February 05, 2021 Category: Our Impact Our Programs Our Alums

#FreshAirForever: 70 Years Later – The Impact of The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns Program

“They cried every time I left. When they put me on the train or the bus they would cry. That’s how much they loved me,” Fresh Air alum, Gwen Penn said.  

At 76-years-old, Gwen still has fond memories of summers she spent in New Hampshire as part of The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns Program.  

The Friendly Town’s program brings volunteer host families and children from NYC’s low-income communities together and while they celebrate their differences, they also realize the many things they have in common. For many children, the experience may be their first time away from NYC and they have new adventures like making s’mores, riding bikes and learning how to swim – all while forming relationships that can last a lifetime!  

Now retired and living in New Jersey, Gwen shared with us that her first Fresh Air summer was when she was just five years old. Originally from Brooklyn, Gwen returned for many summers to visit her host family in Keene, New Hampshire.  

The first time Gwen left Brooklyn for New Hampshire was not as daunting as she expected because Gwen’s host family treated her like their own child right from the start.  

Gwen first visited her Fresh Air family in New Hampshire when she was just five years old.

“Every year they would give me a party because my birthday was in July; they were the most wonderful people that I have ever met as a child,” Gwen says. “One of my favorite memories is when we pulled taffy. This is an experience I would never have had without the program. We also popped popcorn the old-fashioned way – it was things I could never forget. I experienced so much – swimming, having barbecues and going to the lake.” 

Today, Gwen remains in touch with her Fresh Air family and continues to spend time with her Fresh Air host mom, Alice.  

“I visited her through the years and sometimes my family would join me,” says Gwen. “We would have lunch together and people were just amazed that I was Alice’s Fresh Air child. She’s 91, I’m 76 and decades later we are sitting there eating lunch and spending time together.”  

Gwen’s story is one of so many Fresh Air stories that show how connections and relationships formed in the summer can truly last a lifetime.  

Learn more about the Friendly Towns Program here