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Fresh Air children make annual north country visit

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MASSENA - A reunion was in the making Monday afternoon in the parking lot of Triple “A” Building Center.

Anton Wilkins, 16, was coming back to North Bangor for another summer as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.

It was quite the welcoming party for the children when their bus turned from state Route 37 into the parking lot. Many of the host families had created welcome signs that they waved as the bus passed by, and then they waited anxiously as the children were called off the bus, one by one, to meet their host family. For some, it was a firs-time meeting; for others, it was a family reunion.

Cindy Clark said they’ve provided a summer home for Anton since he was 5 years old. They had also been the host family for his sister, Latisa, who was also 5 years old when she started and aged out of the program at 18.

“Most of the time they came together,” Ms. Clark said.

As a Fresh Air child who has been re-invited back by the family, Anton will spend his entire summer with the Clark family. For other Fresh Air children who arrived in Massena after a nearly eight-hour journey from New York City, they’ll have 10 days to enjoy all the north country has to offer, heading back to the city on July 25.

“We do a lot of different things,” including haying and taking him to farms and the Franklin County Fair,” Ms. Clark said.

Anton said he was looking forward to spending more time in the country, but there was one thing that did bug him during his visits.

“The bugs,” he said.

Ms. Clark said being a host family has been a family affair.

“My sister-in-law used to do it years ago,” she said.

Now, her son, Barry and Lisa Clark, and her niece, Lisa St. Hilaire, have also become host families. This is her son’s second year of hosting a child and her niece’s first year.

Saiquan Mohammed, 9, is staying with Ms. St. Hilaire. He said he’s looking forward to some more swimming like he did on his first visit to the north country.

Paul Lozzata is staying with Mr. and Mrs. Clark for the second summer. He was 7 years old when he made his first journey north.

“The first time he was pretty nervous,” Mr. Clark said.

Last year, Mrs. Clark said, they went to camp and took Paul boating and swimming, as well as horse riding.

This year they plan to do “pretty much the same,” Mr. Clark said, but might also go to a water park to escape the summer heat. They also have a swimming pool at their home.

During Paul’s stay last summer, the family also taught him how to ride a bicycle.

“He never rode a bicycle before. He started with training wheels,” Mrs. Clark said.

Tracy Nelson was waiting for Salima Garcia’s arrival.

“She’s wonderful. We love her. She pretty much does the same as my kids. She likes to go down and see the cows and horses,” she said.

Ms. Nelson said they treasure their time with their visitor, knowing that all too soon she’ll be on a bus headed back to the New York City - until next summer.

“It’s hard, especially when you get thee same child,” she said. “I stay in contact with her family through Facebook.”

Shannon Cook, her wife Janel Chevier and their children were waiting for two summer visitors - David Gaymon and Liesel John-Chase.

“We did this eight years ago. We had twin girls for about three years. This is our first time with these guys,” Ms. Cook said.

Altogether, 22 children made the trip this year, according to Potsdam Chair Earline LaFleur, who rode the bus with them along with her sister, Melody Rishe. They had made stops in Tupper Lake and Canton before hitting Massena just before 5:30 p.m.

“They were excited. They were wonderful,” she said.

The bus ride came with some amenities to make the trip easier - wifi, movies and music.

“We play a few movies for them and some music and we have an awesome bus driver,” Ms. LaFleur said.

Their family also has a long association with the Fresh Air Fund program.

“We go back three generations with the escorts,” she said.

And it’s worth every minute invested in the program, she said.

“This is such an awesome program. It gets kids out of the hot city. The support from the agency is wonderful. The support at this end is wonderful. There are no negatives about it,” Ms. LaFleur said.

New host families are always welcome, she said. Information about the program is available at freshairfund.org, where visitors can view videos and complete an application.

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