Bucks and MontCo families host inner-city children for summer vacations through the Fresh Air Fund.
By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer
Not long after Mabel stepped off the Greyhound bus, she noticed something new. TC Hatzis recalled the 7-year-old girl asking, “What’s that smell?”
The answer was grass.
That sensation, like going swimming or setting up a lemonade stand, are summer mainstays that people like Hatzis, who lives in Chalfont with her husband, 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, can easily take for granted.
But for a girl like Mabel, who lives in an apartment in the Corona neighborhood of Queens in New York City, these are things she gets to cherish for just a week or two every year.
Thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, families like the Hatzises are host families for children who live in disadvantaged sections of New York City. Since 1877, the nonprofit has offered these kids the rare opportunity to leave the city for a week or two in the summer.
“We did what we’d normally do,” said Hatzis of the two weeks Mabel came last year. “We went to Peace Valley Park and Lost River Canyons. We went on two beach trips and to local car shows.”
They also went to the local swim club — something very new for the Queens kid.
“Most of the kids [in the program] can’t swim. I worked with her and did some lessons .She was probably 75 percent a full-fledged swimmer when she left,” said Hatzis.
Last summer was the first time Hatzis and her family participated in the Fresh Air Fund program. She’d seen an ad in the classifieds over the years, and finally had the time last year to respond to it.
“They needed somebody, and I’m the girl that does everything. I have a foster dog in my kitchen right now,” she laughed.
The process was easy: the Fund interviewed her family and performed background checks on the adults. At the same time, the office in New York was interviewing potential matches, and partnered them with Mabel.
“It’s exciting, just seeing how happy a child can be, mixed with how easy it was,” said Hatzis. “Some people feel as though it may be something hard, but it’s really not.”
And, that’s the message Hatzis is spreading to as many people as she can. After her experience last year, she became a coordinator for the program, helping find new families in central and upper Bucks County and nearby parts of Montgomery.
It’s not much of a sell, she says: “I just show them my book.”
A small, simple photo album, the “book” contains photos from Mabel’s two weeks with the family last year. It contains snapshots of her family with Mabel, others of just her guest or both families together when she went back to New York.
There are others of all three kids together at a car show, petting the horses and goats at the farm near Hatzis’ house, or the kids just hanging out in the backyard or climbing a tree.
“They were just like siblings,” said Hatzis. “I think [my children] learned how fortunate they were, seeing how grateful Mabel was.”
Meanwhile, it was the little things, as much as the day trips and visits from neighborhood kids, that impressed their visitor.
“She said couldn’t believe how quiet it was,” said Hatzis. “She was used to living in an apartment, hearing yelling and sirens all the time.”
And, the whole family is eager to enjoy those little things again this summer. It’s the fund’s hope that the family and child form a relationship and make the visits a yearly tradition.
Hatzis said that’s been the case so far with Mabel — and, like many families involved, it’s not just a summer get-together.
“Some have a winter trip with their child. My friend had [her child] come out during Christmas break.”
Mabel couldn’t come down for Christmas this year since all the snowstorms got in the way. But, out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.
“We talked on Christmas morning, and sent gifts for her and her brother,” said Hatzis. “We’re looking forward to doing all the simple things again: hanging out in the backyard and going to the pool.”
It’s a few months away, but Hatzis is already busy reaching out to new families. People can be interviewed at any time, she said, but signing up early is best.
Even though it’s only February.
“Which reminds me,” she added, “I need to get her a Valentine’s card.”
For information, call TC Hatzis at 215-801-1764 or visit www.freshairfund.org.