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Fresh air

July 11, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Vincent Fitzpatrick, 13, is back in Hagerstown.

He's in the middle of a his fifth annual two-week vacation with Mona Hardinge and her kids - Tom, 20, a senior at Virginia Military Academy, Hannah, 18, who'll be heading to her freshman year at Hofstra University in New York, Addie, 16, and Robert, 13.

Vincent, who lives in New York, is one of about 45 children who, through The Fresh Air Fund, will spend a week or two in the local area.

The Hardinge family has hosted kids since 1996, about a year after Mona Hardinge got the idea when she saw an episode of "Sesame Street" that featured a similar program. She did some research, learned she didn't have to live on a farm, and every summer since, she's had a "two-week slumber party."

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The Fresh Air Fund began in 1877. The nonprofit organization was created to allow children living in disadvantaged communities to get away from cities for a brief summer respite in rural areas, according to information on the program's Web site at www.freshair.org. The name stems from the organization's beginnings, when there was a tuberculosis epidemic in the city, and "fresh air" was considered a cure for respiratory ailments.

Jane Kuhns, 56, of Chambersburg, Pa., isn't sure exactly how long city kids have been coming to the Tri-State area, but she figures it's about 60 years, because her parents hosted Fresh Air kids before she was born. Children came to her home for 30 years. She hasn't had young vacationers for the last few years; her work as area Fresh Air Fund representative - coordinating visits, sponsor interviews and background checks - keeps her busy.

Although they don't have children visiting this summer, Joey and Jim Bowser of Fayetteville, Pa., have hosted Fresh Air kids for 11 years - a couple of them also coming for Christmastime visits.

"You form these connections and these bonds," said Joey Bowser, a local chairman for the program.

Traditions also have formed. Every summer, the Hardinges' dining room table is pushed aside, and the floor becomes the place where a small wooden train set is put together while Vincent's in town. A game of kick the can has become an annual event. Neighbors and cousins arrive, and the kids play a raucous nighttime version of hide-and-seek.

In Chambersburg, 8-year-old Marvin Edwards of New York is spending his third summer vacation with Donna and Jay Hess and their four sons - 9-year-old twins and 3 and 6 year olds. The neighborhood doesn't have sidewalks, Marvin said. The Brooklyn borough, where he lives, does, he said. The family has taken Marvin camping and traveled up Interstate 81 to a large outdoor store.

"We don't do a lot," Donna Hess said, and staying home is OK with Marvin.

His favorite thing is s'mores made by the campfire.

He stayed with the family two weeks his first year and four weeks last summer. Donna Hess said her goal is to have Marvin stick around for a little more than five weeks this year. Both Donna and Jay Hess' families hosted Fresh Air kids when they were children.

"It was always a good experience," Donna Hess said.

The Hesses are involved because they want to reach out and share, and they enjoy the cross-cultural experience. They hope to visit New York in the future and have Marvin be their tour guide.

The family has grown close to Marvin.

"He's just a great kid," Donna Hess said, close to tears. "He's got a smile that melts my heart."

Ten-year old Angel Vasquez is spending her Fresh Air vacation at the Fayetteville home of Joyce and Charles Jamison. Angel, who lives with her mother on the third floor of a "small" apartment building in the Queens borough of New York, is enjoying swimming in the backyard pool with the Jamisons' 8-year-old granddaughter, and the family recently camped near Gettysburg, Pa., in their motor home.

Angel admitted not liking camping but said she's having a good time. She's noticed that mailboxes near the street are different from those in her city neighborhood, and she said there are a lot of bugs in Pennsylvania. She said she would like to come back next summer.

"I'd have to bring a lot of bug spray," she said.

When her family first got involved with Fresh Air, Hannah Hardinge thought it would be fun to see how different a kid from New York would be. Instead, she learned how "not different" things are.

The visits are not a big deal for the Hardinges and Vincent - or for the other families. The children are just people coming over and hanging out for a couple of weeks, Tom Hardinge said.

For information about being a host with The Fresh Air Fund, go to www.freshair.org on the Web, or call Jamison, a local volunteer coordinator, at 1-717-352-2561.

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