Downtown Manhattan in 1877 was densely populated, and children might sleep with multiple family members in a single room. It was before the tenement laws, so sometimes apartments wouldn’t have any windows. There was a tuberculosis epidemic, and fresh air was said to be a cure. Central Park had been recently designed and a flock of pedigree sheep grazed there in the Sheep Meadow. But the park had quickly declined for lack of interest and no one to tend it. The minister of a small, rural parish in Sherman, Pennsylvania, asked members of his congregation if they would volunteer to invite New York City’s neediest children out for country vacations. And the Fresh Air Fund
Now celebrating its 140th summer, the Fresh Air Fund buses urban children out of New York City for rural experiences with volunteer hosts up and down the Eastern seaboard. In the five years that Debbie Ratchford took up the cause as volunteer Fund Representative for the Hudson Valley, participation has grown to about forty families. They get to share the simple pleasures of summer in the Hudson Valley: swimming, hiking, county fairs, and firefly chasing. They make a horse-lover’s dream come true by inviting her to stay on a farm, or show a kid the constellations. For many urban children, it’s their only chance to escape the August heat as it radiates off the pavement in the five boroughs. Still, Ratchford says, “We always have more children than we have host families.”
Ratchford isn’t just the Fund Rep for Ulster and Dutchess counties and always on call to answer questions or help host families out; she’s also a host to three teenage girls who have been visiting her for years. An empty-nester with five kids and three grandchild of her own, Ratchford loves to fill her house with children. They bake and picnic, and last year, Liliana taught Faith to swim in Ratchford’s pool in Lagrange. Seeing the girls work together like sisters, Ratchford feels committed. She organizes five outings for all the Fresh Air families to enjoy, and even donates all proceeds from direct-selling Pampered Chef products to the Fresh Air program. “I’ve never heard the words ‘I’m bored’ out of a Fresh Air kid’s mouth,” she smiles. “They make me appreciate the blessings I have by sharing them.”
The Fresh Air Fund’s host family application deadline is July 1st to host August 19-29th. Any family makeup is welcome to apply, and hosts can choose the age and gender of their guest. Kids ages 7-12 are eligible for a first time visit. There’s a seamless process where Ratchford visits the potential host family at home, they fill out an application form, and talk about activities that the family would like to share. With background checks and personal references, it can all be done in time. Fresh Air kids are provided transportation, but if families provide their own, the timeframe can be flexible, too. Applications re-open in October for summer 2017 hosting. Call Debbie Ratchford at (845) 242-6880 with questions or to set up a home visit appointment.
Businesses, call Ratchford to donate goods to the Fresh Air Fund’s community picnics in the Hudson Valley!