Northborough family provides ‘fresh air’ for New York City teenager
By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Summer is time for picnics, outdoor sports, and trips to the beach. In New York City, those types of activities are harder to come by, especially for those in less affluent, more crowded neighborhoods.
Through an organization called the Fresh Air Fund, about 4,000 youths from NYC are able to experience summer in rural, suburban or small town communities through a network of host families.
For 10 summers, 17-year-old Suny Chavarria from Queens has visited the Northborough home of Kendra and Rich Owen and their three children, Forrest, 18, Bridget, 17, and Mitchell, 15.
She was just 8 years old when she first made the trip.
“She didn’t speak English when she first arrived,” Kendra Owen explained. “Luckily, we had a neighbor who spoke Spanish and helped us communicate.”
“Before I started coming here, I went to bilingual school,” Suny said. “But I didn’t want to learn English. Once I started coming, I wanted to learn so I could communicate better.”
The language barrier didn’t stop Suny and Bridget from becoming fast friends. “She has become like a sister to me,” Bridget, a senior at Algonquin Regional High School, said.
“We had two sons and one daughter, so we wanted to have a girl stay with us so Bridget would have a friend,” Kendra explained, adding that host families can request a certain age range and gender of a child they wish to host.
The Owens are the third generation of their family to host a Fresh Air Fund child. Kendra’s grandparents and aunt had also participated, so she had known about the program for years.
The nonprofit organization has been around since 1877, connecting host families from 13 East Coast states with children ages 6 to 18 from New York City. The fund provides transportation, liability insurance for hosts and volunteers, and any medical expenses for uninsured children.
According to Fund Representative Janet Foley, around 70 children were placed with host families in Shrewsbury, Northborough, Marlborough, and Hudson this summer.
“We had 15 new families hosting children this year,” she noted.
Foley also mentioned the local host families and volunteers hold fundraisers to raise money for school supplies, outings and to offsets the cost to families.
Children typically stay with their host family from one to two weeks. Suny stays with the Owens for a week to 10 days. The family does some of the same activities every year, such as picking berries, visiting Kimball’s Ice Cream in Westford, and making crafts.
“Every day there is something to do,” Suny said. “In New York, we don’t do anything in the summer. It’s nice to see trees and water; there is nothing but buildings where I live.”
Suny’s younger sister is also part of the program and her 7-year-old brother hopes to start next summer.
Kendra loves to tell the story of how Suny (pronounced Su-nee) spelled her name “Sunny” and the Owens called her “Sunny” for three years. “She was too nice to correct us,” laughed Kendra.
A few years ago, after checking her birth certificate, Suny discovered that her name is actually spelled “Suny” and has spelled it that way ever since.
From that shy girl emerged a bright, articulate young woman. In the spring, Suny graduated from high school and plans to attend Queensborough Community College in the fall. Although she is not sure what she wants to do – “something in the science field,” she said – Suny knows the Fresh Air Fund program has helped her develop important skills for the future.
“[It] opened a lot of doors for me,” she explained. “I got to see different cultures and how other people live.”
When asked to name her favorite thing to do on her visits with the Owens, Suny doesn’t choose trips to amusement parks or the beach. “I love sitting down at family dinners,” she said. “My dad and mom work, so we don’t have time to sit down for dinner together. It’s great to share a meal and talk about your day; I wish I had that.”
Next summer will be Suny’s last as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.
“She asked me, ‘What is going to happen when I turn 18? Will I still be able to visit?’” Kendra said. “We told her she is always welcome. She is part of the family.”
For more information on the Fresh Air Fund, visit www.freshair.org.
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