by Amy Littleson
I knew it was her right away. Braided hair full of white beads, Hello Kitty flip-flops, a hot pink butterfly tee shirt, and a pair of crooked wiry glasses bouncing on her nose. She ran up to me with as much coordination as she could gather, and asked me if I was Amy, Jacqueline’s older sister. I stammered “yeah” and she told me her name was Nikki, that she was nine years old, and that she was from Brooklyn. I asked her if she had ever been to a real beach. She shook her head, her beads clinking, stared at me with the biggest brown eyes I had ever seen, and said, “No.”
That day I first met Nikki, I stood on the pathway of my yacht club and I looked around me, noticing how out of place this vivacious little girl looked as she talked with Jacqueline and my mom. I knew little about her; she came from an underprivileged family and we had volunteered to be her “host family.” She would stay with us for two weeks of the summer. I wondered if she would fit in, but it didn’t take long for me to see that she did.
In July of 2005, Nikyia McNeil, otherwise known as Nikki, ran her plump little body through the sand and toward the ocean with a look of astonishment, wonder, and pure joy. She came to a sudden halt at the water’s edge and peered into the foamy waves. She stood still for a moment; which was rare for her antsy personality. Then my mom, sister, people on the beach, and I watched Nikki spin around with her feet dancing in the crashing waves, smiling with her arms uplifted. She had enough spirit and life to fill the whole ocean.
She fit in perfectly. We loved her. Nikki sang to us, told jokes, was loud and opinionated, laughed all of the time, and wore colorful, sequin-studded outfits. There was only one incident that caused some commotion. The first night she stayed with us my family took Nikki out to dinner at the Holiday Snack Bar, a small circular bar in a tiny shack. We sat down and Nikki asked the waitress for a chocolate milkshake, a double cheeseburger, and an order of onion rings. For desert she ordered a homemade chocolate chip cookie sandwich… and finished my mom’s cake. We didn’t even make it out of the Holiday Snack Bar before Nikki claimed that she was going to be sick. Within the next minute the place was evacuated as Nikki’s meal resurfaced. Needless to say, we never took her back.
Aside from the double cheeseburger debacle, Nikki has brightened my life over and over. Since 2005, she’s visited us every summer, and each time carries a red suitcase full of suntan lotion, Wal-Mart underwear, and glittery bathing suits. She makes friends with everyone; and one time talked to a four-year-old boy on the beach all day long. My family has taught Nikki how to swim, look for sand crabs, and play ping-pong. She’s taught us how to be thankful, how to realize what’s important, and how to dance like we’re from Brooklyn. Through Nikyia McNeil, I’ve been exposed to a whole new life, and it’s refreshing to know someone so pure and honest. And in return for the friendship she’s given me, I hope that the fresh air she’s received through her visits has benefited her as well.
The summertime Fresh Air Fund program gives as many as 5,000 disadvantaged children a host family each summer. Fresh Air children are both boys and girls who live in New York City, ranging from ages 6 to 18 years of age. These kids are registered by more than 90 social service and community organizations in New York City. Each agency is responsible for registering children in need of a summer vacation. Most of these children are from low-income families who often cannot afford to send them on a summer vacation. Many of these inner-city children know only their tall apartment buildings and the city playgrounds and parks. They have little chance of experiencing the great outdoors and true fresh air.
Fresh Air children visit their host family in a suburban or rural community for at least two weeks in one of 300 “Friendly Towns” from Virginia to Canada in 13 Northeastern states. There are no financial requirements for a family who wants to host a Fresh Air Child; anyone who wants to share their lives with an inner-city child can. Children who are invited by their host families to visit again can return to them summer after summer through age 18.
If you are interested in hosting a child in an upcoming summer you can register for more information at www.freshair.org, or call the Fresh Air Fund at 1-800-367-0003.
Since 1877 the Fresh Air Fund has given more than 1.7 million disadvantaged New York City children unforgettable summertime memories and experiences. By reaching out and becoming a host family, you too can witness a child’s first time seeing the beach. Through the Fresh Air Fund, I have found a girl who will always make me smile. With her hair full of braids and her crooked glasses, Nikyia McNeil has changed my life.