Let’s be honest: We Loudouners are a blessed bunch.
According to the financial powers-that-be, Loudoun is purported to be the wealthiest county per capita in the US. And not only are we wealthy on paper, but we are wealthy in natural resources. Consider our breathtaking landscapes teeming with livestock and crops, and steeped in historical significance. Add in our proximity to the nation’s bustling nucleus, serving up monuments on the Mall and the nation’s greatest collection of free-admission museums. We have everything we need, and certainly most everything we could want–including come November, a Chick-Fil-A in Leesburg!
Sometimes, maybe a little too often, I’m guilty of taking this bountiful Loudoun life of mine for granted. God must have known I needed a fresh perspective–a Fresh Air Fund perspective, courtesy of our most recent house guest. Bubbly nine-year-old Cade, a Queens, NY native, burst into our lives serendipitously.
Tonight, while my children sleep in their comfy beds inside our roomy house, I want to share our Fresh Air experience with you. If one person who reads this decides to open their home and heart to a Fresh Air child, I will be one especially happy Loudoun crazy mom! So here goes.
Sometime before school ended, I responded to a direct mail letter that landed in my mailbox. It was a compelling call to action from the Fresh Air Fund of New York City. This Tommy Hilfiger-supported nonprofit was looking for Friendly Town host families who would be willing to welcome a 6-17 year old boy or girl into their homes for two weeks away, giving them a respite from summertime in the big city. Friendly Towns are suburban or rural towns stretching from Maine to Virginia. We hosted a Fresh Air child five years ago, the summer before Shelby was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, but hadn’t done so since.
Timing is everything.
When that Fresh Air Fund letter bounced across my desktop, I felt it pull me in. I sent an email expressing interest and then…forgot about it. Until a few months later, that is, when a Fresh Air fund volunteer contacted me, and arranged to come out to the house to meet our entire family and check out the living quarters. Yes, it was time to open our home again. We consulted with eight-year-old Sean, who would be the sole Rombach kid home for a week while the other four were away. Was he certain that he could do this? Could he share his room, share his things, be gracious and kind to a little boy he’d never met? He assured us that he could, and even drew a hand-made welcome sign and taped it to his bedroom door.
On the morning of June 30th, our Fresh Air child’s arrival day, I returned home from my morning walk to see the message light on our answering machine blinking. The Fresh Air Fund coordinator was calling from the bus. Our seven-year-old match had cancelled out the night before, but they were able to put another youngster on the bus for us. His name was Cade, he was nine, and he was en route to our house. Okay, mild, controlled panic overtook me–until that inner voice reminded me that I am not in control–ever–that God is, and that if he decided Cade was the boy for us, well, there was no turning back now. I wrapped up my bedroom preparations and hopped in the Jeep, driving the hour to College Park, Maryland to meet the bus and Cade–due to arrive at 12 noon.
I stood there by myself, surrounded by other families, most with their children, holding signs welcoming their Fresh Air children back for the second, third or umpteenth time. Cullen, Bryan and Cady were at camp for another week–Summer’s Best Two Weeks (the best Christian sports camp ever!). Shelby was traveling around Europe with friends. And Sean was at baseball camp until 2pm. It was just me…and a little boy from Queens, meeting and greeting for the first time in the Holiday Inn parking lot.
Can you imagine being nine, climbing aboard a coach tour bus with children and adults you don’t know, driving 3 1/2 to 4 hours south, and then going home with a total stranger? Now that takes a kind of courage and confidence that I don’t think I possess even at 46. On my first trip to New York City, I was so obviously nervous and out of my element that I was an easy target for a scam within five minutes of stepping out of Grand Central Station. Not Cade. He was effervescent with excitement, a smile lit up his entire face. Fearless and ready for two weeks of fun. He knew, better than me, that great things were ahead for all of us. After hugs and hellos, we climbed inside the Jeep, top down at Cade’s request, and headed home to Leesburg–stopping only momentarily for a smoothie and a call home to Cade’s Dad. Our two weeks were underway.
What does an inner-city kid want to do when he lands in Leesburg, Virginia? Anything and everything! Bike riding around the neighborhood was a particular joy. NYC kids can’t ride their bikes in the street like our kids do, here in our safe, suburban neighborhoods. The neighborhood pool was a huge hit, as were the flippers that gave Cade more confidence in the water. He and Sean must have retrieved hundreds of sunken dive toys, over and over and over again.
We camped out in our yard and roasted marshmallows over the fire pit. We ate pizza at Fireworks and CiCi’s and Chuck E. Cheese. We went bowling (twice)–a first for Cade, who ended up with a couple of strikes and spares. We drove the winding gravel back roads in our top-down Jeep, stopping at Bluemont Country Store for a whopping scoop of ice cream. We played Jenga, Apples to Apples, and got hooked on Monopoly again (Cade’s idea). We hit the water slides and lazy river at Leesburg’s AV Symington Aquatic Park during its discounted hours of 5-8pm. We hiked to Bear’s Den, taking along our dogs for good measure. Cade doesn’t have pets–and he treasured every minute with ours.
We devoured movie popcorn and sodas as we watched Cars 2 and Transformers 3. We visited the Smithsonian’s Natural History, Air and Space and American History museums. We went grocery shopping, and shoe shopping. We watched the Leesburg Fourth of July Parade and sat in the rain to await the fireworks display. We sucked down free Slurpees on 7/11 and popsicles or ice cream almost every other day. We played computer games and watched YouTube videos. We made pancakes and waffles and sunny-side up eggs. Above all, we celebrated a little boy who said he had the best two weeks of his life, just hanging out with our family. Loudoun County was a world away from an apartment in Queens.
The morning we packed up Cade to head home, we all realized that this little guy had left his mark on us all. Talk about happy, positive, and grateful. Cade kept us smiling–and he couldn’t have been kinder or more polite. We thought we were giving Cade a fresh perspective. In truth, Cade gave us one. Is he coming back next summer? You bet–and we’ll be keeping in touch all year long. Who knew what an impact a little Fresh Air could have on our Loudoun County life?!
Sadly, the bus trip from New York City to Northern Virginia is missing something big: more Fresh Air kids. The huge coach touring bus might have carried 40 or more children to Friendly Town homes. Instead, only 14 children were on board. Next year, the Fresh Air Fund hopes to fill the bus to capacity. I wonder…might you consider being a Fresh Air family with us? Could we recruit other families? Would your church or neighborhood put a notice in their newsletter? Ten years from now, could we have Loudoun County Fresh Air reunions?
All you need is an open bed and a willingness to share one or two weeks of your summer with a New York City child. Talk about a good thing. To learn more about hosting, visit the Fresh Air fund website–www.freshair.org and set the process in motion. By being an early bird, you likely will be able to correspond with your matched child before she/he ever arrives. How cool is that. Cooler still…giving a special child a special place in Loudoun County next summer. Even if next summer isn’t a possibility, maybe you can help the Fresh Air Fund send inner-city kids to one of the group’s four upstate New York camps. A donation does a lot of good for a lot of kids.
Have questions about the program? I’m happy to share our family’s experience. Post your questions anytime!
Tomorrow, we are off to the Newseum, where from now until September 1, any paying adult ($21.95 plus tax) may bring up to 10 children with them for FREE. Award-winning photojournalism, Berlin Wall, and hands-on kids activities…five kids and one mom are on our way! If it’s a crazy-good experience, you just may read about it here.
Have a blessed week in the summer heat!
Martha, one Loudoun Crazy Mom