May 24, 2024 Category: Our Alums

Friendly Towns Memories: 20 years and counting

The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns program has touched the lives of many, creating lasting bonds and cherished memories. Friendly Towns alum Barbara Starkes first visited the Walker family in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2003 at age 9. Barbara experienced unforgettable moments with her host parents Judy and Stan, like swimming in a lake for the first time, which drew her back to the Walkers year after year.  

Since that first visit, the Walkers and Barbara have celebrated many milestones together. “Our relationship with Barbara has enriched our family beyond measure. She’s part of every significant moment, from graduations to family gatherings,” Judy shared. 

The Walkers supported Barbara at her high school graduation.

Host mom, Judy, first learned about the Friendly Towns program through the New York Times, sparking her interest in volunteering as a host family after her own kids, Aime and Michael, left for college.  

“We had always read about the program in the New York Times”, Barbara shared. “I said to my husband, ‘I think we should give this a try.’” It turns out that conversation – would have a lifelong impact and now Judy fondly refers to Barbara as their “daughter of the heart,” emphasizing the deep connection forged over the years.

Barbara with Judy and Stan during one of her first visits to Easton, Pennsylvania.

Adventures Near and Far 

Barbara developed a relationship with her host family that extended beyond The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns program – and they saw each other outside the program and during the school year. They traveled to many new places from Washington D.C. to Florida – and even new parts of New York City.  

Barbara tried many new things while visiting the Walkers, like horseback riding!

“Although Barbara had always lived in Harlem, she hadn’t visited many other parts of the city. We always tried to have something educational going on, as well as fun activities, which I think she appreciated,” explained Judy.  

Judy and Barbara at the Rockefeller Christmas Tree during the holidays.

The Walker family traveled with Barbara to Florida one summer to go on a couple of college visits and interviews – and of course, making an obligatory pit stop at Disney World. 

Barbara and Judy at Disney World the summer after Barbara’s junior year of high school. 

Despite the abundance of travels and new adventures Barbara experienced with the Walker family, her favorite memories were spent at their home in Pennsylvania.  

“They had a really big backyard with an inground pool, and that was what amazed me the most,” Barbara said. That was where I really liked to spend most of my time when visited as a kid.”  

Barbara swimming in the Walker’s pool. 

Reflecting – A Second Home

Barbara, now working in human resources at William Sonoma and living near the Walkers, reminisces about her first experiences in Pennsylvania. “The Walkers became my second home. They introduced me to new experiences, supported my education and nurtured lifelong friendships,” Barbara said.   

“As someone who benefited from The Fresh Air Fund, I’m passionate about giving back. Whether that’s just through sharing my story volunteering or supporting any recruitment effort. My goal here is just to create similar opportunities for other children like me.” Barbara stated. 

Interested in learning more about volunteering as a host family or signing your child up to participate? Applications are open!