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Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

FRESH AIR FUND participants, at right, Israel Dudley and Alejandro Garcia, both of greater New York City, are family with Matthew and Deborah Dickerson. Dudley was first with the family from 2003-06 and has maintained a close relationship ever since.

ADDISON COUNTY — Amidst one of Vermont’s most extreme weeks of weather since Tropical Storm Irene, the Fresh Air Fund (FAF), initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to experience nature in a capacity impossible to find in the five boroughs, was reintroduced to Addison County last week. 

The program, which invites families in FAF-designated “Friendly Towns” to volunteer to host participants for a week or two during the summer, was halted due to Covid-19. Since then, the organization has been slowly reinstating its programming. 

“In 2022, the program gradually started to open up within a three-hour radius of NYC for returning kids/hosts, and this year returning visits opened back up beyond the three-hour radius to returning kids and host families,” explained Marion Sullivan, Chairperson for the Fresh Air Fund in the Champlain Valley South area. 

She described the program as “life-changing … both for the children as well as the host families.”

Two veteran Addison County Fresh Air Fund families were reunited with visitors after the program’s three-year hiatus: Kelli and Josh Dubois welcomed back Yeral Torres, 16, from the Bronx for their seventh stay together, and Deborah and Matthew Dickerson welcomed back Alejandro Garcia, 15, also from the Bronx, for his second stay. 

Sullivan explained the small number of returnees: “Because the program is just starting back up in our area, and only returning children are coming, the numbers are low because many children have outgrown the program since 2019.”

 “Next year,” she said, “we hope to begin to grow back the host families we have and new hosts will once again be encouraged to sign up.”

Luckily, both families were spared the worst of last week’s flooding, and only had to contend with the constant rain and thunderstorms. 

“We have managed to have fun every day. Sometimes inside. We’ve also had some breaks in the rain to be outside,” said Deborah Dickerson.  

Garcia noted that the intensity of the weather last week was a bit of a shock for him: “The thunderstorms and heavy rain is pretty surprising,” he said, as Dickerson chimed in to recall they “sat on the screened porch … and watched the lightning show.”

 The week has also been full of one-sided chess matches. “This week, Alejandro (who plays on his school chess team) has been beating us all at chess,” Dickerson said. “I have to get him to play Rummy with me in order to win a game against him.” 

During his trip, Garcia also went on an “official Middlebury College campus tour,” she said, adding that New York University has piqued Garcia’s interest, but there were characteristics of Middlebury College that excited him too. 

“He enjoyed seeing what a small college had to offer. He loved the spaciousness of Middlebury College. It definitely caught his attention,” she said.  

Garcia said his only qualms with the area are the bugs: “If it weren’t for the constant mosquitoes and ticks lying around, it would be an ideal place to live.” 

Additionally, he said the peace and quiet of Vermont pleases him, but he’s realized the city’s tight-knit nature makes for easier travel: “It makes me appreciate how close everything is, unlike rural areas where you would have to drive 20 minutes to pick up some peaches.”

“I don’t mind the drives though,” he added. 

The Dubois family also enjoyed the outdoors despite the rain.

“We changed some of our plans due to the weather, but our area wasn’t really affected by the flooding,” said Kelli Dubois. They added indoor rock climbing to the itinerary, she said, but also went road biking, which Torres noted is one of his favorite things to do here that he can’t do in the city, and they swam at Lake Dunmore’s Branbury State Park. Plus, the family made sure Torres got a Vermont creemee.

Torres said his favorite part of the FAF experience is the time he gets to spend with the Dubois family. “I like being with my family in Vermont and doing activities with them.”  

Although he’s discovered a dislike of the “lack of open land” in New York City, Torres had similar thoughts to Garcia on the perks of city living: “I can walk to parks and stores from where I live.” He’s also not a fan of the fickle cell service in Vermont.

BECOMING FAF FAMILIES

Kelli Dubois was eager to become a FAF host for much of her life. 

“I grew up knowing families involved with the Fresh Air Fund and always hoped to host a child someday. Because of my parents’ work schedule, we were never able to host when I was a kid,” she said. 

As an adult, she and her family have hosted a total of three FAF kids, and have been welcomed Yeral for all seven years he’s participated in the program, giving all of their family members an opportunity to be part of the program. 

“He (Torres) first came when he was 6 and our son Zeke was 7. Our son Quin was 2 and daughter Ryley was 9,” Bubois said.

YERAL TORRES OF the Bronx returned to stay with Kelli and Josh Dubois and family, including son Zeke pictured here with Torres.

 The children have grown to share their mother’s fondness for the program: “I think this is a cool experience and other families should do it,” said Zeke, now 17. 

Torres remembers being surprised with how friendly the Duboises were when he first met them. Ten years later, he reports they are in touch throughout the year, and said the family even made a trek to New York City to visit him at his home.

Additionally, the small age-gap between Torres and Zeke has help create a close bond. Zeke said he has appreciated the exposure to a new perspective the program has provided him, and has enjoyed the opportunity of “meeting someone from NYC and learning about different aspects of each other’s lives.”

Because so much time had passed since the family last hosted Torres, Kelli Dubois said she didn’t know what to expect: “I was a little nervous since we haven’t seen him in four years and going from age 12 to 16 is a big difference. I wasn’t sure how much he was going to have changed.”  

“It has been great though,” she added. 

“We have loved having Yeral come back every year and feel like he is a bonus son.”

The Dickeron’s discovered the program in a different way; they decided to begin the process of becoming a host family after hearing positive first-hand accounts from other volunteers and reading Addison Independent reports on other families’ experiences. 

To date, they’ve been host to six FAF kids, and describe the experience as “relationally rich.” 

Garcia spent his first summer FAF trip with the Dickersons in 2019.   

After COVID removed the possibility of having him visit the past three summers, the Dickersons were happy to host him last week. “It’s been really good to see Alejandro again after three years off for COVID,” said Deborah.

 “I would have done it (FAF) for way longer had the quarantine not interrupted my summer plans to go back to Vermont,” Garcia said.  

Garcia said he’s enjoyed his time with the family, adding: “I would hope to come back next year, and many years more.” 

This sentiment is shared by another of the family’s former FAF kids. Israel Dudley, 31, from Brooklyn, was also staying with the Dickerson’s last week.

“Israel visited us with FAF for four summers — 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. He got a job in the city as an older teen, but still came up for visits, including joining us for holidays one year,” recalled Dickerson.  

“It was really great to have Israel’s visit overlap with Alejandro’s so they could meet each other,” she said. 

Dudley has seamlessly integrated into the Dickerson family over the years: “In 2014, he moved in with our family and made it his home base for about three years, and he was our son Mark’s best man when Mark and Ellie married.”  

Remarking on the closeness of the family, Dudley said: “The Fresh Air Fund family became my true family.”  

Just as the Dubois’s feel about Yeral, the Dickerson’s feel about Dudley. 

“We consider Israel our extra-bonus son. He considers us to be his Mountain Mom and Dad. It’s been an honor to be part of Israel’s life over the past 20 years!”

Dudley expressed the same feelings about the FAF program as Sullivan: “The Fresh Air Fund program is the most powerful thing to impact my life. I can’t fully put into words how grateful I am for it.”

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