was a hive of activity for the three girls — mornings spent swimming in their backyard pool, neighbors and other family members stopping by to spend time, hours spent playing their favorite card game Uno.

In the years that Brianna has visited, there have been plenty of excursions as well: camping trips at Cupsogue Beach, outings to Splish Splash Water Park in Calverton and Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, dinner at a Hibachi restaurant in Port Jefferson, a trip to a “panic room,” bowling, or to the movie theater. Having another girl in the home just added to the experience, Ms. DeFelice said.

“We’ve been very happy. We love them both,” she said. “They’re great kids, and it’s a great program.”

For Madison, the visits are the highlight of her summer.

“It’s kind of like having sisters,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I had sisters. But they don’t stay forever, so we don’t get in fights or anything. I like looking forward to having them. It’s like a mini vacation.”

Brianna said she felt comfortable with the DeFelice family early on, even though she started the visits at an age when some children have trepidation about doing a one-night sleepover down the road. She said she’s enjoyed trips to Splish Splash and the camping trip at Cupsogue, and just being at home at the DeFelice house, swimming in the pool, playing Uno, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

As a newcomer, Jenny admitted she had some nerves at first, but those melted away pretty quickly.

“The first time I came here, I was so nervous,” she said. “I thought it was going to be, I don’t know, scary. But then it was really fun, and I want to stay here forever.”

Jenny said she has loved meeting new people and going to the ocean, and mentioned a visit to a candy store in Port Jefferson as another highlight.

For Ms. DeFelice, she is happy to create those kinds of memories for all three girls, and adds that she and her family have gotten just as much out of the experience as Brianna and Jenny have.

“It’s important to us to teach our daughter that we’re fortunate to be able to live out here and be by the water, and walk out the back door and have a backyard with a pool,” she said. “And it’s important that we share the things we have.

“It’s also important to learn that your way of life is not the only way of life. Other people have different traditions and values and views. And I think it’s wonderful that they can see things here and we get to see things through their eyes as well.”

Ms. DeFelice also hopes that the bond Madison, Brianna and Jenny have developed during summer visits has a lifelong staying power.

“I sat them all down and said that I hope that even after everybody ages out of the program, that they’ll still do this,” she said. “They’ll be at a time in life when they’re going to school or whatever and might be too busy, but when they’re settled down and have families of their own, maybe they will get together with all of their children, if they choose to have kids, and carry it on.

“That would make me very happy.”

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