Program offers rural experience to inner city children

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By John Barnhart

The first time that Olivia Yap, of Queens in New York City, spent time with Andy and Lea Larsen of Huddleston, she saw stars.


    It was like nothing she ever saw before because the big city lights washed out the night sky back home.
    “It was real, real dark and the stars were pretty and big,” she recalled. “They looked like glitter.”
    Yap is now 12 and this is the fourth year she has spent time with the Larsens. She’s here under the auspices of the Fresh Air Fund, which takes children from inner city neighborhoods and gives them a rural or suburban experience.
    Seeing deer, not in pictures, but actually running loose has also been new. Recently she was out with the Larsens’ adult daughter, Heather, and her black and white dog who Yap describes as looking “kind of like an Oreo” and they saw deer.
    “We saw two (does) and a buck,” she said. “The buck was standing behind a tree and staring at us.”
    Deer were an intimidating sight for her on her first trip. They initially scared her because she thought they would run her over.
    Another change in Yap’s life is that Lea Larsen taught her to swim. And she has learned to sew, something she likes to do, along with watching TV and playing video games.
    In school, her favorite subjects are science, “besides art, gym and lunch.”
    The fact that she likes science is good, given her ambition. Yap has been fascinated by the CSI shows on TV and wants to do that in real life when she grows up.
    Besides hosting Yap in the summer, the Larsens stay in contact with her and her family and now the retired couple is going to have to learn how to use Facebook to keep up with this lively adolescent. They’ve been talked into setting up a Facebook profile and Yap has friended them.
    The Larsens got involved with the Fresh Air Fund because they both love children and they both come from big cities; they understand the need. Lea is from Philadelphia and Andy is from Brooklyn.
    “It’s a wonderful experience,” said Andy Larsen. “It’s really a lot of fun if you like kids.”
    Fresh Air Fund hosts aren’t left on their own. Barbara Austin, who serves as the liaison between New York and the areas surrounding Lynchburg, Roanoke and Charlottesville, said that multiple group activities are available during the children’s 10-day stay. The organization also offers activities that host families can do with their guests on an individual basis. All are optional. Host families can take their guests to any of them, or come up with their own ideas if they choose.
    The Larsens represent the ideal situation for the Fresh Air Fund. Austin said that if a child and host family  prove to be a good match, the host family can invite the same child back year after year.  This is what the Larsens have done with Yap. The children first arrive at ages between 6 and 12 and can keep returning under the auspices of the Fresh Air Fund until they are 18.
    Austin said another group of children are coming down on Aug. 5 “and we do desperately need hosts.”
    Potential host families can apply until two weeks before the children’s arrival. This provides time for the Fresh Air Fund to do an interview with the family and do a background check on all persons, 18 and older, who will be involved with the child.
    To volunteer, contact Austin at (434) 929-7405 or call the Fund’s New York office at (800) 367-0003. More information about the Fresh Air Fund can be found at www.freshair.org.