When Sky Sze was 8 years old, the Fresh Air Fund gave him his first escape from New York City. Through the organization’s Friendly Towns program, he was able to leave Sunset Park in Brooklyn over the summer and spend a week living on Cape Cod, where he learned to swim and boogie board.
A decade later, the organization again gave him solace. When both of his parents lost their jobs at the start of the Covid-19 crisis — his mother worked at a nail salon and his father as a cook — the Fresh Air Fund hired him to work at a city-based camp offering children free recreational programming during the pandemic.
“We had this gloomy pandemic situation, but it made it heartwarming to be able to go outside and spend time with kids,” said Mr. Sze, now 19. When he started the job, making $15 an hour, he felt relieved to be able to contribute to his family’s savings.
Many of his most blissful childhood memories were made possible by the Fresh Air Fund. He spent at least a week each summer, for 10 years, living with a host family on Cape Cod.
That first summer, he was carsick on the way to meet his host family. He was nervous about being far from his parents. But within days, the new environment brought all sorts of joys he’d never known. He learned to fish. He learned to build sand castles. He learned the simple excitement of barbecuing in a backyard.
“Backyards don’t really exist in the city, unless you grow up on Staten Island,” he said. “Being able to enjoy a hamburger while you watch friends play baseball or tag is really heartwarming.”
Last summer, as Covid-19 tore through New York and put his parents out of work, Mr. Sze was able to pass on the bliss he experienced through the Fresh Air Fund to younger New York City children. The program he worked for, Summer Spaces, served more than 1,000 campers across 10 New York City sites. He helped teach arts and crafts, including kite making and robot building.
Waking up for work each day, he thought about how relieved his campers must have been to find a distraction from the grief of jobless or sick family members; they had been given an escape, just as he was as a kid.
After 145 years, the Fresh Air Fund reimagined its work during the Covid-19 crisis. The organization began four programs designed to follow coronavirus safety protocols: Summer Spaces, a virtual youth summer learning academy, a virtual nature-focused camp and a family wellness program that enabled New York families to take day trips to camps upstate.
Nearly 300 families participated in the wellness program, escaping the city for a day of kayaking, swimming and sampling Hudson Valley produce. This year, the organization hopes to expand that program to include overnight visits.
“We reimagined summer in the face of Covid,” said Fatima Shama, the executive director of the Fresh Air Fund.
The Fresh Air Fund plans to reach thousands more New York City children from low-income families this year. A donation of $1,500 funds a two-day trip for a family to a Fresh Air Fund camp, and $520 covers the cost of 10 Camp in a Box activity kits for young campers. The fund hopes to raise more than $12 million by the end of September.
Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to the Fresh Air Fund, 633 Third Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017. Families who wish to be hosts, or parents who would like to sign up their children, may call the Fresh Air Fund at (800) 367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.
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