Nearly 20 years ago Jocelyn, of Brooklyn, NY, traveled with other New York City children to spend a week in Pennsylvania. Elizabeth “Betty” Atkinson and her husband Richard opened their home up to the young 5-year-old girl and a bond was created that would last for two decades with no sign of going away.
“It was just like being at home,” said Jocelyn, 24, on her summers spent in the Hamburg area. “It was always family.”
Betty and Richard became involved with the Fresh Air Fund through their church and Reverend Randy Bond. Now a local volunteer leader, Betty is no stranger to the organization and the family continues to host New York City children every summer, just as they hosted Jocelyn from the time she was 5 until she aged out of the program at 18.
Through the years it was not only Jocelyn and the Atkinson’s that grew close, but Jocelyn’s family as well. For the first time since she was 18, Jocelyn and her family traveled back to Pennsylvania, this time from Connecticut, to visit her second family. This time, Jocelyn brought her own little family including her husband and three children as well as her parents and siblings who also took part in the Fresh Air Fund.
“She saw a calf being born, she buried a calf, and she cried and we had to make cross,” recalled Betty.
“June,” added Jocelyn. “I remember her name.”
“I don’t think you really knew about death,” said Betty.
“No, I learned the true meaning of death coming here,” replied Jocelyn. “I learned to cherish life here.”
The families enjoyed a day at the farm as they all reminisced and caught up with each other. Betty even pulled out a scrapbook that she made of Jocelyn’s first time visiting that Jocelyn’s parents enjoyed paging through.
At 5, Jocelyn’s first trip was not without tears, but it was not long until she settled into farm life and looked forward to returning every year. It was Jocelyn’s mother that wanted Jocelyn and her siblings to be involved in the program that allows children to get out of the city for a period of time every summer. Her mother was a part of the program in Florida and then while living in New York City knew how hard it was to grow up in the city.
“She did the Fresh Air Fund and knows how the experience changes you,” said Jocelyn.
Sitting on the porch overlooking the yard, Jocelyn remembers how every trip there would be something new at the farm and a new animal as well. She remembers chasing kittens in the barns, going blueberry picking which is one of the few experiences she hated, swimming in the pond and knowing what end is the safe end, going to Knoebels and taking advantage of every experience given to her while at the farm.
“You’d come here every year. Just go into the house, take all the stuff out of the dresser upstairs and put your stuff in. We didn’t have to show you anything, you knew your way around,” said Richard.
Jocelyn saw the farm as freedom and as a place of comfort compared to growing up in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“We wouldn’t have this. We would have concrete. We would play on concrete not grass. And the people are friendlier and more loving here than in New York. Here is just totally different,” she said. “We usually didn’t go outside. My mom didn’t like us going outside too much. We would always stay in the house. This was freedom.”
Of course Jocelyn did not take to farm life right away as Betty recalled her first day at the farm back in 1995.
“Do you remember the first day you were here,” asked Betty. “I put up a little swimming pool with water and you caught a chicken and tried to make it swim. You hadn’t been here 15 minutes. I should have sent you back right then.”
Along with bonding with Betty and Richard, who Jocelyn refers to as mom and dad, she also bonded with their children and became even more a part of the family.
“She is like our youngest daughter,” said Richard.
“It’s been the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Jocelyn. “If I could, I probably would pitch a tent and live here.”
With adults enjoying the day with plenty of food and beverages on the porch as the children ran around in the yard soaking up all the farm had to offer, Jocelyn shared some of her favorite memories.
“What I really loved about here was when mom would take me to the Amish places, the Amish market. We would get some of the stuff they would make and we would stop on the side of the road and buy the fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought that was just so cool because you don’t see that in New York,” she said.
Jocelyn even recalled her first bee sting and certain pond experiences with fondness. She also spoke about how she hated the idea of going to Bible Study every night for the week that she would visit, but once she was there it would be hard to get her to leave because she enjoyed it so much.
With the smiles, laughs and easy interactions it was difficult to tell where one family ended and the other began making the afternoon similar to a big family reunion.
The Fresh Air Fund is an independent not-for-profit organization that began in 1877. The goal and mission was simple: to allow children living in low-income communities to get away from the city streets and enjoy a summer in the country. At the program’s start, New York City was hit by the tuberculosis epidemic and fresh was considered a cure for the ailment. It was a way to not only get the children out of the city for a period of time, but, in some cases, actually save their lives.
For more on the Fresh Air Fund, visit www.freshair.org.