WESTBOROUGH, Mass. – Linda Sharkey will always remember when a young boy named Shakiem took a cannon ball into the pool she attends in her Westborough community. Watching Shakiem, who stayed with the Sharkeys for two weeks every summer for years, jump off off the diving board was a moment Sharkey will never forget.
Each year, thousands of children from disadvantaged areas of New York City come to central Massachusetts and throughout the northeast for one or two weeks as part of the Fresh Air Fund.
Host families live in suburban or rural communities from Virginia to Canada. First-time Fresh Air children can be 6 to 12-years-old. Children re-invited to the program can continue until age 18.
The Fresh Air Fund, an independent, non-profit agency, provides transportation and arranges for payment of any medical expenses for uninsured children and provides liability insurance for host families.
Shakiem was living in the "heart of Harlem," said Sharkey, who is a host and volunteer for the Fresh Air Fund. He grew up in an area where it's not safe to go out at night to play ball or hang out with friends. Shakiem began visiting the Sharkey family when he was 9.
"He is the nicest kid, ever," Sharkey said.
Like many Fresh Air kids, Shakiem enjoyed trips to Chuck E. Cheese's and candlepin bowling. Most of all, he loved the water and loved to visit the pool when he stayed with the Sharkeys. The problem was, he didn't know how to swim.
But one summer, according to Linda Sharkey, Shakiem told her, "I'm going off that diving board."
He proceeded to jump off the board and into the pool, and started swimming, something he learned to do at a community pool one winter in Harlem.
"He wanted to be part of the group and go off the diving board," Sharkey said. "He did a cannon ball off the diving board. It was the biggest thrill."
The fact that Shakiem took it upon himself to learn to swim so he could enjoy the pool with his Fresh Air family "meant he really cared," Sharkey said.
"What an accomplishment for him," Sharkey said. "It just made my heart feel so good."
Shakiem graduated from high school in 2011, but still keeps in touch with the Sharkey family through Facebook. There are plenty of other children who are looking for host families so they can enjoy a summer out of the city.
The Fresh Air program can trace its roots to 1877. More than 1.7 million children have participated. For more information, including on how to become a host family, contact Theresa Kane at (978) 618-0676 or email Theresa.email@example.com. Contact the Fresh Air Fund at (800) 367-0003 or visit them at www.freshair.org.
"What was really great about having a child and having a good week is you look forward to the next year," Sharkey said. "You're giving them a chance to be safe at night. To go outside, to catch frogs and play."