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Shortly after her arrival in Londonderry on Tuesday afternoon, Olivia Braithwaite, 14, of the Bronx, N.Y., left, looks at all the goodies put into a tote bag for her stay in Derry for a couple of weeks with Mary MacDonald, 14, of Derry, right. Olivia has been visiting Mary for the last six summers as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.

LONDONDERRY | Seven-year-old Teghan Gregson held on tightly to her freshly painted, glittery sign with its bright lettering in blue and silver. The Chester girl and her family were waiting for a special guest and wanted to welcome them to town in style.

The Gregson family was one of many that came to Londonderry on Tuesday afternoon to welcome a bus full of Fresh Air Fund children arriving from New York City to spend part of their summer with host families in this area.

For Teghan, meeting with her new friend, Angelique Otero, 10, was a great way to kick off the summer.

Twenty-eight children arrived as part of the Fresh Air Fund program, which offers inner city youths a chance to leave the city and spend time in more rural and suburban communities around the country.

Some climbed off the bus for the first time; for others, it was a repeat trip to spend two weeks or more with a family they have grown to love over the years.

Mary MacDonald, 14, of Derry, has shared many secrets with Olivia Braithwaite, also 14, of the Bronx. When Braithwaite arrived, it was like the two had never stopped chatting, giggling, and discussing their lives. This is Olivia's sixth year visiting the area as part of the Fresh Air Fund.

"I really like being with Mary," Olivia said.

Lorraine Champeno, her husband Bill, and their 8-year-old son, Mike, also welcomed back an old friend. Marquis Baggett, 11, is spending his second summer vacation with the Derry family.

"The last time he was here, we couldn't get him out of the pool," Lorraine Champeno said, adding that Marquis will be spending three weeks with the family. "He decided he wanted to stay longer this year."

Champeno said getting involved with the Fresh Air Fund has been a positive experience for the entire family, especially her son, who enjoys having an older "brother" around for a few weeks in the summer. As for Marquis, he fits in like one of the family.

"We couldn't have asked for a better kid," Champeno said. "He helps with chores, and he and Mike are just unbelievable. They're awesome. They're tight. Last year, Mike cried when Marquis left."

Those friendships last beyond the few short weeks during a summer vacation. For Mary and Olivia, once the summer is over, the two continue to talk all year long on the phone to stay connected. Others send regular cards, letters, or e-mails to stay together in spirit if not in person.

Families find their hosting experiences so rewarding that more than 65 percent of all children are invited back to stay with them year after year.

Local Fresh Air Fund chairwoman Mary Merrill is also a host herself, welcoming Khareem Brockington back to Derry for a month-long visit. This is his sixth year visiting as part of the program.

"I like to have fun," Khareem said. "We do camping and swimming, and sometimes we go to a movie."

For Khareem and all of the others, it's a chance to play, roll in the grass, and get away from the city for a while during school vacation. For the families, it's a chance to help someone and share a family experience with a child who might not otherwise get that experience.

It's the simple joys of life in the country, or an easy day spent on a beach or by a pool that makes the summer special, according to Katie Stuart of Londonderry, who will have Rashawn Baldwin, 8, of Brooklyn for a three-week visit.

"We just hang out by the pool | nothing really too special," she said. "It's just really fun."



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