C.J., LEFT, played paintball last summer with his Fresh Air Fund host father Michael Dorr of Bath. This is the ninth summer that C.J. will spend with the Dorrs. PHOTO COURTESY OF DORR FAMILY

C.J., LEFT, played paintball last summer with his Fresh Air Fund host father Michael Dorr of Bath. This is the ninth summer that C.J. will spend with the Dorrs. PHOTO COURTESY OF DORR FAMILY

When C.J. was 6 years old, he boarded a bus in New York for the long trip up to Maine. Leaving his family in the Bronx, he was going to meet the Dorrs, his Fresh Air Fund host family in Bath. He didn’t really have any say in the matter.

“My mom, she dragged me into this. I wasn’t really planning to ever leave the Bronx,” said C.J., now 15. “Until she pulled me into the room and talked to me about it, and she gave me some time to think about it. My opinion didn’t matter, obviously.”

But every summer for the next nine years, C.J. has returned to Maine to stay with the Dorrs, a trip backed by the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit that offers free summer experiences in rural, suburban or small town environment to low-income kids from New York City. In Maine, he learned how to ride a bike, how to swim and how to jump off the dock at the Dorr’s family camp on Chebeague Island.

“It could take a certain person out of an environment such as the Bronx,” C.J. said of the program. “You know, it’s OK down there, but when you come up here it’s a whole different situation.”

HOST FAMILIES greet their Fresh Air Fund guests at Frank H. Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth on Thursday. Some are meeting for the first time, others for the eighth time. EMILY COHEN / THE TIMES RECORD

HOST FAMILIES greet their Fresh Air Fund guests at Frank H. Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth on Thursday. Some are meeting for the first time, others for the eighth time. EMILY COHEN / THE TIMES RECORD

Mother Jamie and father Michael Dorr decided to apply to host for Fresh Air after seeing an ad on the local news.

“I’ve always loved kids … and it just seemed like a natural fit to mentor someone and give them a different experience than they maybe could have otherwise,” said Jamie.

“And the same for us as well,” she added. “To have someone that comes up from New York City and is a really cool dude — I think just having that culture exchange is a really great thing.”

The relationship is reciprocal: The Dorrs keep in touch with C.J.’s family in the Bronx throughout the year and have made several trips to visit them. With three kids of their own — Noah, 17, Seaira, 16, and Elliot, 14 — the Dorrs treat C.J. like another son. Their kids have grown up together and are very close as a result.

After next summer, C.J. will be graduating from high school, so he’ll be too old to participate in the Fresh Air program, Jamie said.

But “then he can come up on his own whenever he wants to,” she said.

“So after that he’ll be able to come up whenever he wants to?” asked Noah, excited. “Nice.”

“Well, when his mother agrees,” said Michael.

“Well, he’ll be 18,” Jamie countered.

“Exactly. She can’t say anything,” said Noah.

Since 1977, more than 1.8 million kids have, as Jamie Dorr puts it, experienced “life running barefoot through the grass” via the Fresh Air Fund’s programs. Many of the children, ages 6-18, who participate in Fresh Air’s summer camps, leadership programs and the Friendly Towns host family program come from low-income homes and communities.

Friendly Towns are located up and down the East Coast of the United States and southern Canada. Approximately 25 families host Fresh Air children in the Midcoast, according to Amy Goodwin, the local chairperson and volunteer for the organization. Goodwin oversees the Brunswick and Woolwich Friendly Towns, which include towns throughout the region.

She is responsible for recruiting and interviewing prospective host families and matching families with kids. The application process for prospective host families is rigorous, requiring home visits and background checks for all adults.

Due to the Fresh Air Fund’s long history in New York, families in New York that participate in Fresh Air’s programs “have a real trust in the program” to make good matches and offer a positive experience to both hosts and participants, Goodwin said. Some host parents participated in the program themselves as children, and some of their parents had Fresh Air summers when they were kids.

That’s the case for Cynthia Sanchez, whose grandmother had a host family through the Friendly Towns program. She recommended the program when Sanchez was in her last semester at Bronx Community College with two young daughters.

“I was in a bind,” Sanchez said. “I had child care for one and not the other, so my oldest daughter started going when she turned 6. So for that reason, by the time Gabby (my younger daughter) turned 6, she was so excited because she was of age to go to the Fresh Air Fund.”

That childhood experience can have lasting effects. In fact, Gabby’s Fresh Air host parents, Laura McCandlish and Dan Stone of Brunswick, decided to apply for the program after learning about it from Stone’s sister’s doorman. After learning that Stone and McCandlish came from Maine, he told them of his fond memories of spending summers in Maine through the Fresh Air Fund.

“He was really positive about it,” Stone said. “He just sort of raved about it, just glowed when he talked about it. That was a key factor.”

This is the fifth summer that Gabby, 10, will spend with the McCandlish-Stone family. She has participated in art camps and gymnastics camps, “things that cost a little too much in the city,” said Sanchez. Small joys that many Mainers take for granted, such as living in a house and having a backyard, delighted her daughters.

“Our apartments are really, really small, whereas when (Gabby) goes with them she stays in her own room. So that was an experience for her. She was so excited about that,” said Sanchez.

“The Fresh Air Fund provides an experience that I couldn’t even put a price on,” she added. “The kids fell in love with it.”

As with the Dorrs and C.J., it’s a reciprocal relationship. Stone and McCandlish introduced Gabby to Stone’s Jewish roots, trying the traditional bread challah, and Gabby has helped them to make her family’s oxtails recipe. When Sanchez became pregnant with her third daughter, McCandlish was pregnant with her second child at the same time. The mothers called one another, asking for advice and recommendations.

Sanchez and Gabby now have an “extended family” in Maine and in Virginia, where Sanchez’s older daughter Cyndi, 13, has spent her summers with a host family through the Fresh Air Fund. Cyndi has started thinking about attending college in Virginia, where she would have a support system despite being far away from home.

“If I can’t get to her, at least she has her Fresh Air Fund mom close by,” said Sanchez.

As for Gabby?

“She’s turning 10 today, so she’s not thinking about college yet,” said Sanchez. “But she knows that there’s more out there.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: