SCARBOROUGH – Colorful signs, balloons and big hugs greeted the 29 kids from New York City as they stepped off the bus into the welcoming arms of their host families behind Scarborough High School.

The kids, ranging in age from 6 to 18, are in Maine thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit agency founded in 1877 that sends more than 10,000 inner-city kids to host families and camps throughout the Northeast.

“The program gives these kids a chance to get away from the hot city streets and experience something new,” said Scarborough resident Suzanne Barr, one of Fresh Air’s coordinators for southern Maine.

Lisa Clement of Falmouth, also a coordinator, said the kids come from low-income families living in one of New York’s five boroughs.

“A lot of the kids come from single-parent homes, and nearly all of them qualify for New York state’s hot lunch program,” said Clement. The federally subsidized program provides free or discounted meals to students who qualify under federal income eligibility guidelines.

Maine has 25 host families this summer, and all of them went through a stringent vetting process to ensure the households are safe for Fresh Air kids.

“First, we conduct extensive interviews with the entire family. Then we do a home inspection and a background check. And finally, we require four references,” said Clement.

Most of the kids stay for a two weeks, but some end up extending their vacation.

Infiniti Riddick, 14, is visiting her host family for a sixth summer and, given the recent heat wave, is looking forward to Maine’s more temperate climate.

“I’m excited to go to the beach, swim,” said a smiling Riddick. “Maine is so peaceful and there are a lot of opportunities to have fun.”

Eleven-year-old Quiana is visiting Maine for the first time and will be staying with Lisa Clement’s family. Quiana is eager to try Maine’s famed lobster as well as make the trip to the beach.

“I want to get along with the kids, have fun and swim,” she said.

The host families are just as excited. “We get far more out of it than they do,” said host Aymie Hardesty of Scarborough. “My kids realized how fortunate they are to live in a safe neighborhood where they have the freedom to run around and have carefree fun.”

Clement agrees. “My experience with Fresh Air has given me a new awareness of a variety of lifestyles. These kids are well-loved by their families but are not afforded as many opportunities,” she said.

For Joel, 13, one of those opportunities was spending more time in the water.

“He learned to swim with us. Now he loves the beach and camping. This will be his fifth summer here,” said Joel’s host, Edward McGarrity of Scarborough.

McGarrity is quick to point out that he and his family have learned a lot from Joel. “Simple things that we take for granted, like having s’mores, he really enjoys and appreciates. It’s a two-way experience when it comes to learning from each other.”

Staff Writer Max Monks can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

[email protected]