NORTH YARMOUTH — Nine years ago, Raynae Chance arrived in Maine, met the Barr-Leggat family, celebrated her sixth birthday, caught frogs – and had a minor meltdown at the Yarmouth Clam Festival.
But the 15-year-old Bronx, New York, resident has been coming back every summer since, thanks to the relationship she formed with the Barr-Leggats, and to the Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns Program, which has sent her back each year.
Martha Leggat and her husband, Steve Barr, who have three children, became interested in the program after seeing a family member’s positive experience with a Fresh Air child. The Mountfort Road couple went through an interview, provided references, and agreed to house and background checks in order to become a host family.
Although she doesn’t remember much from her first visit, Chance does recall attending the Clam Festival, she said during an interview Monday with Leggat and her three children, Katherine, Elias and Tommy.
“I don’t remember what went on; I just know I wanted this laser gun toy,” Chance said with a smile, “and Martha wouldn’t buy it for me, so I threw a tantrum.”
“Yeah, that goes down in our Fresh Air lore,” Leggat said with a laugh. She noted that in fairness to Chance, a lot had been packed into her first two-week trip, including time spent with Elias catching snakes and frogs.
But clearly the experience was fun enough that Chance kept wanting to return, year after year, and her new Maine family was happy to have her. It’s now a tradition, with the youths immediately picking up each year where they’d left off the prior summer, Katherine said.
Many of Chance’s friends’ parents wouldn’t allow them to leave, she said, but her mother – who spent about 10 minutes on the phone with Leggat before the first trip – was more trusting. The two moms and their families got to meet last year, when Katherine ran a 5K in the Bronx.
“It is a real leap of faith for the parents,” said Leggat, a member of the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors.
Turning to Chance, she recalled, “You often said your mom wanted to provide you different life experiences.”
“I have a lot of things here that I don’t have back at home,” Chance said – for example, the family’s pet dog Sadie, a bigger house, larger spaces, and cleaner air.
Formed in 1877, the Fresh Air Fund has provided summer experiences and academic programs at no cost for nearly 1.8 million New York City children living in low-income neighborhoods, according to the organization. It sends nearly 4,000 children each summer to communities along the east coast of the U.S., and Ontario, Canada.
People can call Bethany Smart at 712-1640 or visit freshair.org to learn more about hosting a child in the Yarmouth area.
Chance said she has enjoyed cooking and swimming while in Maine, and the family encourages her to try other new activities and sports, such as golf, basketball and soccer.
Since Elias has gotten into gathering honey from beehives, that hobby may well be on the itinerary during this year’s visit, which concludes July 27.
“I feel like you always have one thing that you learn how to do” each year, Katherine said to Chance. “… It’s just amazing how willing she’s been to try new things. To think of me going to a New York City family when I was 6; even now I can’t imagine (doing) that.”
The learning goes both ways, with Chance’s creativity encouraging her Maine friends to try new things, too, the kids said – such as making a woodwork cityscape together last week.
“It’s interesting to talk about all the things that she faces living there, versus what we face,” Katherine said.
With Katherine going into 12th grade, and Elias into eighth, Chance fits right in between in 10th grade. Tommy is going into fifth.
The Fresh Air program stops funding visits after a child turns 18. But the family hopes Chance will still visit after that, although college and other expenses might make that tough for a while, she said.
But it’s clear that she’ll always have a home, and family, in Maine. And a means to get there.
“We’ll spring for the train ticket, and we can do the bus ticket, too,” Leggat assured her.
Raynae Chance, second from right, has enjoyed annual Fresh Air Fund visits to North Yarmouth for 10 years. Her host family includes Martha Leggat, left, and her children Elias, Tommy and Katherine.