The Fresh Air Fund is looking for Fairfield families to host children from New York City for one to two weeks during the summer.
Rianne Sappern, of Fairfield, said her family is eagerly waiting to host Donte McKenzie, a 9-year-old boy from Brooklyn, this summer for the second time.
"I loved the idea of it, since I grew up in Brooklyn," said Sappern, who has a son the same age as Donte and a daughter three years older. "It's great for the family and the child."
The Fresh Air Fund was founded in 1877 as a nonprofit organization by the Rev. Willard Parsons, a minister from rural Sherman, Pa., according to the agency's website. Today, needy New York kids get suburban vacations with host families from Virginia to Canada.
Martha Mintzer, the fund's Fairfield County coordinator, said she hopes 35 families in Fairfield and Westport will host children this summer.
The children come from families who receive help from community outreach programs based on family needs, according to Bonnie Dubson, the program's Westport coordinator. To be considered, the child must qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch, and the annual income of a family of four may not exceed $60,000.
In 2012, about 4,000 kids were hosted in suburbs referred to as "friendly towns" on the East Coast and Canada, according to the organization's website. Since its founding, the fund has hosted 1.7 million children.
"About 75 percent of kids are expected to be invited back to the family they were hosted by last year," Mintzer said.
First-time host families are paired with kids 6 to 12, Dubson said. Families that have hosted before may choose to host the same child until he or she reaches, she said.
"I think people decide to host for a variety of reasons," Dubson said. "But the most rewarding aspect of hosting is by far the friendships that are built, some of which can last a lifetime."
The organization also runs five summer camps in upstate New York for children who cannot get placed with a host family due to certain medical conditions and special needs.
A family interested in hosting a child must fill out an application and go through a screening process, which includes background checks for family members who are at least 18, Mintzer said.
Children have physical exams before leaving home, and host families are informed in advance of any allergies or special dietary needs children may have, she said.
Line Blanco, a Westport woman with three young children, said her family is looking forward to hosting 7-year-old Isaiah Foster, of Brooklyn, for the second year in a row. Her family took him in for a week last August and expects to host him for another week in late July.
"As he gets older, we hope to have him longer, and when he becomes a teen, we hope to have him all summer," Blanco said. "I would encourage it (hosting)."
Her children are 3 1/2, 6 and 8, so Isaiah is a good fit. She recalls that last summer, Isaiah initially was puzzled by the concept of walking around barefoot. When they went to Compo Beach, it was the first time he ever had felt sand squishing between his toes.
Blanco said hosting the city child was "a positive experience" for her family.
"It's not all about what we gave him, it's about what he gave us. It made us come back to what's important, like friendship," she said.
Her kids did not want Foster to leave last summer and could not wait for him to return this summer, Blanco said.
"There wasn't a dry eye on the day he left," she said. "My 3 1/2-year-old always asks `When's Isaiah coming back?' "
For information on hosting a child through the Fresh Air program, call 800-367-0003 or visit www.freshair.org.