Growing up in the Bronx of the late 1980s, Emanuel Adjekum never felt he lacked things to see or places to go. He loved the city sounds, playing whiffle ball and simply being in the mix of neighbors who looked after one another, gathered for block parties and organized trips to Six Flags Great Adventure. He couldn’t imagine loving the outdoors more.
Then, in 1990, when he was 7 years old, he spent the summer in Prattsburgh, N.Y., living with a host family through the Fresh Air Fund. His mother thought he should experience a different kind of nature. Living in the tranquillity of the countryside around the Finger Lakes, with its vast farmland and rolling hills, was unsettling at first.
“I couldn’t sleep because all I could hear was the crickets,” Mr. Adjekum said.
His host family helped immerse him in rural life, easing his fear of sticking out. His host brother and father taught him how to fish and hunt — activities that were once foreign to him. Hunting, with its need for precision and understanding of one’s surroundings, was a time not only to bond with his host family but also to practice independence and responsibility. “Self-discipline was very important for them,” he said.
Those are skills he’s now proud to have, and the stillness of the fields and the space to roam have become a comfort. As much as he relished his adventures at Six Flags, he realized that there were also other ways of being. He could enjoy nature without the constraint of navigating the city’s congestion. His anxiety decreased the more time he spent upstate, and he began to see just how much stress he harbored and considered to be normal.
The fund’s Friendly Towns program lasted two weeks, and after his third year, he decided to stay for the entire summer. As a teenager, he got a job stacking bales of hay and learned the joy of working with your hands to complete an intensive task. Striving for that goal taught him the “psychology of life,” Mr. Adjekum said.
He grew close to other members of the community, too. The mother of his girlfriend in Prattsburgh stuck up for him when some kids were not as welcoming, he said. She and others in the community were so supportive of his growth and education that he ended up moving in with his host family to attend high school in Prattsburgh. His mother believed he would have access to the best possible resources living upstate. He played on the school’s basketball and baseball teams with his host brother, who was one year older. “We were like peanut butter and jelly,” Mr. Adjekum said.
The move shifted the trajectory of his life forever. After graduating from high school, he went to community college, got his bachelor’s degree and began a career in media production and then recruitment. Mr. Adjekum, now 40, said he remains in touch with his host family and “upstate brother.” He recently returned to Prattsburgh when his host father fell ill.
His son is now the age Mr. Adjekum was when he first went to Prattsburgh, and he is imparting to his child the lessons of respect and acceptance that he learned through the community that embraced him. He wants his son to have the same opportunities to experience as many ways of living and learning as possible, to have an expanded view of the world. “It opened so many doors that I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “It’s like being in a store and you don’t even know that, hey, behind this door, there’s all this.”
The Fresh Air Fund aims to reach close to 3,000 New York City children from low-income families across its various programs. A donation of $3,047 allows one participant to stay with a host family, and $2,866 sends one to camp for a two-week session. The fund hopes to raise about $12 million this year.
Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to the Fresh Air Fund, 633 Third Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10017. Families who wish to be hosts and parents who would like to sign up their children can call the Fresh Air Fund at (800) 367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.