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During Fowler's semester in Germany, she began to think and dream in German, becoming somewhat fluent in a short period of time. She credits having studied German for several years prior to her trip, and Lyle says that's what he'd do if he were to study abroad. Toshiki studied English for four years with Labo, and it wasn't too hard to communicate with him, but there are still funny stories about misunderstandings. "It's a wild card," Fowler laughs. "I think you have to go into it in that spirit of, 'This is going to be awkward, and we're all going to be fine.'"
Pay It Forward
Years ago, when Kate Johnson was 17, she spent a year in Coronado, Costa Rica, and became completely enamored of the concept of paying it forward. She lived up in the mountains with a family, and experienced firsthand her own culture through others' eyes. "We don't think we even have a culture until we're not inside it," she muses. Johnson's hosts hadn't planned to have her; an aunt had suggested they take Johnson in. "They weren't compensated, and they agreed to feed an extra kid for a year," Johnson says, staggered. "It was just straight-up kindness. That made an impact on me." When she thought later about returning the favor, her son and daughter were only eight and five, so she knew she couldn't host on that scale. Instead, she began to explore what she could manage and settled on the Fresh Air Fund.
With the Fresh Air Fund, urban kids come to the country to stay with host families for a week to 10 days in July and August. As with States 4H and AFS, all types of host families are encouraged. "They're very thorough about who can host," Johnson says. "There's a house visit. Any adult who lives in the house has a background check. But it doesn't feel invasive. They want to place kids."
Three years ago, the Johnsons hosted seven-year-old Alexia from Queens. She played Legos and swam, went hiking, and added a new dynamic to the Johnson kids' games. The next year, she came back and went to Camp Peregrine at Mohonk on a scholarship. "Some families host the same children year after year, and then the child can stay in the program until age 18," says Debbi Ratchford, a fund representative for Dutchess and Ulster Counties. "Some families want to give the opportunity to a different child each year. We build a program for what's comfortable for their family unit."
Barefoot on the Lawn
One fall, the Johnsons invited Alexia's family up for apple picking, outside the Fresh Air program. Alexia's mom was herself a Fresh Air kid, and made it a point to involve her children because of her own positive experience. Alexia's brother visits a family in Rhinebeck, and he and Alexia might see each other at Fresh Air events during their stays. Knowing it's a leap of faith to send your child off somewhere, Johnson wanted Alexia's mom to meet them and see where Alexia stayed. "With the Fresh Air Fund, there isn't a language component, but there are cultural things," Johnson reflects. "Alexia likes to walk barefoot on the lawn. It's not something she gets to do a lot." The thing Alexia anticipates most is roasting marshmallows in the campfire ring. Johnson takes a lot of photos during Alexia's visits and makes a Snapfish book each year for Alexia's birthday in September.
This year, Alexia's coming for two weeks. Johnson says it's not a huge commitment, so it doesn't get overwhelming. And actually, her stays with the family have become effortless. Alexia isn't a stranger anymore. "For our family," Johnson says, "it's the time we stop doing projects and get a break. Alexia is here for a short time, and we want to make it fun for our guest." But Johnson is quick to say that every day doesn't have to be Christmas. "It's very easy to want to fill your time with magical moments, but it doesn't have to be that. Hanging out in the backyard blowing bubbles, that's perfect too." The idea is more about sharing a family culture and being open to other types of experience.