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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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'Taking a break from the city' in New Canaan

Published 9:55 am, Thursday, July 17, 2014

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  • Mallory Albrecht, left, Gail Albrecht and Yahshanda Thomas at the Albrechts' residence in New Canaan, Conn., Monday, July 14, 2014. Twelve-year-old Yahshanda, a Bronx resident, has been spending two summer weeks with the family every year since 2008 as part of the Fresh Air Fund's Volunteer Host Family Program. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Mallory Albrecht, left, Gail Albrecht and Yahshanda Thomas at the Albrechts' residence in New Canaan, Conn., Monday, July 14, 2014. Twelve-year-old Yahshanda, a Bronx resident, has been spending two summer weeks with the family every year since 2008 as part of the Fresh Air Fund's Volunteer Host Family Program. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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There are a few aspects about the hectic New York City environment that 12-year-old Yahshanda Thomas does not find very pleasant.

"The streets are so busy. There's so many cars on the road," she said. "There's always a lot of things going on."

So once every summer, she packs her bags and leaves her home in Bronx, N.Y., for New Canaan, where she enjoys two quieter -- but active -- weeks.

Yahshanda is on of about 4,000 inner-city children who visit suburban, rural or small town communities every year through the Fresh Air Fund's Volunteer Host Family Program.

"These children join their host families for their usual summer activities, like running through the sprinkler in the grass, swimming in Waveny Pool, having a catch in the backyard, eating ice cream on a hot afternoon or walking the dog around the block," Teri Reed, chairman of the New Canaan Fresh Air Fund, said.

For six years, Yahshanda has spent two summer weeks with the Albrecht family.

"We look forward to (having her) every year," Gail Albrecht said. "She's just like part of our family."

Seventeen New Canaan families are scheduled to host 18 children, according to Reed. Five of those families are first-time hosts and others have had the same child for repeat visits. Reed herself has hosted the same child for 10 years.

"These kids are doing things that they had never done before -- swimming in the ocean, riding horses, growing tomatoes, picking strawberries," Reed said. "All these things that we take for granted living here."

Since 1877, the not-for-profit Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer experiences to more than 1.8 million New York City children. The majority of them are from low-income neighborhoods and live in apartment buildings.

What they all have in common, however, is the desire to make new friends and enjoy the simple pleasures of life away from the city, Reed said.

Albrecht's 12-year-old daughter Mallory said she and Yahshanda spend most of their time swimming. But her mom said the girls also play outdoor and board games or go to theme parks, the movies or taekwondo classes, among other activities. Yahshanda's favorite day so far was when they went paddle boarding on a lake in Trumbull.

There are some habits, however, that took her a while to get used to at the Albrecht residence. "Their way of living is very different than the way I live," she said.

For instance, Albrecht does not allow electronic devices in the bedroom at night, something Yahshanda normally does at home. Another example is the bed time, which is usually around 10 or 11 p.m. at the Albrecht home.

"I don't have a set bed time," Yahshanda said. "And the time I wake up is different."

Reed noted that the program benefits both the Fresh Air Fund child as well as the host family. Besides the friendship that it creates, Reed said it's good for the children of the host families to learn about how those in less privileged communities live.

"It's important for our children to be exposed to things outside of the `bubble of New Canaan,' " Reed said. "It's refreshing for them to see that so much that they have they take for granted."

Fresh Air Fund children are registered by more than 90 participating social service and community organizations in the five boroughs of New York City. The organization provides transportation for children to and from volunteer communities.

Children on first-time visits are 6 to 12 years old and stay for one or two weeks. Those who are re-invited by host families may continue with the Fresh Air Fund until they're 18 and may enjoy longer trips. In fact, more than 65 percent of children are re-invited to stay with their host families.

"It's just a fabulous way to expand your horizon," Reed said.

For Yahshanda, taking "a break from the city" now means spending time with her "second family."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson