How a legacy nonprofit hopes to share its New York summers with migrant children

For nearly 150 years, the Fresh Air Fund has been a staple in providing nature-filled summers to underprivileged New York City youth.

Lisa Gitelson is CEO of the Fresh Air Fund.

Lisa Gitelson is CEO of the Fresh Air Fund. Courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund

For nearly 150 years, underserved urban youth across New York City have enjoyed nature-filled summers thanks to the Fresh Air Fund. Having provided free summer programs in New York’s Hudson Valley to nearly 1.8 million youths, the Fresh Air Fund aims to not only introduce outdoor experiences but to foster lasting mentorships that instill growth and resiliency among attendees. 

In addition to the 6 sleepaway camps offered by the Fund, students can access a wealth of year-round supportive programming, from various after-school activities to academic readiness programs, such as SAT prep and college counseling. Through its Breaking Barriers initiative, the Fund aims to tackle the scope of its gendered activities by making its sports and creative classes more inclusive, inciting many returning students to take on leadership roles such as camp counselors. In response to the recent influx of asylum seekers, the Fund aims to welcome migrant children to its summer program, outreaching to migrant parents in shelters who struggle to find permanent housing.

New York Nonprofit Media caught up with the Fund’s CEO Lisa Gitelson, former assistant executive director and legal counsel for The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, to learn about her goals to advance advocacy and youth empowerment at the Fund. 

What are the eligibility requirements for a student who wants to join the Fresh Air Fund?

You have to be between 8 and 18 – if you're older than that, we'd love to hire you to work in one of our summer programs. You need to live in the five boroughs, and we're proud to say that we only serve the five boroughs. Our goal is to serve New York City's youth, and if families are eligible for food assistance, they’ll be eligible for our services without cost. All of our services are without cost.

How has both the demand and demographics changed over the years?

Since I've been here, I would say without question. One of the big changes is, everybody in New York knows, we've seen a great influx of migrants. So how do we serve the migrant community? There are some challenges that we really need to address head on. Prior to two years ago, most of the families we worked with either spoke English, Mandarin or Spanish. So, we have staff that speak all three of those languages fluently, so that we can easily meet and discuss with families about the services we offer. At this point, we're using a lot more translation services and making decisions about whether we need another language to incorporate into our work. For our migrant families in New York City, presently, [one issue] is for them to have housing. If they do not have permanent housing at the end of 60 days, they move to another site. So we need to be able to follow up with them and stay in touch, even if they are not staying in the same physical location. We’re also working with migrant families to help them feel safe and comfortable about sending their youth to our programs. It can feel disconcerting to many New York City families to have a child leave for some period of time, and I think especially for our migrant families who are feeling unanchored to do something like this.

Do the needs of migrant children compete with those of existing underserved kids in New York City? Or is there enough room for everyone to join the program?There’s 100% room for everybody. I think all youth benefit from the things that we're offering without question. The things we offer are things I believe every single parent in New York wants for their youth. And so in no way do I see them as conflicting, they're just another part of the cohort that we'd like to be serving. 

Is this sustainable in the long-term?

I 100% feel like it's sustainable to do. The Fresh Air Fund is almost 148 years old, and the demographic we've served changed over the years, all the time. And we've always been able to change and address, we are committed to serving the youth of New York City as they change.

When we talk about the youth of New York City, a lot of urban youth seem pretty sedentary nowadays. Why are these nature filled summers more important now, given the mental health crisis following the pandemic?I think the outdoors are important. We have a tremendous amount of data and research that shows us why engaging in the outdoors is important for mental health and social emotional learning. For those of us who lived in the city during the pandemic, and felt like we didn't have as much access to the outdoors, I think a lot of us really learned how important it was to make sure we had it. We definitely find that the youth who engage in our programs feel more agency about the outdoors and nature. One of the things that's really important to us is not just that we have youth engaged in the outdoors, but that we also give our youth a sense of agency in the outdoor space in New York City. There's outdoor space, but it's not equitable. But there's year-round outdoor space all over New York City and we want our youth to feel like that space is theirs, so that when they're back in New York City after their summer experience, they're still engaging with the outdoors in ways that are meaningful and healthy for them.

Do these programs encourage children to join sports among other physical activities?Sure, it's sports, but it's also just the sense of, “I did something that it didn't know I could do,” and that gives you a lot of grit, resiliency and belief in yourself. 

Has the need increased since the pandemic?

For about two summers, two years, New York City families kept the children at home, worried that letting your child go outside felt dangerous, because it was dangerous. So we're kind of combating getting everybody past that feeling of like, letting my child leave home, which equates to the possibility of danger. We've worked really hard to both educate and be present to partner and discuss those kinds of concerns with our families.

I'm curious to learn about the college readiness benefits that children can gain from summers with the Fresh Air Fund?

Our Career Awareness Program is part of our summer camp, where you can participate year- round to understand what your options are after high school, which could include college, among other options. They have a lot of job shadowing in all different kinds of fields and mentors with whom they can talk to. They have tutors, who will work with them if they're applying to college, and we also have an SAT prep program. We also have our College Connections program, where we take kids to visit colleges, bring in speakers from colleges and assign youth mentors who are already in college. They can access these year-round programs by being part of our summer program.

I would love to learn a bit more about your transition from law into the Fresh Air Fund. How did your background inform your leadership style to run a nonprofit?

I am a lawyer, I always kind of joke that I never want people to know that. I love being a lawyer, and I've only worked in not-for-profit law. My whole background is in child welfare and youth development, and I consider myself extraordinarily privileged. My whole career has been either representing organizations like the Fresh Air Fund, where eventually I would transition to doing some more programming work and leadership roles. What I learned from being an attorney was how you advocate for those you serve and to remember that you're here in service. You're there for them, and it is really important as a leader to always remember that. My job is to listen, advocate for what they need and make real and true partnerships to get to where you want to be.Are any of the children you serve in foster care or involved in the juvenile justice system?Absolutely, it's a demographic that we serve. When I got to this job, one of the first things that I did was reach out to both ACS and to foster care agencies saying that I want to be available in every way. We’ve also reached out to different city components that serve children, and have also tried very hard to increase our footprint with any organizations that serve youth so that they know what we offer. We also made a concerted effort, and we're still making this effort to hire individuals who were involved in the foster care system or in the juvenile justice system to be counselors, when appropriate, because we'd love for the kids to see what can come next. 

How do students give back to the Fund?

About 30% of our staff that works with our kids during the summer are alumni, and we always believe that's part of the model. Last summer, we had a program with the CITs, the counselors in training, called Build to Thrive, which was a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania architectural school. The youth, in partnership with students from the school and our own maintenance staff, used reclaimed wood from all over our camps (about 2000 acres of land) to build chairs, signs and huge swings that six people could sit in. So the next summer, when they're no longer counselors in training, they’ll see a kid sitting in one of the chairs they’ve made and they’ll be able to say “we made that chair, this is our space.” I think it’s really important that we should have a sense of community that makes us feel important and strong.