Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Fresh Air fund - A breath of fresh air

Susan Newhouse with Fresh Air Fund participants.
by Susan Sawyers

“You know your in the hood when u see flyer advertising for the Fresh Air fund calling it a kids summer vacation,”
wrote KeshiaJay via Twitter on April 29th. I sent KeshiaJay a tweet to see if she’d talk with me about the Fresh Air fund. “What’s there to talk about?” she tweeted.

As another summer rolls around, and thousands of urban kids prepare to head to the country to spend a few weeks with families they’ve never met, one of the city’s most beloved charitable institutions gears up to send them off.

They maintain a Facebook page and The New York Times circulates a public-service supplement illustrating a diverse group of children playing happily together in bucolic summer settings. The Fresh Air Fund is such a fixture in New York charitable circles that few people stop to question how it began – or what it means.

It all started in 1877, when a Presbyterian minister named Rev. Willard Parsons asked his parishioners in the Poconos to open their homes to nine poverty-stricken children from Brooklyn for a short summer stay. He had observed the suffering of the city’s poor, many of whom were living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and he had an idea: give them a little break.
 
The Fresh Air Fund’s target population over the years reflects the ethnicities of the poorest New Yorkers. Whereas the earliest participants were Italian and Irish immigrants, the 1970's group was primarily of African-American and Latino heritage. These days, it is made up of a wide mix of ethnicities, including many from Asia and the Middle East.

Relationships with schools, churches and 93 community organizations like Jacob Riis Settlement House, Good Shepherd and the Harlem Children’s Zone are an integral part of the Fund’s success in bringing awareness of their offerings to city children and their parents or guardians. Since 1877, the Fresh Air Fund has served nearly 1.7 million children from the five boroughs.
2009 Fresh Air Fund Camp Memories.
The Fresh Air Fund “comes from an era in which church and private charity [were] the only safety net,” said Jack Rosenthal, who was until January the president of the New York Times Company Foundation, a supporter of the Fund. “It’s irresponsible to be smug or cynical about the Lady Bountiful motives because that’s what charity was in that era,” he said.  And so, the organization founded by a Presbyterian minister, now occupies “a storied role,” in Rosenthal’s words, in the universe of New York City charities.
 
This summer, volunteer host-families in 13 states, from Maine to West Virginia, as well as in Canada and the Cayman Islands, will open their homes to 4,200 kids. At the same time, the Fresh Air Fund’s five summer camps in Fishkill, N.Y., 75 miles north of New York City, will accommodate 3,000 children.
Fresh Air Fund Camp fun.
To carry out its programs, the organization relies on contributions of cash and gifts in-kind. In its first year, 1877, the fund raised $187.62. Stephen Birmingham in his book, Our Crowd, wrote that Frieda Schiff, born in 1876 – one year after the Fresh Air Fund began – was required by her father, banker Jacob Schiff, to contribute one-tenth of her dollar-a-week allowance. Nowadays, additional revenues come from groups that use the Fishkill property in the off-season and from the government through the federal lunch program.

Armed with a clear mission, money from the pocketbooks of New York City donors and a media partnership with The New York Herald Tribune – and later The New York Times – the Fresh Air Fund grew steadily over time. Since then, in addition to making cash contributions, prominent New York families like the Bernsteins and the Newhouses open their homes and hearts to other people’s children. Others, like William Lauder, encourage their employees to tutor Fresh Air Fund high-school students during the academic months. The Fund’s events are supported by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Williams and Anna Wintour.
Donald and Susan Newhouse. William Lauder.
So, what began as a mercy mission for a handful of children more than 130 years ago has grown into a force with revenues of more than $15 million, overall net assets of $117 million and an executive director who earned $291,218, according to Charity Navigator’s information for fiscal year 2008.

And slowly, the simple equation – kids, fresh air, volunteers, everyone returns home at the end of the experience – is evolving into a more complex mission. Set in motion by an initiative begun in 1989 to develop career-awareness, along with summer home-stay and camping programs, the Fresh Air Fund has come to acknowledge that in addition to fresh air, or a break from the “inner-city,” what kids need are tangible, useable experiences for their futures.

The Young Women’s Giving Circle.
As the kids age out of the camps and home-stays, some are hired as summer camp counselors to work with younger children. But more to the point, Camp Mariah – named for the pop star Mariah Carey, who lent her name and raised funds for the organization – leads to the multi-year Career Awareness Program (CAP). Similarly, Camp Anita Bliss Coler (Camp ABC) gives way to the Fund’s newest initiative, the Young Women’s Giving Circle.

Whereas the CAP program exposes kids to career options and internships, the Young Women’s Giving Circle gives the girls a sense of community, where they treat one another with respect and learn to develop life-skills in leadership and community service.

“Young women need new places to be leaders,” Board Member Sarah Siegel-Magness told me last week before she was saluted at the Fresh Air Fund's 2010 Spring Benefit at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers. To that end, Siegel-Magness and her husband, Gary Magness, the producers of the Oscar-winning film, Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, contributed $1.3 million to the Fresh Air Fund to create a new teen leadership center for Camp Anita Bliss Coler.

Fateerah Emmanuel.
Fateerah Emmanuel, 16, is a member of the Young Women’s Giving Circle and will be returning to Camp ABC this summer as a counselor-in-training after five years as a camper. She lives in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with her mother and two sisters. Her father has been in jail since she was an infant.  “I used to get in fights all the time. I didn’t trust people,” said Fateerah. “Now, I don’t have time for that. I’m trying to change the way I think. I’m doing something with my life.”

She credits her involvement and commitment to the Fresh Air Fund for the change because it gives her a place to go almost every day after school where she has connections to a community and adult role models.

Some of the adult role models to whom Fresh Air Fund participants look up include First Lady Michelle Obama, who was a counselor at Camp ABC in the early 1980s, and Gaby Sidibe, who was the receptionist at the Fresh Air Fund’s Third Avenue office before she landed the lead role in the award-winning movie, Precious. Also within reach are Fresh Air Fund staffers like Michael Clark, Director of Camp Mariah and the Career Awareness Program, Alicia Skovera, Director of Camp ABC and Off-Season Programs, and Kristen Farmer, who joined the Fresh Air Fund in 2005 to teach journalism at Camp Mariah. In addition to her role as Assistant Director of Camp Mariah and the Career Awareness Program, Farmer is the tutoring and high-school placement coordinator.
The FRESH AIR FUND'S Salute to American Heroes at Pier 60.
Maggie Rizer Christian Siriano Maggie Gyllenhaal
Ann Shoket Gabourey Sidibe High Voltage
But there’s more than meets the eye. The next challenge for the Fresh Air Fund is accountability. In the 134 years since the Fresh Air Fund started, the culture of philanthropy has changed. In 2010, it’s important to show respect for cultural differences, hire visionary program leaders, recruit hosts who understand that these children aren’t charity cases, and prove with data that this system works. 

The Fresh Air Fund has come to embrace these changes slowly. In fact, the age-old founding mission – of getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they could play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged. The overarching idea “is about giving kids an opportunity to be a kid. That’s it,” said Liz Clardy, the Fresh Air Fund’s Director of Community Outreach.
Darryl Dawkins Sarah Siegel-Magness Jenny Morgenthau
When Camp Mariah came into being in 1994, “that was our first big, new, different program, [and] all these foundations who supported us were talking about evaluation,” Fresh Air Fund Executive Director Jenny Morgenthau told me when we met in December. In today’s world, non-profit organizations need to show their outcomes.

“There is pressure to measure,” she said. “We tried to learn about outcome measures … but no one really knows how to do it. In reality,” she said, “kids come back for three years, some for six years. You see the changes in them. You see how they change and grow, but how can we say we did it?”
Robert Morgenthau, Jenny Morgenthau, and Gabourey Sidibe
Anna Wintour and Maggie Gyllenhaal Anna Wintour and Donald Newhouse
“Some organizations are more able to measure outcome than others,” developmental psychologist Cindy Lamy, a metrics manager for the Robin Hood Foundation, told me. Since 1988, the Robin Hood Foundation has targeted poverty in New York City by applying investment principles to philanthropy. “When people do try to understand their outcomes,” said Lamy, “they don’t realize how difficult it is to move outcomes for kids.” It may be that it’s just too difficult and simply not part of the Fund’s core mission. 
 
And maybe that’s all right.
Brian Williams and Jeff Zucker
David and Lauri Carey Melissa Russo and Jeff Zucker
Anna Wintour and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly
Pia and Howard Cross Debbie Bancroft
Ken Kaiser, Daniel Simmons, and Nancy McGoth
The power of the Fresh Air Fund is largely anecdotal. Talk to someone who has hosted a Fresh Air kid, and nine times out of 10 you’ll hear heartwarming stories about swimming in the ocean for the first time or learning to ride a bike. The kids seem happy with the arrangement, the hosts seem happy, and financial support keeps pouring in. More than a century ago, The Fresh Air Fund hit on a formula that just seems to work, no matter how much the world has changed – even in this age of outcome measurement and cultural sensitivity. Just as surely as Shakespeare comes to Central Park, urban kids will be going to the country for a few weeks of fresh air this summer.

To learn more about the Fresh Air Fund, click here.
Photographs by PatrickMcMullan.com


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