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Cultural exchange program seeking host families in region

Yellow flowers on farm meadow in Pennsylvania
Lisa Buchanan/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Yellow flowers on farm meadow in Pennsylvania

Spending a week each summer in Ramsey, New Jersey, gave Matt Diaz a new way of thinking about life.

“It has shown how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations," he said. "And also has allowed me to explore and be with people that are not like me at all."

Diaz is a 21-year-old student at Lafayette University. He grew up in the Bronx in New York City. When Diaz was around 8 or 9 years old, he joined the Fresh Air Fund.

The program places children from New York City’s underserved communities with families who live within 3 hours of the city for one week. The Fresh Air Fund exposes the children to the outdoors and other parts of the country, as well as meeting new people, said Lisa Weiss, the youth development organization’s volunteer co-chair for Sullivan County, New York, and Northeast Pennsylvania.

"It's about giving city kids a new experience so they can grow and thrive," she said.

The program is seeking host families in the region.

In 1877, a minister from rural Pennsylvania was concerned about children in New York City living in poverty in crowded apartments surrounded by disease. He asked his congregation to host those children to get them some fresh air during the summer, said Weiss.

Since then, almost 2 million children have participated in the program.

Eligibility for families is income based. Host families must have one adult 25 or older in the home and submit to a background check.

There’s no cost for either the child or the host family to participate in the program. Hosts must provide room and board for the child and the cost of experiences. That could be camping or hiking or just bicycle rides, swimming in a backyard pool, catching fireflies or stargazing, said Weiss.

“The bottom line is do you have room for one more for a weeklong summer vacation ... where you all get an amazing experience," she said.

Diaz participated in the Fresh Air Fund until he was 16. By then, he had formed such a strong relationship with his host family that he now spends weekends and holidays with the family. He even lived with them during the pandemic.

He said kids in the Bronx don’t often have the opportunity to go hiking or take a walk if they are stressed out.

“And so that's something that has been accommodated in my life now presently," he said.

Weiss calls the program a cultural exchange.

Diaz taught his host family some Spanish and shares his taste in music with them.

Because of his experience, Diaz said he doesn’t judge people.

“And I think that's something that was taught in Ramsey, New Jersey, which is a pretty valuable skill to learn," he said.

Before the pandemic, Weiss and her husband hosted a girl from the Bronx for four summers. It helped them see their community in a new light.

"Through her we got to meet people ... that we had not crossed paths with before," she said.

The program runs from late June to August. Host families can pick up the New York City kids in the program from a charter bus in Monticello, New York, during two different weeks: June 28 to July 5 or August 7 to 14. If those dates are unavailable, host families can make special arrangements to pick kids up in New York City.

To host a New York City student this summer, visit freshairfund.org or contact Weiss through the website or at 917-922-8601.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.