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Fresh Air Fund opens eyes and worlds for city kids, host families

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Fresh Air Fund opens eyes and worlds for city kids, host families

SCARBOROUGH —The Fresh Air Fund told Carrie Wood Peabody that the 6-year-olds are sometimes too afraid to board the bus and make the trip from their homes in New York City to their host families.

So she was somewhat amazed when Destin Rivera from the Bronx not only came bounding off of the bus last week, but threw his arms around her, her husband, Kerry, and 6-year-old son, Brimwin, as they stood holding a big welcome sign.

Through the Fresh Air Fund, which has provided free vacations for 1.7 million young people from 6 to 18, Rivera will be staying with the Peabodys in their Scarborough home for two weeks – 14 days of new experiences and new understanding for all of them.

The two boys are already fast friends who have swapped one Croc sandal in a sort of modern-day blood-brother ritual so each wears one blue and one yellow as they run along the sand at Ferry Beach.

"I have someone to play with every single day," Brim said happily before taking off after Rivera, who had started to dig clams near the water.

The first day Rivera came, he carried an unshelled walnut around with him like a security blanket, Wood Peabody said. By the next day, he'd come out of his own shell and left the other behind.

It was harder to get him to take off Kerry's biking glove – he even wore it to bed.

Since he's been in Scarborough, Rivera has learned how to catch frogs, salamanders, beetles and worms; he has walked in the woods; splashed in the ocean waves and roasted marshmallows – all for the very first time.  

The family dog, a labradoodle named Sophie Mae, terrified him when he arrived, but within a day or two, he was laying his head against her soft fur.

At first Rivera was afraid of the crabs in the tidal pools at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, but now he shows other children how to pick them up, Wood Peabody said.

The family has visited the Children's Museum in Portland with him, played board games and read stories every night.

But there are some things that he may not learn – or unlearn – in the two weeks he has in Maine.

Even at his young age, Wood Peabody said she sees the negative influence of a less-than-ideal neighborhood environment that sometimes comes out in reactions or comments that are much older and more street-wise than Rivera's 6 years.

The whole family went to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth, where someone had sprayed graffiti on a wall.

"To him it meant a gang was there," she said. He wouldn't go near the wall.

As soon as Rivera enters the house he locks the doors, Wood Peabody has noticed. And he's nervous at every stop light.

Once the family left their bicycles out overnight. The next morning, when he realized they'd been left out, he was surprised to find they were still there, and said where he lived, a gang would have taken them and used them to sell drugs.

But what really struck Wood Peabody was Rivera's delight in his own bedroom.

When he was first shown to his room, he looked at the twin bed and asked who would be staying with him. He'd never had his own bed before and was used to sleeping as many as four to one bed in his grandmother's apartment, where he lives with his mother and two older brothers.

Rivera's visit is the first time the Peabody family has taken in a Fresh Air Fund child, but Wood Peabody said it won't be the last.

"I definitely would do it again – I would have the same child again," she said.

And she acknowledges it will be difficult for her "to let go – difficult to know what he's going back to; what's going to happen to him."

She knows when it's time for him to leave, she and her family will smile and wave, as they're advised to do by the organization. But it won't be easy for them to say goodbye.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.