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August 17, 2009

My Turn: Fresh Air Fund opens doors to new worlds

This week’s “My turn” column is by Darlene Pondolfino, regional chairwoman with the Fresh Air Fund.

Ever hear of the Fresh Air Fund? It’s a New York City nonprofit organization that sends inner-city kids to the country every summer.

I got involved for three reasons: my two sons and daughter. I wanted them to experience another world, and the program is a wonderful way for children to meet kids with backgrounds and lives far different from their own.

In the beginning, as every potential host family does, we went through a background check, interview and home inspection. Going through these approval steps built anticipation among my children, especially my daughter, as our choice (every family submits one) to receive a girl was confirmed.

On her arrival day, via bus from New York City, we joined other host families at Neahwa Park to greet the kids. Some were returning to families who had hosted them before. Others, like our 6-year old Chandara, were first-timers.

She stepped off the bus with a smile so big it melted our hearts. Her two weeks with us flew by and the stories we still tell today, 12 years later, are priceless.

Even our daily routines were a change for Chandara. Being in a car was something new to her, as her usual means of transportation were subways and buses.

One afternoon while driving down Interstate 88, Chandara decided to check if the car door was locked. I quickly assured her that the door was locked and that she was safe, convincing her to never open a moving car door again.

Each night we had dinner together as a family, played, relaxed and went to bed. And every morning Chandara would wake up and come running into my bed.

All was well until Saturday morning, when she came to join me and suddenly stopped to ask my husband why he was there with me.

Somewhat perplexed, he told her it was Saturday and he didn’t have to work that day. Shocked, she replied, “You live here?” Not having a steady male figure in her life, Chandara had assumed that he came over for dinner and left each night.

Then there was food. Chandara thought corn came from a can. She had never seen a corn stalk, let alone shucked an ear of corn. We changed that.

Those big fields now occupied by Cooperstown Dreams Park were once Ingalls Farm. She helped us pick thousands of strawberries there, but ate plenty of them just as fast as she could!

My daughter and Chandara hit it off quite well; they could entertain each other for hours. My two boys were less enthusiastic _ they had wanted another boy.

But my oldest son did mesmerize Chandara one afternoon while playing in the stream at Wilber Park. A brook trout was wading in the shallow waters and with his bare hand he tickled its underbelly and picked it right out of the water for her. She was very impressed.

In the end she was very sad to leave us, and we were equally sad to see her go. She left with a photo album full of memories, and our family learned about a place and lifestyle we had known nothing about.

Two years later, we gave a little boy a chance to experience life in Oneonta. Joseph stayed with us for the next four summers. He was a gentle child with a big heart.

His first week was a challenge, dealing with homesickness and fears that change brings. But he adjusted well over time and made many friends.

Having turned 13 and assumed more responsibilities at home, he has not been back in two years. We think of him often, and I am sure his outlook on life has changed for the better due to his time in our “friendly town,” the Fresh Air term for host locations.

With my children quickly growing up, I stepped into a new role as a local chairwoman, coordinating host families in the area.

It always amazes me when a new family calls me up wanting to host a child. To give up their time, space in their home, and their own vacations, all for a child that they may or may not bond with (most do, though) is an admirable sacrifice.

It’s not always easy, but many of our host families are able to positively impact the lives of these children, over a span of just 10 days to two weeks, and I am so very proud to know all of them.

Looking back now, I believe my children have benefited immeasurably from the Fresh Air experience. I hope the children we and other area families have hosted have done so too. I know I have. Maybe you will next summer.

For more information on becoming a Fresh Air Fund host family, contact Darlene Pondolfino at 287-6373.

To write for “My turn,” contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at or 432-1000, ext. 214.