When Matthew, 14, spent his first summer in Vermont, he had a hard time falling asleep because it was too quiet.
Matthew is a New York native and a four-year veteran of the Friendly Towns program. The program gives kids ages seven to 18 from New York City an opportunity to spend a summer with a host family in a number of rural New England towns.
Mary Sherman, local volunteer leader for parts of Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties, said the program is a great opportunity to experience life outside of the city blocks.
The program began in 1877, in a small town in southern Pennsylvania, where a minister implored his congregation to take in children sick with tuberculosis. The hope was that a little fresh air, and a break from city life, might cure the TB.
Today, the program has grown to include 13 states across New England and a portion of Ontario, including numerous towns in Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties.
According to Sherman, 65 to 70 percent of Fresh Air kids return to the same family every year. “They love these kids,” she said. “This summer alone, I’ve had two boys age out of their host families—both 18. But that’s not the end of that relationship.”
Sherman sees benefits on both ends of the relationship.
“Our local children gain as much from these experiences as the city kids,” she said. “It’s a great experience in cultural diversity.”
She recalls driving with one kid through rural Vermont and the child staring in awe at a field of cows. “He had never seen a cow before and he was so excited. He said, ‘Look look there’s a cow party!’” said Sherman. “The next day, we happened to drive by the same field and the cows were all lying down. He asked me if they were sleeping and I said, ‘they must be, they had way too much fun at their party!”
Matthew has participated in the program for four years, but has chosen to come back to stay with the same Colchester family for the last three.
Matthew’s host mom, Christine Lloyd-Newberry, recalled him asking early on in his first year if he could come back again. “I told Matthew, at the end of his visit, ‘if you decide we don’t suck, you’re welcome to come back,’” she said laughing. “He’s been back every year since, and I hope he keeps coming back.”
She said every summer he’s come to visit has been different, but that it’s nice to see their life through someone else’s eyes.
“You get used to your day to day. Sometimes we do really cool, unusual things and sometimes it’s just the normal stuff–grocery shopping, hanging out at home, those kinds of things,” she said.
“Sometimes we go on adventures and sometimes we’re lazy right?” Brian Lloyd-Newberry said to Matthew, eliciting a laugh.
This summer so far, Christine, Brian, their teenage son Aidan, and Matthew have played basketball, visited libraries and comic book stores, gone to the beach, and motored around on a boat. “First time on a boat,” Matthew noted. Aside from swimming, he’s a big fan of basketball and hopes to play professionally. As his backup plan, he said he’d like to be a cop, like his aunt.
Next on the agenda is to stop by Shelburne Farms, or maybe hit the tallest tower of filing cabinets. Christine jokes that her house is full of teenagers. “He just fits in,” she said with a smile. “I would encourage people to take part in the program. It’s an awesome opportunity.”