June 14, 2019 Category: Stories

For Ricky Cruz, a Friendly Towns Family Became His Own

Enrique “Ricky” Cruz was just 11 years old when he left his Bronx neighborhood in 2003 to visit Tom and Jackie Citriniti in Albany, N.Y., for the first time as part of The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns program. The program matches children from New York City with families in small town, suburban and rural communities for a week of outdoor summer activities. Ricky ended up making more than fond memories – he made a connection with Tom, Jackie and their son, Luke, that would span years to come. Since that first summer together, the Citriniti family has continued to help Ricky make major life decisions, and they’ve always been there to celebrate his achievements. It’s no surprise Ricky refers to the Citrinitis as his family.

As a child in the Friendly Towns program, Ricky was welcomed summer after summer to a jam-packed week of outdoor fun with the Citrinitis. They introduced him to hiking and biking, among other activities, that encouraged him to explore the world outdoors.

Ricky loved hiking with his Friendly Towns Host Dad Tom during his visit each summer

“When I was younger, my favorite memory was the pool in the backyard,” Ricky said. “Having that access to the pool was amazing. My family still keeps telling me, ‘That’s the first thing you would do – jump into the pool and never get out.’ No matter what, I was always in the pool. They taught me different kinds of techniques in swimming and improved my skills, showing me different strokes.”

Tom jumped right into a father figure role for Ricky, serving as a resource both for Ricky and Ricky’s grandmother in New York.

“When I didn’t understand something and my grandmother didn’t understand, I would go to Tom because I knew he would know the answer or he could just guide me to it,” Ricky said. “He always takes the time to teach me something.”

Ricky is so thankful to have Tom as a father figure in his life

The summer after Ricky turned 16 and had gotten his driving permit, he went to visit the Citrinitis with the goal of learning how to drive. Tom gladly taught Ricky. In preparation for the pending driving test, Tom and Ricky headed to a plaza near the house. There, Tom taught Ricky how to turn and stay within the lines of the parking lot, and he even set up garbage cans so Ricky could practice parallel parking.

“Tom showed me all of his little different techniques while driving,” Ricky said. “He was very patient, and it was really cool that he took the time out to do that.”

Tom and Jackie have continued to support Ricky academically and personally, well beyond the eight summers Ricky spent with them in Albany.

When it came time to apply for college, Ricky was at a disadvantage because no one in his immediate family had gone before, so they weren’t familiar with the application process. His school also did not have the resources to help, so Ricky turned to Tom and Jackie for guidance. They had been through the process two years earlier with Luke, so they were able to assist, especially when it came to navigating the financial aspects of going away to school.

Tom and Jackie checked in with Ricky while he was at college to see how classes and work were going. They would offer advice when he needed help figuring out how to juggle all of his obligations.

Ricky’s host parents Jackie and Tom attended his University of New Haven undergraduate graduation

When Ricky was a junior in college and had saved enough money to buy his own car, he leaned on Tom during the purchasing process for help determining how much he should spend on a car, whether to finance or lease, or whether to buy a new or used car.

Having his own car meant Ricky could help his grandmother go places more easily as she got older, and he could handle trips to the pharmacy or grocery store. Ricky was also able to bring his grandmother to visit family members who lived farther into the city – 30-minute drives that took the place of tedious two-hour train rides.

Being able to provide for his grandmother this way has made Ricky feel proud. “When it comes to the holidays,” he said, “I always make sure Grandma gets there. That is always my main priority.”

Ricky on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with his host parents Tom and Jackie

Ricky applied to the State University of New York at Albany for graduate school in part because it wasn’t far from the Citrinitis – and when he was accepted, Tom and Jackie welcomed Ricky into their home again to live while he was attending school. Ricky paid rent, and when his graduation came, Tom and Jackie surprised him.

“I found out at the end of grad school, that the rent that I was paying … they saved it for me to put down as a deposit for my first apartment,” Ricky said. “What they showed me … was just amazing.”

The Fresh Air Fund provides a future full of opportunities for children from New York City’s low-income communities. What begins as a summer of fun can become the start of a journey, with a series of life-changing relationships, that will last a lifetime. Give to The Fresh Air Fund today so more kids can experience the love and support Ricky found with the Citriniti family.