Twin Sisters Find Their Own Friendly Towns Families
Before Italie Sessing signed her twin daughters up for a week of outdoor fun, full of new friends and experiences, through the Friendly Towns program (which matches New York City children with volunteer host families who live in suburban and rural communities along the East Coast and Southern Canada), she did what anyone does before making a big decision.
She read the reviews.
“A friend of mine told me about Friendly Towns,” she says. “At first, I was skeptical because my kids do not sleep away from home. I had to do my research. I went online and read comments from other families to see if anyone had any negative comments, and I talked to my friend who had been participating for seven years.”
The conversation helped her decide to apply so her twins, nine years old at the time, could go to different homes in different small towns, each for a week.
“I wanted them to see new places and participate in different activities that they don’t get to do in Brooklyn,” Italie said, “and I wanted them to meet new people.”
The first year, the girls visited their host families for different weeks and Italie says having them away from home was definitely hard. She shared, “I was nervous, but the host families were wonderful and communicated every step of the way – when they got there, when they got off the bus – I was in constant communication.”
And then, the girls came home and the reviews were really in: Friendly Towns was a hit!
Fast forward and the twins, Maya and Madison, have just turned 13 and returned from a summer of fun with their host families in Pennsylvania.
Just One of Us
Maya spends her week away with Cassondra Selby and her husband Jay Schmitt, step-dad to Cassondra’s children: 14-year-old London, 11-year-old India and seven-year-old Andorra. Cassondra and Jay became involved with The Fresh Air Fund five years ago after seeing an ad about the Friendly Towns program in a local Gettysburg, Penn., newspaper. Cassondra and Jay shared that Maya was a part of their family from her first visit.
“You would have thought she lived with our family for the last 10 years,” Cassondra says. Jay agrees. “She walked in and she was just one of us,” he says.
Maya is really outgoing and, when it comes to swimming, fearless. Jay says Maya wasn’t a strong swimmer when she first came to stay in Gettysburg but, over time, she’s gotten stronger and is now confident swimming in local lakes. It’s become one of her favorite things to do during her summer visits.
“I got to swim in a lake for the first time,” Maya said. “I went tubing – I didn’t know what that was. I went on a boat and there was a dock where I could jump and swim in a lake. It was so much fun.”
Maya and the girls spend a lot of time riding bikes and skateboarding around Cassondra and Jay’s quiet neighborhood, too. Cassondra always makes sure Maya’s stay coincides with July 4th so Maya can be part of a big annual family cookout. Cassondra prepares hot dogs, burgers and all the fixings while the kids swim, and after the cookout, they all (dressed in matching red, white and blue) go to see fireworks in a town park. It has become a summer tradition that they all look forward to.
Cassondra says, “When Maya visits, we just do exactly what we were going to be doing anyway. When you have kids, it’s easy to have another child come into your house. It’s not taking anything away from you and your children. It’s adding something.”
Cassondra hopes Maya has learned more about the world outside New York City and says their daughters have learned more about New York City from Maya, and that they hope to visit her in Brooklyn one day.
Madison’s Week Away
Madison’s Friendly Towns journey takes her to Denver, Penn., a small town in Lancaster County where she stays on a country lane with Faith and Rodney Horst and their five children: 14-year-old Kiana, 12-year-old Siera, nine-year-old Maria, seven-year-old Zachary and four-year-old Benjamin.
Just like Maya’s host family, the Horsts also learned about The Fresh Air Fund and Friendly Towns program through a local newspaper.
“We’ve hosted foreign exchange students over holidays. We have an interest in getting to know people from different cultures and backgrounds, who celebrate different traditions,” Faith said. “And we knew our children would enjoy having someone their own age spending part of the summer with them.”
Madison is the first child the Horsts have hosted, and Faith was nervous about how Madison would get along with her family and whether she’d be homesick. Madison was shy at first, Faith says, but she warmed up and as she started to feel more comfortable, she became a new member of the family, just like her sister in Gettysburg had.
Madison shares a room with the three Horst girls, and along with their brothers, spends days swimming in pools, ponds and lakes, riding bikes, watching fireworks, and picking berries. She says her favorite memory – so far – was a day at the grandparents’ house.
“It’s really fun,” Madison says. “The first time we went it was the Fourth of July, so I got to see all of their family. We got to watch fireworks, and we ate chicken barbecue. I swam in the grandparents’ pond. I had been to the beach or a pool, but I never had been in a creek or a pond.”
Faith says she’s happy to create a little freedom for Madison to explore a world away from New York City. She says she’s seen Madison mature and her own children grow through their Friendly Towns experience.
“It’s a good opportunity to meet somebody new and a good experience for your family to open your home and open your hearts. We hope to give Madison experiences that she’ll remember for a long time,” Faith said. “The experience also helps our children to become more comfortable meeting new people and helps them make friends by getting to know somebody from a different culture and city.”
The twins’ reviews?
Maya’s words of advice: “I would tell kids don’t be afraid to explore new things, and there are a lot of things that you’ve probably never done before. Plus, you can meet a lot of new people.”
“It’s helped me a lot,” Madison says. She tells other kids in the Friendly Towns program and kids who might be interested in the program, “Don’t be shy. Try to make as many memories as possible because it’s really fun.”
Help more children from New York City to visit new places, have new experiences and make lasting memories while surrounded by the love and support of a Friendly Towns host family. Give to The Fresh Air Fund today.