Eileen Ogintz and Andy Yemma’s first experience with a Fresh Air Fund child was not fantastic.
Their 2 oldest kids were away at camp. Their youngest did not want another older child in the house, just when she could have her parents to herself. But Eileen and Andy hosted the girl the next year too.
Years went by. Last spring Eileen — a syndicated columnist and national expert on traveling with kids — was interviewing Fund officials. They mentioned that 800 — 800! — youngsters still were not placed.
She and Andy quickly agreed to host 2 boys — both 12 years old. That’s the hardest age group to place. But their own 3 kids were gone. Elaine and Andy had plenty of room.
And Camp Mahackeno took both boys into their day camp, so Eileen could work.
Oh, yeah: Mahackeno took them for free.
Jason (left) and Enesi, enjoying themselves.
Enesi was a 12-year-old Albanian. He’d been in the US less than 2 years, but his English was flawless. He was open to every new experience: kayaking, fishing, eating crab cakes.
Jason — the middle of 9 children, with an absent father — was tougher. Still, Eileen says, “in the end he really opened up and enjoyed himself.”
Enesi returned for Thanksgiving (and made pumpkin pie). Both boys will be back for a 2nd summer this year.
Hosting the Fresh Air Fund children was easy, Eileen says.
The first night, Andy dusted off 2 old bikes. He challenged the boys to make it up a steep hill. They gave up.
The next night they went out on their own, and made it. The proud looks on their faces were matched only by the smile Andy wore.
Another Fresh Air Fund scene: The Filchock girls (center and right) and Essence, playing at the beach.
The next weekend — the last — Eileen and Andy took Enesi and Jason to Mystic Seaport and Aquarium. They played with a Beluga whale, and tried oysters for the 1st time. Their eyes were wide.
Eileen realized something too: “These kids don’t take those experiences for granted, the way ours might.”
The Mystic trip was special. Most of the time, Eileen says, they did not organize big events.
“We hung out. We went bowling. We watched movies, and the kids played Xbox. We had lunch at Shake Shack. They liked hanging out with our dog.”
Just having their own bedroom was an experience. Enesi sleeps in the living room with his sister.
Fresh Air Fund hosts Sophia and Zachary Lomnitz (from left), with JJ at Compo.
“The whole point is for them to have a vacation,” Eileen says. “We sometimes think we have to entertain our kids all the time, and vacations have to be special. They don’t.”
Like typical 12-year-olds, Andy says, “they were always hungry. After the 1st day we figured we should cook extra portions for dinner. They’d devour what we served, and be hungry for more by 10. Eileen fixed double-egg sandwiches every morning.”
With summer approaching, Fresh Air Fund officials are once again scrambling to find hosts for all their kids. Eileen has become a passionate advocate for the program.
“Honestly, I don’t have a lot of patience for people with big empty houses and a lot of time, who say they can’t make room for a kid like this. It’s only for a week.
“When we asked Enesi what he’d be doing at home he said, ‘sitting on the couch watching TV. It’s really boring.'”
Jenna Barcello (left) and Kaiya, having fun last summer.
And, she adds, “Andy and I have gotten as much or more from the experience as the boys. It was terrific being able to help Jason come out of his shell, and see Enesi be so enthusiastic about canoeing for the first time.
“Sure, I had to buy more food. But having them wasn’t really a lot of work at all. I wish more Westport families — especially empty nesters — would consider hosting a child who otherwise would sit in a stuffy apartment, in front of a TV.
“This is a perfect opportunity to pay it forward.”
And, Eileen adds: “You don’t have to take 12-year-old boys.
“There are plenty of 7-year-old girls out there too.”
(For more information on becoming a host family, call Martha Mintzer at 203-226-6627, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to learn more about the Fresh Air Fund.)