Strapped into a blue life vest, 7-year-old Eli Figueroa pinched his nose and jumped into the shallow end of a backyard pool in Northwest Woods on Friday. The New York City boy was too scared, he said, to cannonball into the 9-foot deep end.
After a few minutes of splashing around and hollering whenever a bug flew by, he did just that—to his host mother Susan Benson’s delight.
Ms. Benson and her husband, Victor, are part-time East Hampton residents who have welcomed little Eli, sans front teeth, into their East End home for one week this summer through the Fresh Air Fund’s volunteer host family program. The effort matches city children from poor neighborhoods with families in rural and suburban communities throughout the Northeast. The goal is simple—to give these kids a summer vacation and a vibrant taste of nature.
Although it is their second summer with Eli, the Bensons have been involved with the Fresh Air program for 13 years. For a dozen of those years, they have hosted four different children, including Eli, who was their youngest when he arrived last year at age 6 and a half. Inspired by a piece in The New York Times, the Bensons—who also live in Manhattan, where they work in marketing, and who also just bought a winter condo in Florida—have devoted themselves to this cause. Ms. Benson is a volunteer chairperson on the East End.
“I just thought it was a great idea to give these inner-city kids that typically don’t get out into the country a chance to go on vacation,” Ms. Benson explained during a pre-swim interview last week in her airy, light-filled living room overlooking their bright blue rectangular pool on woodsy Ely Brook To Hands Creek Road. “I felt strongly that the Hamptons is such a spectacular place to begin with. I love seeing it through the eyes of a child.” As a New Jersey native, she said, she had a “magical childhood” summering at the Jersey Shore.
Eli, wearing a brown Scooby Doo T-shirt, raced to and fro while his host parents spoke, at times hiding behind a treasure-chest-like trunk at the top of a set of stairs. Later, he fiddled with some scallop shells in a glass bowl on the coffee table. The Bensons’ 2-year-old soft-coated Wheaten terrier, Nikki, gamboled about, squeaking away on a chew toy.
“Susan and I don’t have children together, so we thought it’d be a nice thing to do,” added Mr. Benson, noting how amazed he is at the adaptability of the children from the Fresh Air Fund. It is much easier than people envision, he said. “It is not life threatening or overly challenging. It’s a fun, interactive, engaging type of activity.”
The Bensons, like other host families, had to undergo extensive interviews and a background check as part of the process.
During the week ahead, Eli would be part of their everyday activities. If they go out to dinner, he goes too. If they take their 34-foot powerboat, the “Susan B,”—named after Ms. Benson and docked in Sag Harbor—out for a spin, he’ll go too, sometimes jumping in the bay with his life jacket and attached to a rope. They read up on kid-friendly activities in the newspaper and planned to visit the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton this year.
But Eli’s favorite summer activity above all, he said, is swimming in the pool. This year, his little sister, Eliana, 6 (he also has a 2-year-old sister, Delilah), who is vacationing with a Fresh Air Fund family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, apparently told him she had learned to swim, so the challenge is on to advance his water skills too.
Ms. Benson said she was surprised at how unafraid Eli seemed. Eli noted, however, that he was afraid of Chuckie, a possessed doll in the “Child’s Play” movies, even though he hadn’t seen the films. To overcome his fear, Ms. Benson suggested he think of his happiest moment.
“I thought of my seventh birthday,” he said, proudly recalling his cake and presents.
By week’s end, he would likely have many more memories from which to choose.