Fresh approach to a special kind of family living

MARGARET Bain jokes that when the summer is up and it's time for Latoya to go back home, her husband, Bob, is likely to turn to the bouncy 11-year-old and say, ``Call your mother -- you're going to stay with us for the whole year!'' Latoya Rhodes, who comes from the urban environs of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been an important part of the Bain household for the past six summers. The relationship began, in a sense, when Mrs. Bain heard a radio spot for the Fresh Air Fund, the 108-year-old New York program for getting inner-city youngsters out into the countryside. Most of its 13,000 children stay with small-town families in Vermont and 12 other Eastern states plus Canada.

``Bob, why don't we do that?'' Mrs. Bain asked at the time. ``Sure,'' was his quick response, and it wasn't long before arrangements were made and Latoya, who is two years older than the Bains' daughter, Sarah, was on a bus bound for this remarkably picturesque town of 600 near Vermont's western border.

On a recent August morning, the family, including 21/2-year-old Isaac and grandparents Elizabeth and Herman Higgins, who live just across the street, gathered around the breakfast table to trade thoughts on what having Latoya as a part-time ``daughter'' has meant to them.

``It's been a wonderful experience for us, it really has,'' says Mrs. Bain. She remarks that people often tell her what a nice thing her family is doing by giving Latoya a summer home, ``but we always say, it's what she has done for us.'' Topping her list of reasons to be grateful for Latoya is the ``deep realization that no matter what we look like on the outside, we're all the same on the inside.''

``And we can all love,'' adds Mrs. Higgins, an observation that's confirmed by the familial warmth right at hand. Little Isaac has started to scale Latoya's ladder-back chair. She giggles and hunches over in mock terror -- ``He's gonna bite me!'' The two girls, Sarah and Latoya, are very close, and know each other well enough now to have occasional ``sisterly battles.''

Latoya's answer to the question ``What do you like best about being here?'' was an 11-year-old's predictable ``It's fun.'' But behind that brief reply lies a wealth of vivid memories, such as watching bears on a family vacation to New York's Adirondacks and being chased by a cow on a trip with Mr. Bain to a local farm. And most of all, the warm feeling of having a second family, different from her own back in Brooklyn, but like that one, caring and supportive.

One of the first things the Bains noticed about Latoya that first summer was that ``she wanted to pick things up, she was very neat and fussy.'' From that, says Mrs. Bain, it was clear that she had been brought up to be responsible.

The Vermont family would love to meet the Brooklyn one -- Latoya's mother, brother, and two sisters -- but so far the logistics haven't worked out. ``We're still hoping,'' says Mrs. Higgins.

Another thing the family appreciates about Latoya is her brightness. ``She's a thinker,'' says Mrs. Higgins, noting that Latoya enjoys the local library and plans to go to college and become a teacher -- plans her Vermont family will ``do anything we can'' to help realize. This year, particularly, Latoya enjoys conversation. ``She'll come over and we'll have a nice visit,'' says Mrs. Higgins, herself a former schoolteacher.

Latoya is sharp in other ways, too. ``She's very perceptive. She can tell when there's prejudice behind the smile,'' says Mrs. Bain. And prejudice is hardly a stranger to the rolling hills and valleys around West Rupert, according to the Bains. While the community as a whole has opened its heart to ``fresh air children'' like Latoya, some individuals hold on to racial feelings, Mrs. Bain explains. ``It's hard to believe we've still got some people who are like that,'' Mr. Bain says, adding that it's ``j ust ignorance.''

``That's one thing -- our children are not going to be prejudiced,'' adds his wife.

Latoya's stay with the Bains has stretched from two weeks the first summer to two months in recent ones. ``In about two years,'' says Mrs. Bain, ``we will invite a boy to come,'' a friend for young Isaac.

As an aside, Mrs. Bain notes that she understands the Fresh Air Fund has become stricter in screening host families in response to concern about child abuse.

The program, which has always made strong efforts to care well for its charges, was begun in 1877 by the Rev. Willard Parsons of Sherman, Pa. The New York Herald Tribune backed the program, and during that first summer 60 children from New York City were taken in by the minister's Presbyterian parishioners.

In the late 1960s the New York Times took over the Fresh Air program and continues to sponsor it. A permanent staff of 20 based in New York City works with 54 social service and community agencies in the city's five boroughs to select children for the summer vacations. The youngsters come from low-income families, the majority of which receive some form of public assistance.

This year families in 326 towns opened their homes to approximately 10,500 young people from five to 16 years old. Another 2,500 children attended the four camps maintained and staffed by the Fresh Air Fund in upstate New York.

Host families for the project are chosen by Fresh Air Fund volunteer committees in each of the eastern towns. In all, the New York staff is assisted by a network of more than 10,000 volunteers. For time periods ranging from two weeks to all summer, the young New Yorkers escape the concrete and city heat.

Like other host families, the Bains are now preparing once again to say goodbye to their charges. Latoya will soon be on the bus back to Brooklyn. But she'll probably return for a couple of weeks in the spring at Easter vacation. ``It's always hard for me,'' says Mrs. Bain. ``She is one of my children, and I hate to see her go.''

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