Fresh Air Fund brings city kids to Pioneer Valley

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    Trish Lagrant of Ware and her children, Alex, 10, Sophie, 14, and Eva, 11, hold signs that read "Welcome Back Karen Song!" as they wait for Fresh Air child Karen Song, 14, of Brooklyn, N.Y., to exit a bus on Monday, July 10, at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trish Lagrant of Ware, second from left, and her children, Alex, 10, Sophie, 14, and Eva, 11, greet Fresh Air child Karen Song, 14, left, of Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday, July 10, at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trish Lagrant of Ware, center, and her children, Eva, 11, Sophie, 14, and Alex, 10, head to their car after greeting Fresh Air child Karen Song, 14, right, of Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday, July 10, at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Families wait for Fresh Air children to arrive Monday, July 10, at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 7/16/2017 11:50:04 PM

AMHERST — Every summer since she was 7, Karen Song has taken a bus from her home in New York City up to Massachusetts, where she spends a week or two swimming, playing capture the flag and enjoying the comforts of a suburban summer with the Lagrant family in Ware.

On July 11, Karen and 10 other children arrived at the Haigis Mall, where they were greeted by eager host families bearing mylar balloons and homemade signs welcoming their young guests.

The kids are 11 of 4,000 who will make the summer exodus from New York to suburban and rural communities in the Northeast, to stay with host families through the Fresh Air Fund program. Another 3,000 will stay at one of the fund’s five upstate summer camps.

This year, Karen’s welcome party included Trish Lagrant and her three children: Sophie, 14; Eva, 11; and Alex, 10. They lounged on a blanket as they waited for the bus from New York. While first-time hosts fretted and checked their watches, the Lagrants were calm. The kids read books they had brought in anticipation of a delay. Trish was texting Karen, getting traffic updates as the bus slouched up Interstate 91.

Trish empathizes with the rookie hosts. She remembers what it was like when Karen first came in 2010.

“I was terrified,” Trish said.

She worried what it would be like to bring another child into her hectic household. She worried how Karen would adjust to being away from home at such a young age. She even worried if Karen would be able to communicate with them, because she spoke Chinese with her parents back home in Brooklyn.

As soon as Karen arrived however, Trish’s worries were forgotten.

“It just clicked the first year,” Trish said. “I was amazed at how seamlessly she fit into the family.”

After the success of the first summer, Karen came back year after year. Now 14, she has returned for her seventh summer in Ware. She loves playing with the Lagrants’ pet hedgehog, chickens and cats and just being in the wide green country.

“It’s really nice here,” said Karen. “In Brooklyn there’s not as much green.”

On the Lagrants’ end, they get a kick out of being tourists in their own community. When Karen visits, they try out new things — like high ropes adventure courses and local museums they’ve been meaning to check out.

This week, they went to a trampoline park in Springfield and a local arcade. They also show Karen the local eateries, like Antonio’s Pizza in Amherst and Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton.

“It’s fun to see the area that we live in through someone else’s eyes,” said Trish.

Since the Fresh Air Fund started in 1877, 1.8 million kids like Karen have gone through their programs. To qualify, they need to live in New York City and be considered low-income — eligible for free or reduced lunch under federal guidelines.

Karen’s parents are Chinese immigrants who own a translation service back in Brooklyn. They have never met the Lagrants, but Trish says they have a warm relationship regardless: At the end of each of Karen’s visits, Trish sends her home with pictures of her adventures.

It gets harder as the kids get older to find a time for Karen to visit, Trish said. Now a teenager, Karen has a full summer calendar back in the city. But she really loves western Massachusetts.

Inspired by her visits with the Largrants, Karen started volunteering at a community garden back in Brooklyn to get more time with nature during the rest of the year. Her favorite plant, she said, is any type of flower.

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