The Fresh Air Fund was founded in 1877 by Reverend Willard Parsons. After moving from the bustling Lower East Side of Manhattan to rural Pennsylvania, he realized the vitality of fresh air. His legacy program, Friendly Towns, which saw young people from the city spend time with volunteer host families during the summer holidays, was the first The Fresh Air Fund campaign. Following the tragic death of Bronx teenager, Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz, who was killed in a violent gang-related incident in 2018, The Fresh Air Fund opened Camp Junior – a year-round program aimed specifically at children from The Bronx. With fresh air in their lungs and new bonds made, children were forming lifelong relationships while learning and discovering the beauty in outdoor activities. Here, chief development and communications officer, Elizabeth Portland (EP), and Camp Junior director, Kayla Paulino (KP) tell us more about the organization and its inspiring work.
EP: Our purpose at The Fresh Air Fund is to serve children from low-income communities in New York City. We provide them with the opportunity to leave the city to experience fresh air. Our focus has been summer programs, but we also do have year-round programs like Camp Junior, as well as academic and leadership programs. Our first summer camp started in Fishkill, New York, in the 1940s.Its success meant we launched five more camps there on our 2,000-acre Sharpe Reservation. Then, in 2019, we opened Camp Junior in Harriman State Park.
KP: Camp Junior is open to children from The Bronx, and the Camp Junior Running Club we are doing with On builds skill and endurance through playing. We start with playground games like Hot Potato and Duck Duck Goose, which the kids are already familiar with but might not have realized they are actually running. Every Saturday morning, we run at Macombs Dam Park, across the street from the Yankee Stadium. It’s a busy park that we share with the local Little League soccer teams. The beautiful thing is that once the kids are used to the park, they then feel confident enough to run there independently too. For a long time, basketball, soccer and baseball were the only outdoor sports available to kids. Now, thanks to programs like Fresh Air Fund, track and running are strong contenders too.
EP: In the summer of 2022, we’ll be running our traditional programs such as camp and Friendly Towns – where children get the opportunity to spend a week with a volunteer host family outside of the city. We are also offering the newer New York City-based programs that we launched during the pandemic. Programs like Summer Spaces, for example, where we collaborated with the city’s Open Streets program so kids could safely play outside in their own neighborhoods. Or, for another example, The Summer Teen Academy introduces children to the plethora of careers that are out there. We also ran a Family Wellness program during the summer of 2020 and 2021, where kids could visit camp, including Camp Junior, with their parents for some respite away from the city – which we will host again this year.
KP: Camp Junior is so special to me because I was a Fresh Air Fund camper myself. I am actually one of three alumni who are camp directors this year. I also work year-round with children aged between 11 and 15, and have enjoyed seeing them thrive in the Running Club. When the kids first arrive, many of them don’t think they can run. As the weeks go by and the kids get more into it, we notice the difference in their behavior. Parents even tell us that their energy is channeled better, and they have more focus.
KP: The Fresh Air Fund changed my life. A big part of my childhood was spent here. I took part in a three-year program, and the friends I made in the first year are still my friends now. I loved swimming at the time and was able to continue that at the camp, and later received my lifeguarding certificate to teach swimming. The Fresh Air Fund also gave me my first pair of prescription glasses through a partnership with the OneSight organization. I still remember my first ruby-colored pair. As Camp Junior Director, I get to support the people who supported me and recreate the community that was offered to me as a young girl. I get to serve families who are growing up in the same place that raised me.
Find out more about Fresh Air Fund.