February 17, 2020 Category: Stories

How Summer Camp and Sleep-Away Experiences Benefit Families from NYC’s Low-Income Communities

Ten years ago, when she was a guidance counselor with the International Rescue Committee’s summer readiness program providing counseling and support to recently resettled refugee youth and their families, Deborah Asirifi met an 11-year-old girl. She was bright and beautiful, Deborah says, but not assimilating very well to a new city and new culture. She was extremely shy.

And then, for two weeks, the girl disappeared.

“We didn’t know where she went,” Deborah says. “And then she came back, and she looked and acted like a different person. She was smiling and she seemed happier. I checked in with her, and I said, ‘What happened? We missed you. Where were you?’ And she said, ‘I went to The Fresh Air Fund.’”

“After two weeks away from home it was as if she was a different person,” Deborah says. “She went from not having any confidence to actually talking to people and making eye contact. And I thought, ‘I wonder what they did there. And I want to be a part of it.’”

Today, Deborah is the Director of Support Services and Child Registration for The Fresh Air Fund where she oversees a team of social workers as well as the application process for families signing up for The Fresh Air Fund’s free overnight summer programs. Deborah also works specifically with children who have special needs and circumstances such as living in transitional housing or foster care.

Children are eligible to participate in The Fresh Air Fund’s summer programs if they live in New York City, attend city schools, and meet income guidelines and age requirements. Deborah, and her team, help parents decide which Fresh Air program is right for their child. Families can choose between The Fund’s six sleepaway camps in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley and the Friendly Towns program, The Fresh Air Fund’s legacy program, which sends children from New York City to visit volunteer host families in suburban and rural communities across the Northeast and Southern Canada. Host families complete an extensive interview and screening process before participating.

Fresh Air child Arnold enjoying his first experience tubing behind a boat
with his Friendly Towns host brothers Max and Alex

Deborah says, “The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns and summer camp programs benefit not only children but whole families, and the benefits continue well beyond the summer – and continue all year long.”

“Children have more exposure when they have the opportunity to leave the city,” says Deborah. “They get to be children again. Many of the children that we work with, based on my experience, have a lot of responsibilities at home and so this is an opportunity for them to have an experience away from home and be independent from their parents. They develop stronger peer relationships and become more confident. They really benefit from being around other kids and learning from other kids in a nurturing environment.”

“And it’s just such a great opportunity for the parents as well,” she says. “It can be a very hard thing for a parent to send their child to a sleep-away experience, but when they see how it benefits their child, they always apply.”

At the end of the summer, Deborah says, the benefits become even more clear. “We start getting emails and phone calls that say, ‘Thank you so much. My child had an incredible time. They can’t wait to go back next summer. They learned how to swim, or they keep talking about their new friends or a favorite song that they learned.’”

“The organization’s history of serving children since 1877 and the breadth of resources it connects families to sets The Fresh Air Fund’s programming apart,” Deborah says. “When I go to presentations to share information about The Fresh Air Fund’s free overnight camps and Friendly Towns experiences, the first thing I always ask is, ‘Has anyone ever heard of The Fresh Air Fund?’” Deborah says. “And there are always a few hands. People will put their hands up and say, ‘I went to The Fresh Air Fund,’ or, ‘My grandmother went to The Fresh Air Fund.’ Families continue to reach out to us, and it’s because we offer such great resources.”

Deborah Asifiri presented with the Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York
at The Fund’s Annual Friendly Towns Conference.

During the summer, Deborah oversees a team of social workers available to support children and families for case and crisis management. If her team discovers a need for certain services – such as mental health services or assistance securing food, shelter or health insurance – they can provide families with resources and introductions to social service organizations in their community to obtain assistance throughout the year.

“We are available to our families throughout the year to assist by connecting them to resources,” Deborah says. “The wonderful thing is that a lot of our families – both New York City families and host families – recognize this, so they are always contacting us throughout the year to assist in supporting our Fresh Air children. If we are not able to assist, we surely are able to connect them to someone who can.”

Deborah says, “We work to maintain connections with our families beyond summer, and we know that the experiences children have during the summer create memories that will last a lifetime.”

All kids should have the opportunity to learn and grow through summer camp and sleep-away experiences. Your gifts make it possible for more children from New York City to learn and grow during the summer and beyond. Please make a donation.