As the doors of the bus opened and children descended, some were greeted with open arms while others held back, nervously waiting for Fresh Air Fund host parents who had not yet arrived at the pickup point at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown.
Mary Sineci, of Newtown, picked up Aza Mae Smith, 9 from the Bronx, the youngest of eight children at home. Aza's mother wanted her to have the chance to be an only child, and this is the fourth year that Aza has come out.
“I am a teacher and I don't have kids,” said Sineci. “Being with Aza gives me a chance to relive my own childhood memories.”
Sineci added, “The first time Aza was here, I drove her around the neighborhood to show her where we lived. She rolled down the window and yelled, 'I have arrived!'"
This year, Sineci painted the phrase on the side of her car in anticipation of Aza's arrival.
The bond between Sineci and Aza is real.
“My mother were looking for a gift online and we saw this necklace. We thought it would be nice,” said Aza.
“It's a mother daughter necklace,” said Sineci. “Aza said, 'The big head is you and the small head is me.'”
Aza talked about what it means to her to come to Connecticut.
“It's quiet and I know that when I grow up, I may want to live here,” she said.
Marie Athans, of Sandy Hook, remembered when Arturo Flores first came to stay with her. He was 8-years-old and barely came to her chest. Now, four visits later, he has grown and his swimming skills have improved but he still looks forward to coming to Newtown, he said.
“My favorite is Lake Compounce,” Arturo said of the Bristol water park.
On this trip, he was joined by Austin Roman, whose older brother had stayed with Athans as part of the Fresh Air Fund and this year it’s his turn.
Hannah Schneewind and her two boys James and Sebastian Gikas are welcoming Marquis Swinney into their Westport home.
“We talked on the phone and we promised Marquis we wouldn't serve him any slimy green vegetables,” she said, as Marquis screwed up his face in an impressive display of distaste. “We'll find something for him, maybe green peppers, they're crunchy.”
The older of the two Schneewind boys, James, is looking forward to having a new playmate. “My brother is really fun, but sometimes it gets a little boring so it will be really nice to have Marquis. We are going to play, swim in our pool. We are definitely planning on playing outside and going to the beach.”
Within a few minutes of meeting one another, Marquis, James and Sebastian, waste no time playing, throwing around a football and playing tag with one another and the other children on the grounds of Christ the King.
Marquis said he is impressive with his playmates.
"I learn that these kids know a lot of things," he said, listing karate as one of the things he is impressed by.
James, on the other hand, said he also has learned a couple of things about Marquis.
"His favorite sport is basketball," James said of Marquis.
Schneewind, who used to teach in Brooklyn and was familiar with the Fresh Air Fund, said this was her first year hosting a child.
“We just moved from the city and the summer there is long and hot," she said. "We are happy to help someone get out of the city for a while.”
The Fresh Air Fund representative for most of southwestern and western Connecticut, Weston's Martha Mintzer, said that this experience has a lasting effect on families and children alike.
“I grew up with having Fresh Air kids in the home," she said. "I put a lot of time into coordinating this. Everyone gets something out of this, just look at all the smiles.”
Sure enough, all of the children were all running and playing ball and some were crouched down examining bugs and dirt. Any signs of nervousness or hesitation seemed to have disappeared.
“Knowing you can make a difference in people's lives is important,” said Mintzer. “My friend in Darien held a wedding for their child who had been coming out from New York since she was six. The dad in Darien walked her down the aisle. It totally and utterly changed her life.”
The biggest concern most hosting parents have is whether or not the children are screened before they come.
“They are not,” said Mintzer. “But they are referred by Boys and Girls Clubs, church groups, after-school programs and community outreach. And the children's parents, they want to know the same thing about where they are sending their children, they are just as nervous. We do screen the families. We meet and interview them, we do background checks, and the biggest litmus test for us is whether or not we would let our children stay in this house, and sometimes, the answer is no.”
Chairperson of the Newtown/Monroe Friendly town, Karen Montagna, said, “After eight years coming out here, our child still loves the lightning bugs. She runs right out the first night to see them. The parents who send their kids out here, they want the best for them. I asked one mother, how could she do it? Her answer was, How could I not?”