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Wednesday, February 21 News

Becoming more than 'summer siblings'

As the sun sunk toward Long Island Sound, the stakes of the volleyball game at Weed Beach increased.

No one was entirely sure of the score or who actually was playing or who was just standing with their toes in the sand, but there was one certainty: It was the all-boys Team Blue Tigers versus the all-girls Team Pink Fluffy Unicorns.

As Jah-Niaya Tucker served over the heads of her teammates and the net, Oliver Swift and Jaheim McLorrain dove for the ball to no avail as it landed in the soft sand.

Jah-Niaya, 11, and Jaheim, 10, are two of the 22 children who call New York City their home, except for the two weeks they spend in Darien as part of the Fresh Air Fund.

On July 17, Darien Fresh Air Fund families gathered around picnic tables, on playground equipment and on the shore at Weed Beach for a barbecue.

Since 1877, boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18 have been leaving their urban homes for two weeks of suburban living through the Fresh Air Fund. The children selected to participate in the program are from low-income neighborhoods from all five New York City boroughs.

In the late 1870s, a tuberculosis epidemic ravaged the crowded tenements and fresh air was considered to be a cure for the illness, according to Fresh Air Fund. In turn, the Rev. Willard Parsons of a small parish in Sherman, Pa., asked members of the congregation to open up their homes to the children of New York City, and with that, the Fresh Air Fund was created.

The program, in which Darien families have been participating for more than 50 years, has paired more than 1.8 million children with host families.

More than 4,000 children are spread across communities in 13 states from as far south as Virginia to as far north as Maine and Canada. Year after year, 65 percent of the children in the program return to their host families.

Jah-Niaya and Jaheim returned to Darien for their fourth year.

Though they had a learning curve with their respective families -- children learning to share their homes with someone new and adapting to life outside the city -- both look forward to returning to Darien.

"I like it here," said Jaheim, who is also known as "Anchor Arms" because of his muscles. "I like to swim. I like talking to my friends. I like talking to Teddy."

At that moment, Jaheim threw his arm around Ted Brennan, 11, who was snacking on pretzel sticks while sitting next to Jaheim. The two boys smile and break out in a fit of laughter before eating more of their food.

"Teddy's my summer brother," Jaheim said. "He's always there for me. I consider him more than a summer brother."

Ted, who is one of three, said Jaheim is more than just a summer brother and considers him an actual brother.

"I don't have a brother at home," Ted said. "So I like when he comes up."

The kids spend their two weeks together at the SoNo Field House summer camp, bowling, playing video games or swimming.

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The last is a favorite activity of Jaheim's, Karen Brennan said.

Four years ago, when Jaheim spent his first summer in Darien, he couldn't swim. For two weeks, Brennan, who once taught swimming, spent time with Jaheim in the family's pool and taught him, which she feels has been her greatest gift to him.

"Here, he gets to run around and, if he can, he wants to swim every single day of his life," Brennan said. "All he wants to do is swim."

His first summer with the Brennans, Jaheim also learned how to jump off the diving board "to great fanfare," Brennan said. "Everyone was clapping."

Welcoming Jaheim into their home has benefited the Brennan family, as well.

"We know we have a greater capacity to love and to give," Brennan said. "And he's getting this unique experience by being out here and being able to go to camp. He comes from a single-parent household and she's struggling to get by and she's doing an amazing job raising three sons, but it's hard, so he spends a lot of his summer inside playing video games and not getting outside time."

Jah-Niaya remembers her first summer in Darien four years ago. She was homesick, but was willing to stick it out for two weeks.

Now, she and her summer sister, Lily Johnston, 12, love spending their days together and going on adventures, one of which this year was to country-artist Taylor Swift's house. The two girls managed to take a picture in front of a sign that read "I knew you were trouble when you walked in. No trespassing," a homage to Swift's hit "I Knew You Were Trouble."

It took 10 minutes for the girls to figure out who would ask the security guard if they could take the picture, but, eventually, they teamed up and asked together.

"I really like having a partner for every day," Lily said.

"I come here and I play with Lily," Jah-Niaya said, gesturing to her summer sister, as she sits down next to her at a picnic table. "We play and we go to different places I haven't been, like we went to the beach in Rhode Island."

"Narragansett," Lily adds. "We went to Narragansett and we went surfing."

"I stood up on the board," Jah-Niaya said as a smile spread across her face.

During Jah-Niaya's second year at the Johnston house, Lily, who has an older sister, helped her with her division, a subject area that Jah-Niaya says gives her trouble.

To end her two weeks in Darien, Jah-Niaya participated in a dance show in Darien in front of her host family and her family from the Bronx.

Many organizations, Brennan said, will offer discounts for children in the Fresh Air Fund, like the SoNo Field House Great Day Summer Camp.

Brennan said Jaheim's arrival each summer is "seamless."

"He comes back like not a day has passed since the time he left before," Brennan said. "He's just such a member of our family. He knows our routine, we know his routine, so he just fits right in."

Three years ago, the Brennan family decided to share Christmas with not just Jaheim but also his family; both families spend a day together each year. The plan for the future is to invite Jaheim to Darien during February break to enjoy the snow.

"I can't imagine him not being with us," Brennan said. "I hope he always comes for a small or large period of time. He can come for as long as he wants."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583;@Meg_DarienNews