The Fresh Air Fund

I am pictured here with my sister (left), two Fresh Air Fund children (right) and two neighbors (front left and center front).

In the summer of 1877, a  particularly virulent tuberculosis epidemic swept through New York City’s tenement buildings.  Mycobacterium tuberculosis spread rapidly through the sputum released in the coughs and sneezes of the sick, most of whom were children.

That same summer, Willard Parsons was a young clergyman whose first assignment after graduation from the Union Theological Seminar in New York was to minister to a rural Pennsylvania community located a few miles west of the NY-PA border.

At the time of this epidemic, fresh air was considered a cure for many respiratory ailments.  (Consider that Maine became a state in 1820, the Civil War ended in 1865, x-rays were discovered in 1895 and penicillin was discovered in 1928.)  As the story goes, Parsons was on a horseback ride in the countryside when he realized that his parishioners could offer NYC’s sick children exactly what the doctor ordered – fresh air.  From the pulpit of the Sherman Mission Chapel, Parsons urged his congregation to open their homes and give these children the opportunity to experience the wide open beauty of a countryside in the full bloom of summer.

That summer nine children left New York City and stayed with families in Sherman, Pennsylvania. Today, over 1.8 million children have stepped off hot city pavement and onto buses headed for volunteer families on the East Coast and Southern Canada. (There is also a Fresh Air Fund camp 60 miles north of NYC in the Town of Fishkill, NY.)

Roughly 25 years ago, my parents opened our home to a Fresh Air Fund child.  Our neighbors, who were an extended family in practice (and remain so in my heart today) did the same.  Blond hair, blue eyes, black hair, brown eyes.  Families are made from love, not biology.  When this picture was taken in the early 1990s, both my parents and my “next-door parents” had already opened their hearts and homes to non-biological children.  For years people found the most terribly intrusive and awkward ways of asking about this.  How sad, even if they were just being curious.  I hope it isn’t the same today for rainbow families – and I mean any damn kind of rainbow that makes a family. Missing from the picture is my older brother with his light red hair; older brothers do not typically run around with a gaggle of girls.)

For several years both my nuclear family and my next door family invited Fresh Air Fund children into our homes.  My Family Next Door owned a piece of heaven on a quiet pond an hour away, and because they were brave and kind in equal parts they would take all of us to camp to swim, canoe, catch crayfish and sail.

You might note that I appear to be bossing the other children around.  For anyone who knows me this will not be a surprise.  My sister stands in the shadow on the left, probably wondering how to make a quick get away.  Missing from the photo is the oldest of my two Next Door Sisters.  She probably had already made a run for it.

I remember the great hesitation with which our host child approached camping.  I also distinctly recall her swatting something edible (strawberry? pea pod?) from the hand of one of the Maine natives in our group, yelling “Cucka” for emphasis.  Not an unreasonable reaction at all, if you consider her viewpoint.

For most of us, exposure to sunshine and fresh air provides significant benefits to our mental and physical health.  Additionally, numerous scientific studies link urban living to higher stress levels.  (I can’t imagine why.)  Factor in the poverty that these children live with and you can quickly see how a few weeks away from the heat and chaos of New York City would be welcome.  (But imagine the courage it takes for a young child to board a bus and head into the woods to live with strangers for a few weeks.)

The next time you enjoy a lungful of Maine’s fresh air remember how lucky you are. But know this: even if we took every vehicle off Maine’s roads we would still have air pollution problems, since wind patterns carry pollution to us from coal plants in the Midwest and the more densely populated portions of the eastern seaboard.

How to keep the air breathable for future generations?  Take a look at tips from the United States Environmental Protection Agency on how you can help curb air pollution:

While certainly better than the air in New York City, Maine’s air quality is far from perfect. If you have respiratory ailments or care for the young, old or ill, you can check Maine’s air quality forecasts on the DEP’s Air Quality page: