Quiet Country Nights: Inner-City Kids Get a Chance to Chase Fireflies

Judy Fragosa spends her summers at what she calls camp in Beverly, Mass. Her camp, though, is different from most. She is one of just three campers, and instead of counselors, a set of parents watches over her.

For four years now, Judy has ridden a bus from New York City to this Boston suburb to join the Keeley family for two weeks of swimming and tennis lessons, collecting seashells at the beach, and playing "club" with her two younger "siblings," Gabrielle and Owen.

Judy is just one of several thousand low-income children who pile out of the city each summer as part of the century-old Fresh Air Fund. The idea is to give kids a respite from their concrete playgrounds and often mean streets - and to help them build sometimes long-lasting bonds with families in leafy suburbs ranging from Virginia to Maine.

Since the Rev. Willard Parsons, minister of a small rural parish in Sherman, Pa., first asked members of his congregation in 1877 to provide country vacations to children from New York City tenements, families have hosted a total of 1.6 million young New Yorkers. In 1995, close to 7,000 children visited more than 300 Fresh Air "Friendly Towns."

"It's an opportunity for kids to be kids, to see new things, meet new friends, and feel better about themselves," says Jenny Morgenthau, executive director of the Fresh Air Fund. "It gives kids something to aim for."

But she adds that host families describe it as a two-way street where the host families are also learning. "Most families feel it's an opportunity to learn about city kids, kids from a different background."

Settling in

Indeed, settling in to the new arrangement can take adjustment on both sides. The bus ride from New York is the first hurdle for many of the children. "The kids initially are a little apprehensive. They ask a lot of questions about their host families, but they get more excited when the bus gets near," says Monica Keeley.

Mrs. Keeley remembers that on Judy's first visit she thought their backyard was a park. And "at night, she wanted to double check that we locked everything."

Being in Massachusetts is a stretch, coming from New York City. "My room is different. There's no TV and no sofa," Judy says. "There's not that much trees, no flowers."

In Beverly, Judy enjoys bike riding and playing office. She also likes to play on the family's backyard swing set, something she can't do in the city.

"They don't have swings. Everyone likes to take the swings off," she says.

In spite of its differences from her own city, or perhaps because of them, Beverly has made an impact on Judy. When she grows up, she would like to live in the country, in Beverly to be exact. She's not sure she really likes the city. "There are too much guns," she says.

But Judy has also made an impact on Beverly. The Keeley children love playing with her, and eagerly anticipate her arrival each summer. "They love Judy," says Keeley of her two children. "Gabrielle's been thinking of her coming since she got out of school. She thinks of Judy like a sister."

For Judy, like most Fresh Air Fund kids, the two-week country vacation provides a break from a city that forces them to grow up fast. But sometimes the program has a more dramatic impact.

Corrie Johnson began taking the Fresh Air Fund bus to Edgecomb, Maine, when he was seven years old. The mother of his friend, Abdul Hawkins, worked for the Fresh Air Fund in New York and thought it would be a good idea for her son and a friend to participate.

The boys visited Art Gingold and his wife, Faith Porter, for two years with the Fresh Air Fund and then came up on their own, with the couple providing the bus fare or plane tickets.

Ms. Porter remembers their first visit. The boys couldn't believe there wasn't a betting parlor in town. They also didn't understand how just one traffic light in all of Lincoln County could handle the traffic. The boys were surprised when they didn't see any policemen in the street. She remembers them asking, "How many people are in jail? One?"

Corrie liked the town so much that when he was 14, right before he was supposed to go back to New York, he asked if he could stay for good.

Porter said she and her husband, who have no children of their own, talked about all the reasons they couldn't possibly do it. They then decided all their reasons were selfish.

Corrie's mother was surprised, but gave her consent for the couple to be his legal guardians.

"At first she was sketchy about it, and upset because I was leaving," Corrie says. "But in the long run, she knew it was the best thing to do."

Within two days, Corrie had moved in and enrolled at Wiscasset High School.

Corrie saw it as either being with his friends in New York and living a fast-paced life, or coming up to Maine and being safe.

"It's really scary down there," Corrie says of the South Bronx. "It's no place to raise a kid or grow up."

High school in Wiscasset was different from in the South Bronx. Corrie joined the track team that first year and was throwing the javelin when he heard a gun shoot off to start the races. Corrie immediately hit the ground.

"It just scared me," Corrie says. "[In New York] you hear guns and you automatically duck."

Studying was another area that took some getting used to.

"I can't believe these guys actually work," Corrie remembers thinking on the first day of school. "It didn't kick in till the end of sophomore year that I'd better do some work."

Taking hold in school

In the Bronx, Corrie says he had poor study habits. The people he hung out with never did homework. If they got bored, they would go to school.

But by the time Corrie was a senior, his grades rose to the highest they had ever been, and he got A's in poetry and creative writing.

The winter of his freshman year, he also joined the school's basketball team and led them in scoring all four years. Although he had played basketball practically every day in New York, he was never on an organized team. Those weren't allowed at his school because of the fights that would break out.

It wasn't just basketball that Corrie excelled at. He was voted homecoming king his junior year, and king of his senior prom.

During his junior year, he also got interested in poetry. It started with a poem he had to write for a class assignment.

"I sat down at the computer and made up this crazy poem about this dead poet," Corrie says. "The teacher loved it."

From there he kept writing. In his junior and senior year, Corrie received the school's only creative writing award for poetry.

This fall Corrie will attend Bridgton, a preparatory school in Bridgton, Maine, that focuses on academics and athletics. After that he's not sure where he would like to go, although he is considering the University of Maine at Orono or Bowdoin College. He thinks he might like to major in English.

Corrie says he has changed a lot since he first started living in Maine. One development he particularly appreciates is the growth of his self-confidence.

"Now I'm not scared to learn what I want to learn and do what I want to do," he says.

Porter also has seen this change in him. As a seven-year-old child, he was carefree and happy, she says. That lightheartedness got lost in his early teen-age years. But now, she says, it's back.

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