SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS
We are very happy to share our September story written by Monica Sargent about her enduring friendship with her friend, Susan. Monica describes the way in which she and Susan met through the Fresh Air Fund and the many ways in which they have maintained their strong connection over thirty years as each of their lives has changed. Starting out as host Monica and guest Susan, these two women came from very different backgrounds and met at very different points in their lives. Connecting and learning from each other, they have developed a strong mother–daughter bond in the midst of a deep and caring friendship.
Note: The name of Monica’s friend has been changed to protect her privacy.
Monica Sargent is a retired education professional who began her career as a high school English teacher and went on to work with Trio Programs in VT for 44 years. She lives in Burlington and summers 20 miles away at her camp on Lake Champlain. She has 3 adult children, 2 sons and a daughter, two daughters-in-law, and two grandsons. She was a first-generation college student, having earned an undergraduate degree at Johnson State College and a Masters & Certificate of Advanced Studies at UVM. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington where she sings in the choir and serves on the Racial & Immigration Justice Teams. Monica hosted three different children from the Fresh Air Fund, but only had a lasting relationship with one.
Monica’s Story: Fresh Air Friendship
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Fresh Air Fund, I will provide a brief overview from their website.
“Since its founding in 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, a not for profit youth development organization, has provided free life changing summer experiences in the outdoors to more than 1.8 million children from New York City’s underserved communities.”
My original motivation in becoming a host family was both personal and consistent with the goals of the Fresh Air Fund. In 1989, I was raising two boys as a single parent in a joint custody arrangement. My work in a federally funded Trio Program at Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), called Talent Search, which served in school youth, provided me with the summers off. Through this work and previous assignments in other Trio programs, Student Support Services at UVM, and Upward Bound at Lyndon State College, I knew the transformative nature of a positive adult relationship and role model/mentor to an aspiring youth.
On a personal level, I wanted to provide my sons with a friend of a differing background, and in requesting a female child, someone who they could relate to as a sister in a big brother sort of way. For me, it was to experience a mother/daughter relationship. Susan came to us for her first two week visit in the summer of 1989 when she was 9, going on 10. She was younger than my sons, Sam, 10, and Gabe, 14, going on 15. Thinking back on it now, what an overwhelming and intimidating adventure it must have been for this shy, little girl who had lived her life to date in an apartment in a housing project in the borough of Queens. It was her grandmother’s apartment, where she lived with her mother, who was 15 when Susan was born, and her sister, a year younger. The sisters had different fathers, neither of whom her mother had married. I recall Susan asking that first summer how old I was. I asked her how old she thought I was. She asked me the age of my older son, Gabe. When I replied 14, she guessed my age to be 29. For her, being a parent at 15 was the norm as it was her mother’s age when she was born and she had used that as a base in guessing my age. I was 38.
So, how did we fill the two weeks that she spent with us? Susan’s favorite memories included swimming lessons at Leddy Beach on Lake Champlain. Her only previous swimming experience was in a NYC municipal pool. UVM provided a full day program for host families and their fresh air guests which offered both learning experiences and planted the seed for going to college. Susan recalled that she especially liked the science experiments. We went to parks, we took hikes, we paddled a canoe, we visited farms where Susan got to milk a cow. We even spent the night at our family hunting camp located deep in the woods on Beldon Pond in my hometown of Johnson. We had to hike in, the water was from a spring, there were gas lights, and an outhouse. Now that was “fresh air” and an experience that took a bit of bravery on my part, especially since I was reading the haunting Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the time. We went to museums, state parks, ball games and often the Fresh Air Fund provided free passes. We also visited my extended family and Susan was likely surprised to meet my brother, Don, and his wife, Lucille, a black woman originally from Jersey City, who were married more than 20 years by then. The time flew by and I bid Susan a tearful goodbye at the end of her stay.
She returned the next year when I volunteered to be a chaperone on the bus from NYC. The Fund flew the chaperones to New York, paid for our overnight stay, and we met the buses at the Port Authority Bus Station the following morning for the trip to VT where we could experience the kids’ trip. Susan says she appreciated returning to be with the same family each summer and fondly recalls the bus rides with the welcomes on arrival and the sad goodbyes on departure. In 1992 when I remarried, I was able to extend Susan’s stay so she could attend the wedding. She wore a vintage white graduation dress that had been mine. Susan’s annual visits continued until her teens brought the opportunity for summer earnings through the Summer Youth Employment Program.
When these work opportunities interrupted her annual visits, I would sometimes buy her a bus ticket to visit on a holiday or school vacation. Susan’s mother and sister moved into their own apartment when Susan was 13. She chose to stay on with her grandmother, appreciating the stable environment she provided. My son once asked Susan what it was like to live in Queens. She replied, “Queens isn’t so bad. In Queens, people get beat up but, in the Bronx, people get shot.” Again, a very different reality.
Beginning the year of her first visit and continuing to the present, I have remembered Susan on her birthdays and at Christmas with cards and gifts. As she got older that included all the books I could find by Jamaica Kincaid, who taught at Bennington College and lived in southern VT. Now, it also includes her son.
With her high school graduation approaching, Susan already had her sights set on going to college. I learned that the NY state grant award had to be used within the SUNY system. Susan and I met in southern VT, where my in-laws lived, following a bus ride from NYC. Over the next 2 days, we visited SUNY-Albany and SUNY-Plattsburgh. She preferred SUNY-Plattsburgh, perhaps influenced by its proximity to Burlington and location near Lake Champlain. Susan shared recently that she wanted to get away from pavement. On the NY end, Susan took care of admission and financial aid applications. She graduated from Washington Irving High School in 1998. My sister, Carmine, joined me in attending Susan’s graduation. Susan’s father worked at the front desk of a hotel near Penn Station, where we arrived by train for the event. He got us a discounted hotel room and treated us all to lunch after the ceremony, driving us in a borrowed limousine. Susan began her studies at SUNY Plattsburgh that summer through their Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a state funded college transition program modeled after Trio. She lived on campus for the first two years and shared off campus apartments near campus during her third and fourth year. I visited Susan a few times during her college years, though by then I was raising my own daughter in my second marriage. I recall a time when her college boyfriend, after meeting me asked Susan who I was. She replied, “That’s my mama.” He asked, quite surprised, “You mean you’ve got a honky mama?!”
Susan’s grandmother passed away at age 70, when she was 20. Despite this loss during her college years, Susan managed to graduate in 4 years in 2002 with a degree in Elementary Education. Many family members made the trip north to Plattsburgh to attend and celebrate her graduation. Again, we all went out for a meal after and this time I picked up the tab.
As the years passed, I continued to maintain contact with Susan. When I visited NYC, we would connect for a meal or a museum visit. One year she treated me to dinner at the famed Carmine’s off Times Square. This occurred before either of my adult sons had treated me to dinner. She had begun working with the NYC Education Department and earned a Master’s in Education at CUNY-Lehman within 5 years of her undergraduate degree, as required by all NY education professionals. She’s now an Instructional coordinator with 18 years of experience, working remotely from her home in Dover, Delaware.
Susan became a parent in 2012 with the birth of her son, fathered by her college boyfriend. Though he has a fatherly relationship with Susan’s son, she did not marry him nor do they live together. I first met Susan’s son as a toddler, when I connected with them in VA where her sister lived while serving in the military. I was on my way south to Savannah, GA where my daughter Alice attended college. We had lunch in NYC in 2018, where I was attending a national conference. We discussed her and her son visiting VT in the summer but it took a few years to make that a reality. In 2020, Susan was able to purchase a home in Dover, Delaware. She shared that she’s paying $100 more per month for a 4 bedroom, 2 ½ bath home with a garage and an in-ground pool than she paid for a 1 BR apartment in the Bronx with no parking. She is not only a first-generation college graduate but also a first-generation home owner.
The VT visit came to be this summer when Susan and her son visited July 6-10 and stayed with me at my lakeside camp. We called on my brother and his wife, now married 57 years. We took a scenic cruise on The Spirit of Ethan Allen. We visited the ECHO Lake Champlain Science Center and picked up my farm share at the Intervale Community Farm. We took a drive to Stowe through Smugglers Notch and had a picnic. We visited Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury Center, which Susan’s son had always wanted to do. They attended two events with me, a friend’s poetry reading and an annual picnic of residents on the road where I have my summer camp, both where they were the only people of color in attendance. In the evenings, after her son went to bed, Susan and I hung out and talked as a mother and daughter do. On their last full day in VT, we took the ferry to Plattsburgh so Susan could show her son the university where she had graduated 20 years earlier. His dad is also a SUNY-Plattsburgh graduate. She wrote recently, “Thanks again for steering me into SUNY schools because it’s one of the reasons I’m now debt free. You have really made a big impact in my life.”
She showed him her dorm, her off campus apartments and favorite eateries downtown. On the ferry, her son, now almost 10, the age at which his mother shared her first two-week Fresh Air Fund visit in VT with our family, reached out and held my hand, seeming to secure our new friendship. When I delivered them to the Burlington airport, I had tears in my eyes like I did when I bid Susan goodbye as the bus departed for NYC all those years ago. We agreed to make this an annual visit, a second generation of fresh air fun and friendship..