Fresh Air vacation: Woodstock couple hosts city kids

Kamonni Hamilton, 12, left, of Brooklyn, New York, and Baronique Russell, 11, of Bronyx, New York, get a closeup view of a field of black-eyed-susans outside the home of Larry and Mary Ann Kreitzer in Woodstock. The girls are part of the Fresh Air Fund and the Kreitzer's serve as their host family for the week. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — When Kamonni Hamilton and Berry Russell got off a bus in Harrisonburg on Monday, they knew they were in for a week of outdoor fun and adventure.

Kamonni and Berry participate in the Fresh Air Fund’s host family program, which has connected children ages 6 to 18 from New York City with families in more rural areas from North Carolina to Canada since 1877. This year, families up and down the Shenandoah Valley hosted 44 Fresh Air Fund children.

Many of the children choose to return to host families for multiple years up until they turn 18. According to area Fresh Air Fund chairperson Jane Shumway, some families host children for entire summers or invite them out for the holidays, and they form lasting bonds with both the children and their families in New York.

Larry and Mary Ann Kreitzer are hosting Kamonni, 12, and Berry, 11, for their second summer in Woodstock at “Camp Kreitzer.” Last year, the girls enjoyed swimming, berry picking and making s’mores over a fire for the first time.

Berry first learned to swim in the Kreitzer’s pool last year and said she was looking forward to returning to swim in the deep end and jump off the diving board again. Both girls were anticipating some trampoline time, but they were crestfallen to learn that it had broken.

Baronique Russell, 11, left, of Bronyx, New York, and Kamonni Hamilton, 12, right, of Brooklyn, New York, pick apples outside their host family's home in Woodstock. The girls are part of the Fresh Air Fund that sends New York City kids to live with a rural host family for a week. Rich Cooley/Daily

“That trampoline got a lot of love, but it finally got tired of eight or 10 kids on it at once,” Mary Ann Kreitzer said.

One of the first things the Kreitzers showed the girls this year was a square-dancing club meeting at Skyline Terrace Nursing Home that they stopped at on the way home from Harrisonburg. Mary Ann Kreitzer said the residents there loved to see the kids at the meeting.

“It was cool; it was like the Electric Slide,” Kamonni said.

For their first day at the Kreitzers’, the girls spent some time working on puzzles and picking apples to make into pies and applesauce – another first.

A number of Berry’s schoolmates had told her stories about their participation in the program before her mother offered to sign her up, and three of Kamonni’s older siblings had stayed with Fresh Air Fund host families in years past.

Baronique Russell, 11, left, of Bronyx, New York, and Kamonni Hamilton, 12, right, of Brooklyn, New York, walk with a baskets of apples they picked outside their host family's home in Woodstock this week. The girls part of the Fresh Air Fund that sends New York City kids to live with a rural host family for a week. Rich Cooley/Daily

Both girls find the different farm animals and wild animals in the area particularly fascinating.

“When I was on the bus, I looked out the window — I could tell we were in Virginia because I looked over and I saw a herd of cows,” Kamonni said. “Those things were just walking around like it was nothing!”

But a summer vacation near farmland means coping with some pests they don’t typically encounter in Brooklyn or the Bronx.

“The one thing I hate the most are the gnats,” Berry said.

Kamonni added, “Those things are everywhere!”

Baronique Russell takes a spin on a lawn tractor outside her host family's home in Woodstock this week. Rich Cooley/Daily

They’ve made good friends with the Kreitzers’ grandchildren, Anya and Bianca, who live in Strasburg with their mother, Jamie Fuller. Fuller said that after seeing the fun her girls have with Kamonni and Berry and seeing her sister and parents host, she would look into hosting Fresh Air Fund children in the future as well.

“We definitely have our hands a little full right now, but actually I was thinking that it would be a lot of fun to have somebody come and stay with us,” she said.

Shumway has been a host for four years at her home in New Market, and said the experience is an enriching one for both the children and the families.

“I think I love seeing the kids’ excitement and the wonder of seeing what we take for granted or what’s normal for us,” she said. “I love to sit back and kind of watch that magic happen.”

Even though Kamonni and Berry make plenty of fun memories when on the Fresh Air Fund trips, they have trouble picturing themselves living in the valley area.

“There’s too much noise because the birds chirp in the morning,” Berry said.

Both girls said they couldn’t imagine being farther away from school than their typical two to three minute walks.

This year, the Kreitzers are hoping to take the girls to milk cows and visit Luray Caverns along with plenty of cookouts and swimming sessions. Kamonni and Berry said they’d rather return to Grandma and Paka than go to one of the Fresh Air Fund’s summer camping programs.

“I’m going to try to stay for two weeks next year,” Berry said.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said she didn’t know if she and her husband would have the energy to keep up with them for a stay that long.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com