Ridgefield welcomes Fresh Air Fund visitors

For nine-year-old Cindy Gao, the most noticeable difference between Ridgefield and Queens is the quiet.

Here, in the New England suburbs, there are fewer honking vehicles. There are also fewer late-night buses and police sirens.

“At home everyday, I hear cars and subways,” Cindy told The Press last week. “In Ridgefield, there is not a lot of that noise.”

The fifth grader is one of four New York City children, ranging from ages nine to 13, who visited town with the Fresh Air Fund earlier this month.

The young guests were all hosted by Ridgefield families from July 7 to July 14, and spent the week participating in many quintessentially “Connecticut” activities, like fruit-picking, gardening, and swimming at the Rec Center and Boys and Girls Club.

For most, it was a break from the incessant hustle and bustle of urban living.

“I had never planted flowers, gone hiking, or picked my own fruit before,” Cindy said. “The environment here is really different.”

Simple pleasures

Lisa Braden-Harder, the Fresh Air Fund coordinator for Ridgefield and Wilton, said that all she asks from host families is that they share their summers with a visitor.

“We’re not asking for Disneyland,” she said.

“In fact, the simple stuff — hiking, going on picnics — works great. When we talk to the kids going home on the bus, those are the sort of things they really like.”

And though this year’s trip did not overlap with Independence Day, past Fresh Air guests have also enjoyed the patriotic festivities and fireworks here in town.

“For some of the kids, in their neighborhoods, the Fourth of July is a really dangerous day. You stay inside, because anyone who is outside is causing trouble,” Braden-Harder said.

“Including our visitors in those kinds of things — what we think of as a very typical summer — can give these kids a different view of the world.”

More kids coming

Ridgefield has been participating in the Fresh Air program for more than 50 years.

This summer, between 30 and 40 kids will visit town, with the youngest arriving by bus to stay for the second week of August.

According to Braden-Harder, the rest will travel independently at a time that best fits into their personal schedules.

“The older children usually come up by train, or connect [with host families] individually,” she said.

Visitors who are 13 or older are not allowed to reapply through the program, but must instead be invited back by families with whom they have previously stayed.

This level of planning between guests and their hosts is why the number of kids coming to town this year is more of an approximation than an exact figure.

Cultural exchange

Fresh Air was started in 1877 at the peak of the tuberculosis epidemic in New York City. At the time, it was thought that breathing clean, country air could help cure the sickly.

Of course, with over a century’s time past and the advent of more advanced medical technologies, the organization’s mission has shifted slightly, though its central tune — helping low-income New York City children — still sings the same.

Familiar face

Both sides of the exchange reap rewards.

Braden-Harder, who has hosted the same visitor for 10 years, says the experience has been beneficial not only to her guest but also to her own children, who in the process gained “a larger perspective of the world.”

Stephen Saloom, a Ridgefielder who hosted an 11-year-old girl earlier this month, said his daughter and visitor were “enjoying the newness of each other.”

“Our first time hosting was two years ago, and we had a great experience,” Saloom said. “It adds a really nice element to our summer.”

Lasting bonds

And often, visitors and families forge friendships that can last decades.

“We have hosts who have gone on to help kids get into college,” said Braden-Harder, who continues to meet up with the Fresh Air participant who she first sponsored when he was seven.

That same boy is now 17 years old.

“We see him throughout the year, whenever he can come up.”

Braden-Harder’s visitor, like others in the program, has dealt with tumultuous family and personal experiences.

For guests like him, their years — decades, even — of participation in the Fresh Air Fund can provide a dependable continuity sometimes lacking in other areas of life.

“When we first hosted him, he lived in the Bronx. He was homeless for a year in the middle. Now he’s in Brooklyn,” Braden-Harter told The Press.

“It’s fun because he is connected through the Boys and Girls Club to a lot of kids. Even when we go out for pizza or just walk around town, he knows a lot of people — it’s great to see how he has stayed connected over the years.”

Morning dew

Still, assimilation is sometimes tricky.

Aspects of small-town life that are “normal” to Ridgefield families can be new to guests, Braden-Harder said.

“There was one morning when I was walking one of our visitors across the field to the Boys and Girls Club,” she said. “There was a bunch of dew on the grass — everything was really wet — and she was getting concerned about it.

“I said ‘It’s just dew! It’s morning dew — you don’t need to worry,’ but in the end, she insisted on walking around the block on the sidewalk. She was sure that dew must have been toxic, or something like that.”

Diet adjustment

For the most part, this year’s visitors adjusted smoothly to living with their host families.

Cindy’s host, Bhargavi Ramamurthy, told The Press she had a great time with her guest from Queens.  

And in turn, Cindy seemed to be comfortable around her.

Ramamurthy, who, with her husband and two children, is vegetarian, had matched with Cindy in part because the nine-year-old said she would be okay with not eating meat for a week.

“I did make pasta, rice, and beans — stuff that Cindy would be familiar with — for the first few days,” Ramamurthy told The Press with a smile. “But then she herself said, ‘You know, I’d like to eat what you eat,’ which was very exciting for me, so she got a taste of Indian vegetarian cooking as well.”

Ramamurthy, whose family is a first-time participant in the program, said she would absolutely host again.

And, after a week of peach-picking, swimming, crafting clay pots, and just spending time in the soft quiet of the Connecticut outdoors, Cindy shares a similar sunny sentiment.

“I would come back,” she said. “I love it here.”