2 Tales from Roxann and Cheeno, Our Fresh Air Children

His yellow tag says: Cheeno Duncan –  Host Family: Ray & Ruth Longenecker

How would you feel if you were an 8 or 10-year-old from New York City and after a 3-hour train ride landed you in the farm pastures of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, lush but unfamiliar? Cheeno and Roxanne Duncan were part of the Fresh Air program designed to give urban children summer vacations away from their hot tenement building apartments.

My parents, always alert for ways to serve God through their church, Bossler Mennonite, offered a home to two of these children in 2-3 consecutive years in the early 1960s. A side benefit would be playmates for my 10-year-old brother Mark, who was 7 years younger than his closest sibling, my sister Jean. And for the first time, the whole family would be brought in close contact with children of a skin color and culture different from our own.

These two tales about Roxann and Cheeno come verbatim from letters my mother sent to me while I was enjoying a 5-week cross country road trip. One was addressed to Grants Pass, Oregon, delivered, and another addressed simply to Los Angeles, California, no street address, from where it was “returned to sender, unclaimed.”

LetterMomToMarianOR

TALE # 1   Crying

July 27, 1964   Written in my mother’s handwriting, unedited:

Good morning Marian   It is all but 8:30, quiet peaceful around here as yet. Sat. night Roxann decided she has homesick. Wasn’t to long till Cheeno saw her crying. Mark came down and said Mommie now they are both crying. So I went up into the bed room. There they were, two sets of tears. I asked Cheeno why are you crying. He said because she is crying. Then I said well now I will cry because you are crying. So I tried to start pretending [to cry]. Roxann had to laugh. It didn’t last to long. But they decided they would feel better if they slept in one bed. So I left them.

 

TALE # 2   Leaving

August 4, 1964

Dear Miss. Marian   Well we took the Duncans to the train station today. We were about 2 blocks away from the station Roxann said we don’t have our yellow tags on. I rushed in quickly and explained the situation. He said they must have tags on. But we can make some others. Well that was finally straightened out.

But oh horrors what could be next. Cheeno picks up his lunch bags and lets it fall to hard on the cement. There goes a broken jar with root beer all over the bag and the floor. I quickly got some Kleenex but not quiet enough. Ruthie [my Aunt] goes to the car and comes back with an old pair of her silk “panties” Oh she said we don’t even have paper to put them in. she had taken the broken jar and paper bag to the car already. There we were left holding some-thing we didn’t care to be seen with. Luckly we did see a trash can. Ruthie laughed and said if any body finds or see’s this they will think she just took off her ____??____

 * * *

The program, originating in 1877, is flourishing to this day. See more about the Fresh Air Fund here.

FreshAir Kids

There are many ways to experience independence and freedom. Here’s one example. You can think of some others as you reflect on this past holiday weekend. Hope you had a Happy Fourth!

Coming next: A Plate, a Parade, and a Song

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30 thoughts on “2 Tales from Roxann and Cheeno, Our Fresh Air Children

  1. Good morning, Marian! I’ve heard about this program, but I never knew anyone who had experienced it from either end. I didn’t realize it began in the 1960s. Did your family keep in touch with the Duncans or others?

    You know I had a wonderful 4th! 🙂

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  2. According to the website, the program began in 1877, but it became popular, at least among Mennonites, in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, we lost contact with the Duncans after a few years. When I did research for this post, I did try to find Cheeno on Facebook, but nothing materialized under his name

    Yes, we had a wonderful Fourth, nothing as spectacular as a family wedding though. I am writing about the special thing we did on Saturday’s post.

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  3. Good morning marian what a nice post. How blessed those two children were to go to mom for two weeks. Im sure they always remember their time there. I too was a fresh air kid. My mother would send us to what we thought was camp in other peoples home for two weeks. Its was a lot of fun. We went to different places Wisconsin, Michigan,or Iowa. I wish I could remember the families I stayed with. It would be so nice to see and talk to them. Praise God for people who open their homes to us broken children and show us that there is hope and a better live than what we live. Thank you for the memories,
    Gloria

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    1. This is news to me, Gloria. I had no idea you visited the country at a different address before arriving at the Longenecker house. Thanks for the shout out to a worthy program.

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  4. Your mother and Ruthie showed their loving hearts and creative spirits in these stories — as usual.

    As you know from reading BLUSH, Vicky Martinez, our “Fresh Air girl” visited each summer, 1954-1961. In some ways, her story was the impetus for writing about my childhood. Here’s a blog post showing her picture for anyone interested: http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2013/01/23/the-girl-who-opened-up-my-world-a-birthday-tribute-to-vicky/

    A wonderful program. Not perfect. But I think it does help people who ordinarily have little or no interaction learn about life in each others skin.

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    1. I remember well reading Vicky’s story in BLUSH, and from the link I see you tantalized readers with a blog post before your book was published. As I write this I remember observing her lovely Hispanic eyes; I can see why she endeared herself to you and your family in other ways too. The two of you – good times and high spirits on a Pennsylvania farm.

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  5. Marian — Oh my gosh, I loved reading the unedited stories from your mom! I learned of the Fresh Air program when I read Shirley Hershey Showalter’s book, BLUSH. I’m so glad to know that it remains alive and well to this day!

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    1. Yes, Mom’s letters – though not usually grammatically correct her expressions are always fresh, sometimes invented. Therein lies the charm, I guess.

      I had no idea until I checked out the website that the Fresh Air program had such longevity: 1877 –> 2015 would make it 138 years old in fact!

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  6. What a wonderful initiative started so long ago Marian! Bless your dear mother for taking those dear children in. The letters were very amusing – I laughed! How lovely to keep the letters! Thank you for this delightful post. Next week (made note in diary, we’re away from tomorrow to the bush back on Sunday) I will investigate to see if there’s such a programme in SA.

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    1. I’m imagining your laughter from South Africa, Susan.

      This letter was mixed in with my Trip West memorabilia which I blogged about in June. Otherwise, I may not have it to post here. I certainly don’t remember Mother talking about this afterwards, so I’m glad to have a record here. Let me know what you find out about investigating such a program where you live.

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  7. Yes, I remember the Fresh Air program that the Menn. Church had…… our family didn’t get involved since there were eight of us children we had a “house full” plus my parents moved every two years so it just wasn’t practical. I enjoy reading the experiences your mother wrote about. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. That’s certainly understandable. Eight is a quiver-full. I’m thankful that you can enjoy this story vicariously. As you can tell, I was grown (probably 22 or 23) when my mother wrote this story and sent it in a letter to me in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s always nice to see you here in the comment column, Bertha!

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  8. We never had Fresh Air children either but they come down here to the Shenandoah Valley every summer too and Stuart’s cousins and 2nd cousins host some and bring them to reunions and picnics. My parents participated in hosting “foreign students” as we called such then, which was very enriching for all of us, even if a guest or two sometimes left us disappointed (and we them, I’m sure.)

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    1. When our kids became teenagers, we listed our names in the Mennonite Your Way directory. Most were foreign exchange students. They were happy to have free over night lodging and breakfast, and our kids could meet kids from other cultures, mostly western Europe.

      We never kept in contact for very long, but I have good memories of the experience.

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  9. How lucky you are to have kept hand written letters of you Mum. Her warmth and sense of humour flow through. So clever to deal with a sad child and to cry along with her what could they do but laugh …my Dad would have done something just like that .
    What a wonderful project your family was involved with and is still going on today . There are so many children out there crying out for fresh air and freedom . If each and every one of us privileged could just give one Child the opportunity we’d feel we’d landed.
    Cherryx

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    1. You say, “we’d feel we’d landed.” Cherry. So descriptive. We don’t have such an expression over here, but I can easily guess what you mean. Nice to see you in the comment column again. I’m glad always we can chat here.

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  10. I love your mom’s style, Marian. How wonderful that these letters were saved. I learned of the Fresh Air children through Shirley Showalter’s memoir Blush. I don’t recall that any such program existed in our area. Maybe Iowa was too far from the big cities.

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    1. In retrospect, I love how Mom talked too. She never followed a script and made up her own lexicon of expressions, often borrowing from PA Dutch. I hope to weave some of those into my memoir. I learned from Gloria’s comment above that as an inner-city Chicago girl, she went to homes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. As you say, maybe the program didn’t exist in your area or at the time.

      I’m so glad we both grew up country. I didn’t anticipate that our way of life would disappear so soon or that we’d have social media to keep these memory sparks alive. Always glad to see your smile here. Thanks, Carol.

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    1. The do-gooders probably thought that they were helping out poor city kids, and they were. However, the learning flowed both ways. I remember running my hand over Cheeno’s kinky-haired head, innocently curious about what such hair felt like. He didn’t seem to resist and I immediately got my answer. As another commenter mentioned, we learned a little bit about life in each others’ skin.

      The program is still viable, and I think there is a link on the post if you’re curious about more details. Always great to see you here, Rebecca.

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  11. This is a precious, delightful post, Marian. Especially the excerpts from your mother about the crying and the leaving. The Church of the Brethren had a similar open-hearts, open-homes summer program, especially for children who also needed tutoring during summer vacations in order to catch up to grade levels. It was gift for everyone and many friendships were forged.

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    1. Ah, another initiative to help deserving kids. Do you remember the name?

      Thanks for reminding me of your Anabaptist origins. Thanks too for adding your nuggets of knowledge to the mix. Always appreciated, Marylin.

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  12. What a testament to the openness of your family. How terrific for you to have these experiences and new friends as a child. Thank you for another inspiring post, Marian. You always surprise and delight me.

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    1. My parents provided a great summer experience for Fresh Air kids, but more importantly they enriched the lives of women and children in another initiative called New Life for Girls by opening their home on weekends, so mothers in the program could see their children. Gloria, who frequently comments here, was one of those grateful women.

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    1. Mom was so modest as were many women 50 years ago, especially Mennonite woman. To tell the truth, I laughed again at the second part of the letter. Mom never put on airs – told it like it is/was! Thanks, Marie. 😉

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