Host families say they get just as much out of the experience as the visiting children.

Many children head to camps and activities away from their families for a few hours a day, or even a few weeks, each summer. But when you live year-round in an urban environment, without as much opportunity to spend time outdoors, the chance to join a family living in more rural areas can be an exciting experience.

The Fresh Air Fund, an independent, not-for- profit agency, offers free summer experiences to thousands of New York City children from low-income communities. Through The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns program, children apply to visit with volunteer host families along the East Coast and Southern Canada. Once placed, guests live with their family for a week in the summer, and have the chance to enjoy nature and the outdoors, away from the stresses of city life.

“Host families love children and enjoy adding a Fresh Air child to their family unit for one week in the summer,” said Stenie Gullans, a host and volunteer who serves as the Metrowest area chairperson for FAF. “I am blessed to get to know our Fresh Air children who come to Metrowest and our local host families are an inspiration to me. It is a special group of people who love children and who open their hearts to include another sweet child in their family.”

Families like Gullans’, who first began hosting in 2010, open their homes to a FAF guest and many bond quickly. Families often see guests return for multiple summers after the initial experience, and guests often stay for longer periods after their first summer. While the goal is to give the Fresh Air kids a fun, positive experience, Gullans says hosts come away equally as happy with the visit.

“They all agree that as much as they love enriching their inner-city friend’s life, it is they who become more enriched than they could ever have imagined,” said Gullans.

Families who want to host need to demonstrate that they have a safe home environment and a bed the child can have to themselves during their stay. The visit is often spent introducing FAF guests to the many joys of summer time in suburban and rural communities.

“All kids love to swim, so that is always a favorite activity,” explained Gullans. “Ice cream is a must as well! It’s important to remember that everything outside of city life is new for Fresh Air kids, so even just the simple pleasure of walking barefoot in the grass or enjoying a picnic outdoors is a special treat.”

FAF organizers will often also coordinate an area meetup during the week to give families and guests and opportunity to spend time together in a group. Gullans says it is a fun way for everyone to get to know each other and activities might include wiffle ball, shooting hoops, roasting marshmallows and sharing stories. Besides all of the fun, Gullans says the new friendships made during the visits are what many participants cite as the best reward.

“The biggest gifts are the friendships that are made for years to come,” she said. “Host kids have a special bond with their Fresh Air sisters and brothers and look forward to their visits every summer.”

Gullans encourages anyone interested in becoming a FAF host to inquire. More information about hosting is available on the Fresh Air Fund’s website at freshair.org.