As dozens of families holding signs and balloons wait breathlessly on the back steps of Christ
Our Light Catholic Church in Loudonville, one group is a little more reserved.
“This isn’t our first time,” explains Lara Vazquetelles, as she stands patiently waiting with her twin daughters and teenage son Monday, July 1. “We’ve been here before.”
The crowd gets antsy as someone calls out that the bus from New York City will arrive within minutes. On it are 24 children, aged 6 to 18, arriving to spend two weeks with Capital District families through the Fresh Air Fund. The nonprofit agency provides free trips to low-income children living in New York City in order for them to spend a portion of their summer in a rural or suburban community.
For the fourth year, the Vazquetelles family is hosting Dominic Canesh, a 13-year-old from Queens. He was 10 when he first visited their home in Delmar, and has now become like a member of the family. In fact, Canesh actually visits several times each year, but the Fresh Air Fund only pays for one trip a year to allow for a maximum number of children to utilize the program.
“Sometimes we’ll meet his mother halfway or he’ll take a bus,” said Lara Vazquetelles.
While waiting, the family tells some of their favorite stories, like how they taught Canesh to ride a bike. They are also excited to be visiting Fort Ticonderoga in a few days.
As the bus arrives, one of the Vazquetelles twins pulls out a tiny “sign” to welcome their guest, while other families crowd closer to the drop off point. As the names of families are called, the excitement starts to set in for the Vazquetelles.
When Canesh’s face finally appears as he exits the bus, Lara Vazquetelles begins to cry. Soon, the family envelops Canesh in a giant hug.
Lara Vazquetelles said she and her husband, Daniel, opted to take part in the Fresh Air Fund program a few years after getting married. They both had steady jobs and had the room at home. She remembered her own parents had hosted several kids through the program while growing up.
“It’s really a way for these kids to get out of their environment and have some new experiences,” she said.
According to the nonprofit, each summer 4,000 children from New York City visit host families in 13 states. So far, about 1.7 million children have taken part in the program since 1877.
The Vazquetelles hosted brothers for a few years, but then took a break to have their own children. They felt it was important to wait until the kids were old enough to handle the experience of having a new person in their home every year.
Four years ago, they decided to host another child, but this time they opted for a boy around the age of their son, Andrew. They felt it would be easier for the two to bond, and it helps that the program allows the host family to request the gender and age of the child who visits.
Lara Vazquetelles now jokes that the two boys get together so well, it’s like having a second set of twins.
The kids go hiking, camping and biking. They also go to the movies, play video games and go on family outings. Lara Vazquetelles said the relationship has been beneficial for everyone involved.
“I encourage people to try it,” she said. “Not everyone will have the wonderful experience that we have had, but everyone will all have an experience that they learn from. It’s the chance to learn about someone from a different aspect of life.”
Canesh said he likes seeing how other people live in a different area from where he grew up, and the other types of activities that are available outside of the city.
“I would still rather live where I live. It comes with a lot of perks,” he said. “But it’s nice to get to be away from home.”
One of his favorite things to do is go for a walk around Delmar.
“It’s just so much quieter here,” he said.
Lara Vazquetelles said she knows the cost of hosting a child is a concern for many people, especially during a time when many families are cutting back, but there are many low cost options in the area. And most children are happy just doing normal summer activities.
“You don’t have to take them to Great Escape every day,” she said. “This is something that’s easy, of minimal cost, and very rewarding.”
To learn more about hosting a child through the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org or call 1-800-367-0003.