For the past five years the Department of Tourism has been participating in the US-based Fresh Air Fund, to offer underprivileged children in New York City the chance to venture outside the city and out of the country, often for the first time in their lives. The non-profit organisation has been sending city children on free summer vacations for over 130 years. It was only when Cayman Airways launched its service to JFK, however, that the Cayman Islands became involved in the programme.
It is thanks to the participation of various local families who open up their homes to these children, that a number of youngsters get the opportunity to experience a very different way of life, here in the Cayman Islands.
The Godfreys are one such family who have welcomed Fresh Air Fund children into their home and into the family.
“We hosted two kids, Malik and Derrick, roughly the same age as our boys. Both were inner city kids who came from caring families. The kids fit right in, as if they were always part of the family,” recalls Michael Godfrey, husband and father of two.
During their stay in the Cayman Islands the Department of Tourism arranges a fun-filled and educational itinerary for the children in association with tourism partners. A far cry from life in the city, young New Yorkers have the opportunity to visit Stingray City, snorkel the Kittiwake, explore the underwater world on the Atlantis submarine, get up close and personal with wildlife at the Turtle Farm and the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and much more.
For the children who come down to Cayman during the summer break, it’s more than an opportunity to enjoy the sun, sea and beaches. It’s an experience that opens their eyes to a wider world.
“I think the kids learned that there are families in many places that are willing to welcome them into their homes and share their way of life with them, and enjoy doing so. They have learned there is a whole new, different life outside New York City,” says Godfrey. The experience benefits both guests and hosts, however. Godfrey had worked as a counsellor at Camp Hidden Valley in Fishkill, New York back in 1985 and it was that experience that encouraged him to open his home up for the Fresh Air Fund programme.
“We as a family were thrilled and excited to be able to offer our home to the boys and it taught our boys to never take their lives here in Cayman for granted. Everyone needs to be thankful that we are able to enjoy such a beautiful lifestyle on a daily basis. We would definitely do this again,” he says.
More recently, a reciprocal arrangement has been established and this summer will mark the third year that a number of Caymanian children aged between 8 and 12, will be selected to travel to a summer camp in New York. Only children whose families would otherwise be unable to afford such an opportunity are considered.
Last year Jonassi McLean, then 11, was one of those selected to travel to New York. Jonassi lives with his grandmother, Theodora Ebanks, in Bodden Town. He is one of four children in her care, one of whom suffers from leukaemia and has to be taken to Florida every two to three months for treatment. Ebanks herself is unable to work at present due to a disability so it would be financially impossible for her to take all four children on vacation herself.
Just as outings and activities are organised for children visiting Cayman, Jonassi along with children from Cayman and other Caribbean Islands spent time at a summer camp in New York state and also visited the city. At the camp, Jonassi says, they sang songs, made new friends and learned new things. He recalls seeing a hawk, fishing and swimming in the lake.
“He enjoyed the Broadway show, one of the outings they went on,” says his grandmother. “And he also enjoyed staying in a hotel, which was somewhat different for him. I guess it had air conditioning which he is not accustomed to.”
His grandmother adds, “It was more than a privilege for him to go. I really think he benefitted from the experience.”