Vermont is special to Fresh Air kids

ADDISON COUNTY — Ulysses Suazo, a 15-year-old from Bronx, N.Y., calls Vermont his second home thanks to Rebecca Kodis and her son, Darius Kainen-Kodis, 13.
For Suazo, Vermont is an escape from the chaotic pace of New York City living.
“In the South Bronx, people have a problem with you even if you just look at them. Over here, it’s just peaceful,” he said.
Suazo came to Vermont thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that brings children from New York City — ages 7 to 18 — to New England, where they can attend one of five camps in Fishkill, N.Y., or, alternatively, spend a week or more with a host family in any of 14 participating “Friendly Town” communities.
The program — celebrating its 140th summer — hosts 3,000 kids per summer at the camps and thousands more through the host family program. This summer, 34 families are hosting Fresh Air kids throughout Addison County under the supervision of Marion Sullivan, chairwoman for the area.
Sullivan herself has hosted seven Fresh Air kids over the past 24 years and in August will welcome back Denise, 18, who has been coming to Sullivan’s house in Vergennes from the Bronx since she was 10.
The program began in 1877 to bring New York City kids living in crowded tenements, many suffering from a tuberculosis epidemic, to the fresh air of New England. Today, the program still serves as a way to teach kids living in low-income, urban communities about life outside of the city.
“Some kids never have an opportunity to leave the city and see there’s more in the world,” Sullivan said. “We give them that opportunity.”
However, as Suazo and the Kodis family demonstrate, the program is more than just an opportunity to get out of the city. Suazo arrived in Vermont for the first time nine years ago and spent a week with the Kodis family at their home in Londonderry.
“I don’t even remember how it happened. They just paired us up and it was love at first sight,” said Rebecca Kodis.
Since then, Kodis and her son have moved to Bristol, moved three times within Bristol, built a new house and welcomed back Suazo each year.
“He’s been through a lot with us,” Kodis said.
Kodis works as an occupational therapist for young kids with autism and plays violin in bands around Vermont. Her son — a cello player and lover of drama, art, music, skiing, skating and aikido — is heading into the eighth grade at Red Cedar School in Bristol.
Suazo fits in perfectly with their artistic and musical family. In the fall, Suazo will start his freshman year at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan, where he hopes to continue theater, art, singing and dancing.
For the past four years, Suazo has stayed longer with the Kodis family, spending two weeks hiking, camping, going to a rock-climbing camp, doing art projects and exploring Vermont. For the trio, these weeks are the best part of summer.
“I can’t imagine life without this guy in it,” said Kodis. “He’s really changed our lives for the better. He’s like my boy, and he calls me his second mom. And the guys are definitely like brothers.”
Even after Suazo graduates from the Fresh Air program at 18, he is determined to come back to Vermont.
“A lot of things are very different here versus there. A lot of the time I wish it was more like here, all of the stuff I have to go through over there,” he said. “It’s hard going back to that lifestyle.”
Roberta McKinney of Starksboro started hosting Fresh Air kids 10 years ago.
Her mother had hosted Fresh Air children, and McKinney remembered the experience of having kids from different cultures and places in her house as a child. It inspired her to adopt her African-American daughter Diamond, now 14.
“I was kind of programmed early in my life to accept people of all colors,” she said.
This year, the McKinneys are hosting Savannah Morgan, 11, for a second year. Morgan has spent the last two weeks with the McKinneys playing outside; helping out with gardening and the chickens, cats, rabbits and kittens running around the McKinney’s home; and most importantly, swimming.
Playing in a nearby pond, jumping off the docks and chasing the geese were activities brand new for Morgan, who lives with a younger brother and older sister in Queens, N.Y.
Diamond McKinney is taking on the big sister role while Morgan is here in Vermont.
“It’s laid back and crafty,” she said. “We’re trying to do creative activities, not just mainstream stuff. To come, you have to be outdoorsy and be willing to do new things.”
Diamond McKinney said activities don’t necessarily have to be new or remarkable to hosts.
“There are so many things that we don’t think are as cool but they find amazing,” she added.
Roberta McKinney runs a daycare center in Starksboro, allowing Morgan to meet kids from all over the town.
“Part of my benefit is to help the community realize this is a good thing that anyone can do,” she said. “The community also gets to see diversity which we don’t see often in our small village.”
For all of these families, the program is above all, an opportunity to learn, share and connect.
“They’re just brothers and sisters,” said Sullivan. “Just because we look different makes no difference. We’re bringing two cultures together, that’s what will make a difference. We get as much out of it as the child does.”
Those interested in learning more about the program or being a host family may contact Marion Sullivan at 802-877-3028 or visit www.freshair.org.

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