Eleven months out of the year, Jeff and Shelli Smith are the proud parents of three teenagers.
But each July, they add one more to their brood, even if it’s only for a week at a time.
“Miguel is like one of our children now,” Shelli said of the 12-year-old boy from Queens who’s been visiting the family of five at their Back Creek neighborhood home since 2011. “His visits are the highlight of our summer and I would imagine he’ll be a part of our lives forever.”
The Smiths are one of seven families between Bear and Dover who belong to the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit organization that provides more than 4,000 children from New York City with free summer excursions to small town communities in 13 states and Canada.
But Shelli, a dental hygienist who serves as the chairperson of for the Fresh Air Fund in central Delaware, said she and her husband weren’t always convinced they wanted be a host family.
In fact, it took several years of pleading from their now 14-year-old son Jeffrey before they were willing to give it a try.
“At first, we thought it might be too much with vacation and camp schedules,” she said. “Now I only wish we had started sooner, because it’s touched all of our lives, especially knowing that we’ve helped to make a difference in Miguel’s life.”
The Smiths said the shy child who first arrived at their home three summers ago now calls them on an almost weekly basis, just to check in or even for help with his homework.
“We were kind of worried when he first got here because he didn’t speak a whole lot of English and he was really quiet,” recalled16-year-old Julia. “But he really started to warm up to us when we went out for ice cream.”
Still it took some time for Miguel Figuero, who could not be reached to comment, to adjust to some of the aspects of suburban life that the Smiths say they simply take for granted.
For instance, Jeff, who works for Barclay’s in Wilmington, said he remembers Miguel asking about the park behind the family home.
“I said, ‘That’s not a park, buddy,’” he said. “It was our backyard, but to him, looking at our swimming pool and yard, it looked like park.”
It wasn’t long, however, until Miguel began to embrace the slower pace of life at his new home away from home.
Page 2 of 2 - “He loves going to the grocery store and the post office,” Shelli said. “It’s the things we take for granted, like lightning bugs and s’mores.”
Jeff said Miguel’s enthusiasm for watching 17-year-old Emily’s softball games or Julia’s plays at the Premier Center for the Arts has had an effect on the whole family.
“We’ve always tried to do a lot in our community, and it’s something we’ve tried to pass onto our kids,” he said. “But you really don’t realize how good you have it until you see it through someone else’s eyes.”
Shelli said her family can’t wait until Miguel arrives at the end of July for his third summer in a row.
“It’s been an incredible experience and something I would absolutely encourage other families to try,” she said. “You do this thinking you’re doing a good thing for someone else, and then you’re shocked by how much you learn from the process.”
To learn more about the Fresh Air Fund or how to become a host family, visit www.freshair.org, the Facebook page for Fresh Air Fund of Middletown or email Shelli at email@example.com.