Sharing the fresh air

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By Tom Wilmoth

Fresh air isn't just available in the summer.

The Winn family of Goode is hosting their Fresh Air child for the holidays, and even taking him to Florida for the UVA/Texas Tech game on Jan. 1.

This was a friendship hatched last summer.

Cheryl and Charles Winn hosted 12-year-old Jonathan (J.J.) Legree of the Bronx for the first time this summer and right away they knew it was a right fit, according to Kaitlin Hoffman of the Fresh Air Fund. Being the same age as their grandson Griffin, who lives in an apartment in the basement of their house, J.J. had an instant playmate ? although, as Cheryl puts it, J.J. could get along with anyone he happens to meet.

During his time there, J.J. played baseball at the church, went put-putting, fished in the pond behind their house and enjoyed canoeing for the first time.

During J.J.?s upcoming visit, which is scheduled to last from Dec. 21 to Jan. 3, he will visit with the extended Winn family in the area, enjoy simple activities like baking cookies and most exciting, take his first real road trip as he and Cheryl and Charles drive to Florida for the UVA vs. Texas Tech football game on Jan. 1.

"We had an extra ticket so it really worked out really well," Cheryl said.

The Winn family has been anxiously waiting for J.J.'s arrival as they have missed him this fall, even after just meeting him this past summer. They have kept in touch with him through phone calls and talk often to his mother to see how he and his family are doing. Cheryl can sum up what J.J. means to her and her husband in one short sentence, when she says, ?He is a real blessing to us.?

The Winn family got involved with the Fresh Air program after learning about it from some friends. "We kind of got in at the last minute. We really enjoyed having him," she said of last summer's experience.

J.J. was scheduled to travel to Virginia with Christopher Santo by train on Friday. Christopher, 16, another Fresh Air child from Brooklyn, will be visiting Dana and Herman Guthrie of Lynchburg, another local host family for the holidays.

The Fresh Air Fund is an independent, not-for-profit agency, which has provided free summer vacations to more than 1.7 million New York City children from low-income communities since 1877.

Cheryl said they originally were going to try to bring J.J. down either before or after Christmas, but his mother agreed to let him come down and stay over the Christmas holiday. "She knew he really wanted to come," Cheryl said.

And they're looking forward to the visit. "He's really a good kid. He's well behaved and mannered. He kind of fit in with the family," she said.

Nearly 10,000 New York City children enjoy free Fresh Air Fund programs annually. In 2006, close to 5,000 children visited volunteer host families in suburbs and small town communities across 13 states from Virginia to Maine and Canada. 3,000 children also attended five Fresh Air camps on a 2,300-acre site in Fishkill, New York. The Fund?s year-round camping program serves an additional 2,000 young people each year.

Children are selected to participate in The Fresh Air Fund Friendly Town program based on financial need. Children are from low-income communities, with the majority receiving some form of public assistance. Fresh Air youngsters are registered by more than 60 social service and community organizations in all five boroughs of New York City.

Fresh Air children, boys and girls from 6 to 18 years old, visit over 300 Fresh Air Friendly Towns in the summer. Fresh Air children on first-time visits to Friendly Town host families are 6 to 12 years old and stay for two weeks. The program also has a special one-week option for New York City families who would like to host children on their summer vacations in the country.

More than 65 percent of all children are reinvited to stay with host families, year after year. Reinvited youngsters may continue with The Fund through age 18, and many spend the entire summer in the country. Fresh Air children and volunteer families often form bonds of friendship that last a lifetime.

Fresh Air Fund volunteer host families open their homes to inner-city children for two weeks or more in the summertime. Each Friendly Town community is supervised by a committee of volunteers. Committee members select host families after reviewing their applications, visiting them in their homes and checking their personal references.

There are no financial requirements for hosting a Fresh Air child. Most hosts simply want to share their homes with inner-city youngsters. Host families are not paid. The Fund has a program for placing children who have special physical or emotional needs.

In 1877, the Rev. Willard Parsons, minister of a small rural parish in Sherman, Pa., asked members of his congregation to provide country vacations as volunteer host families for children from New York City tenements. This was the beginning of The Fresh Air Fund tradition. By 1884, Parsons was writing about The Fund for New York's Herald Tribune, and the number of children served grew. In 2006, close to 10,000 New York City children experienced the joys of summertime in Friendly Towns and at five Fund camps in upstate New York.

The Fresh Air Fund is a not-for-profit agency, depending primarily on support from private contributions. It costs The Fresh Air Fund $678 for a visit with a volunteer host family and $1,298 to send a child to Fresh Air camp. Over 75 percent of The Fund?s contributions come from individual donors. 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 may call The Fund at (800) 367-0003.