By Julie Huss
---- — LONDONDERRY — The welcome signs were ready.
Michael Champeno, 14, held a sign that read, “Welcome home, Marquis, 8 years in a row!” as he waited for the bus to stop.
Marquis Baggett, 17, is spending his eighth summer with the Champeno family of Derry, part of the Fresh Air Fund.
Every year, families in the area welcome Fresh Air Fund children for a summertime visit. About 40 youth arrived last week.
Once Michael and Marquis saw each other, it was instant friendship all over again. For Lorraine Champeno, it’s like welcoming a member of the family.
Rain kept many families inside their vehicles or in nearby Burger King as the bus pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot. But once the bus stopped, everyone was ready to greet the city visitors with signs and balloons.
Some were first-time visitors. But others, like Marquis, are veterans of the program and already very familiar with their host families.
Champeno said her Hampshire Drive neighborhood puts out the welcome mat every summer when Marquis arrives.
That includes a first night home meal of all Marquis’ favorites, including meatballs, sausage, and macaroni and cheese.
“Anything with meat, he loves meat,” she said.
Getting involved with the Fresh Air Fund has been a positive experience for the entire family, Champeno said, especially for her son, an only child who enjoys having an older “brother” around during the summer.
Both Michael and Marquis have grown not only in inches since the Fresh Air relationship began, but also in maturity and interests.
The first year, Champeno said her son and Marquis were very young and had to find that comfortable zone as summer “brothers.”
As years passed, the New York boy became more and more integrated into the family and now is welcomed every summer by the extended family, too.
The relationships extend beyond the summer.
Families often stay in touch with their Fresh Air children all year long, talking on the phone, and exchanging email and letters to stay together in spirit, if not in person.
Many families find their hosting experiences so rewarding they invite the same children to stay with them year after year.
Heather Martel is the Strafford and Rockingham County Fresh Air Fund contact and has hosted children through the program.
She welcomed back 10-year-old Johanna Calderon home for the fourth year.
Martel said the children who come to the area through Fresh Air want to spend time away from the city and find that connection with their host families.
“It’s just to have them be a part of the family,” she said. “To be away from the concrete sidewalks.”
Martel’s daughter, Elliana, 11, was excited to be spending another summer with her city friend.
“We like to swim,” she said.
Jen Michaud of Derry was hosting a Fresh Air Fund child for the first time.
“I read an article in a newspaper and wanted to try it,” she said.
Jordan Jones, 12, is spending his fourth summer with the Mahon family of Derry.
He loves his local family.
“Because they care about me and I love them,” he said.
For Champeno, she hopes the relationship will continue with Marquis even after he turns 18 in November and reaches the Fresh Air Fun cut-off age. She would love to have him consider attending college closer to Derry.
“But right now, we don’t want to think about (it ending),” she said. “We don’t want to think that would be the end of it.”
Champeno said Marquis has made it a point through the years to keep every poster Michael ever made heralding his arrival in Derry.
“He always says he wants a poster,” she said. “And he keeps every one.”
Marquis tried to think of a few words to describe the Champenos and said that was difficult.
“Loving, caring, cooking, of course,” he said. “There are a lot of good words.”
Since 1877, almost 2 million children from urban areas have been served as part of the program.
For information about the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshair.org.