One of the first things 10-year-old Yahshanda Thomas did when she arrived in New Canaan Monday afternoon from her home in Bronx, N.Y., was go swimming. It has been her favorite activity since she started visiting Connecticut in 2009 with the Fresh Air Fund, an East Coast charitable organization that connects inner-city children, ages 6 to 18, with volunteer host families in the suburbs.
Yahshanda is still learning how to swim. She takes daily half-hour lessons at Waveny Pool when she comes to stay with her host family, the Albrechts, for two weeks each summer.
"We realized she would benefit from the lessons because, at first, she was a little afraid to put her face in the water," Gail Albrecht, Yahshanda's host mother, said at their home Tuesday afternoon.
The Albrecht family, including Gail, her husband Andy and 10-year-old daughter Mallory, and Yahshanda had just finished playing a card game in their living room. But this was merely a pastime compared to some of the activities they have done together the last three summers. For example, they recalled taking a trip to Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, bowling on a rainy day, watching Shakespeare on the Sound and taking chess and Taekwondo lessons.
"We've always tried to plan a handful of things special that we don't normally to do when Yahshanda's here," Andy said. "Most of that kind of works out, you know. We leave enough free time if we want to change plans or do something different."
Gail and Andy agreed the family's schedule changes significantly when Yahshanda stays with them.
"Usually our bedtime is between eight and nine," Gail said, "and when Yahshanda comes it's, who knows, right?"
Who knows where they will sleep, either.
"Sometimes we camp out in the backyard," Gail said, although she admitted she's not a good camper.
Andy added, "We can camp as far away from the house as the extension cord will reach."
The Albrechts said they spend a lot of time in their backyard barbecuing, lighting sparklers on Fourth of July and making use of their foam machine. Most nights, however, the girls alternate between a bed and an inflatable mattress in Mallory's bedroom.
Mallory said she enjoys having Yahshanda around the house. "It's helpful to me," she said. "Since I'm an only child, I don't have a brother or sister to play with."
Yahshanda has a sister and brother, 13-year-old Justine and 1-year-old Sincere. Justine also participates in the Fresh Air Fund and stays with Nicole Heath, chairwoman of the Fresh Air Fund for Greenwich, New Canaan and Stamford.
Heath said the program aims to expose children from low-income urban areas to a more sedate summer life.
"If you have spent any time in the inner city of New York, you would appreciate what an extraordinary experience it is for these children to take a vacation," Heath said.
Yahshanda acknowledged that the difference between New Canaan and the city is "the peacefulness and how it's not loud and busy," she said.
Gail noted, "I think sometimes that's why it's hard for Fresh Air children to sleep at night, because it's so quiet here and it's so busy there."
Homesickness was another factor, which Yahshanda said the Albrechts helped her overcome. They encouraged her to talk to her mom on the phone.
"I got used to the home and they said I could call any time I wanted," Yahshanda said. "Just not at night because I think about it at night if I call [my family]."
Another idea the Albrechts had to help Yahshanda avoid feeling homesick was to keep a journal of their activities.
"That was sort of one of the first times we started the journal because we said, `You know what? If we can record all the fun things you did, then when you call your mom you can tell her what you did everyday,'" Gail said, adding that they make a new journal each summer.
"It's just all the crazy memories," she said.