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For city kids, a breath of fresh air in Franklin County

Charlene Davey and her son pick up Syncere from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center on Wednesday for his fifth summer visit.
Recorder/Micky Bedell

Charlene Davey and her son pick up Syncere from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center on Wednesday for his fifth summer visit. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — The excitement was nearly palpable among a crowd of area residents gathered in the horseshoe-shaped parking area in front of the UMass Fine Arts Center, as the North Fork Express bus came to a gentle stop.

Gill resident Charlene Davey and her 14-year-old son, Casey, were first in line as the doors swung open and Syncere Davis, 13, of New York City’s Bronx borough, stepped out. For the next two weeks, he will be an honorary member of their family.

Like other children who arrived on the bus, Davis has made the trip from New York City to Franklin County each year since 2010 to spend time with the Davey family through his participation in the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides children from New York City with the opportunity to get out of the city for a short time and experience life in a rural or suburban area.

The organization provides the trips free of charge, and more than 1.8 million children nationwide have participated in them since 1877. Each year, the program sends more than 4,000 children to communities across 13 different states between Virginia and Maine.

Davey said part of her desire to get her family involved with the Fresh Air Fund stemmed from the fact that her own family had hosted a “Fresh Air Kid” when she was growing up.

Davey said her Fresh Air friend, a girl from Brooklyn named Twanya Myers, joined her for hours of park visits, outside activities and swimming in the summers of her youth.

“The excitement of her arriving is something we looked forward to every year,” Davey said. “Even though we were home, it still felt like we were on vacation. We saw summer through her eyes.”

Davis said the first trip was a very strange experience, but he soon bonded with Casey and the two became inseparable, according to Davey.

“It was kind of weird, because I didn’t know them and I’d never seen them before,” Davis said. Davis’s mother, Luciana Jacques, said his involvement with the Fresh Air Fund came at urging of his father, Eric Hilson, also of New York, who had himself participated in the program as a boy.

“He used to go when he was younger, and he felt it would be a good experience and it would help get him out of the neighborhoods that we live in,” Jacques said. “So, we signed him up and he’s been going ever since.”

Jacques said her son’s first trip to visit the Davey family was nerve-wracking for her, since it was the first time he had ever been out of state without her.

“I packed everything possible in case something happened,” she said. “Even an emergency cell phone.”

Now that Davis is back in Franklin County, the boys will spend the next two weeks swimming the hot days away in the Davey’s newly installed pool, tearing up and down the streets on their bicycles, and playing this year’s newest video games at their house in Gill.

“We beat a lot of games,” noted Davis, who said his favorites include popular sports and action titles such as NBA 2k14, Call of Duty Ghosts, Madden, and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.

On mention of that last title, Casey’s eyes lit up. “Did you get it?” he asked.

The friendship that the two youngsters have developed as a result of their visits, despite the distance, was apparent almost immediately. They shared stories of past summers, including humorous anecdotes of arming themselves with flashlights to scour the neighborhood for the family’s cat when they thought it may have escaped and popping balloons in the middle of a crowded department store.

“The whole place got quiet and everyone just stopped and looked at us,” recalled Davis, through fits of laughter. “It was so loud.”

Davey said that Davis also loves to play basketball, and that he once played in a game on Casey’s team in the fifth grade, an experience that he said he had never had back home in New York. “It was fun, it was something new,” said Davis, reminiscing about making a successful half-court shot during the game.

Davey noted that the pair has so much fun when they are together that Davis’s family began allowing him to take charter buses to Massachusetts to stay for a visit during his February break from school, independent of the Fresh Air program. On one of those visits, Davis had his first opportunity to try snowmobiling.

“It was kind of scary at first, because you don’t want to go too fast and hit a tree or a snow bank, but after a few times you get used to it,” he said. Last year, he experienced sledding for the first time.

Jacques said she feels the program has benefited Davis by helping him become less shy and giving him the chance to learn new skills to which he otherwise would not have been exposed, such as swimming and fishing.

“It really opens him up to meeting people he doesn’t know, so now he’s not as scared or afraid to make new friends,” she said.

Davis said he hopes to return to the Davey’s home this winter.

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