HARVARD -- Jeffrey Ren of Queens, N.Y., is nine years old and enters the fourth grade this fall. Ben Brown of Littleton Road in Harvard is turning 9 this week. He, too, enters the fourth grade this fall at Hildreth Elementary School.
This month, the two got to spend a week together as part of the Fresh Air Fund summer vacation program for disadvantaged youth from New York City from ages 6 to 18. About 5,000 inner city children take the trek annually to scattered suburban and rural destinations.
This was Jeffrey's second summer staying with Ben and his family, which includes younger brother Andrew, 5, and parents Pam and Jeff Brown. It's kismet, as Jeff Brown is himself a Queens native.
While Jeffrey is seasoned in the program, his younger brother took his first Fresh Air vacation to Maine this summer during the same week. "Because Jeffrey enjoyed it, his brother is now doing it," said Jeff Brown.
"I asked him this morning if the week went fast or slow," said Pam Brown on Sunday. "He said it went fast." Jeffrey Ren returned home on Tuesday, July 17.
In New York, Jeffrey and his family live in a crowded multifamily building in the bustling Flushing neighborhood of Queens. His father delivers Chinese food for a living, which means his father has a hectic and varied schedule, said Jeffrey.
Jeffrey's home in Flushing is about 40 blocks from where Jeff Brown grew up in Jackson Heights. "Jeffrey's subway passed my childhood apartment on his way
"Throughout my childhood, there used to be a television commercial about the Fresh Air Fund," recalled Jeff Brown. In the commercial, a little boy named "Timothy" is interviewed and asked if he has ever seen a farm.
"Yes," said the child. "On TV."
The commercial always concluded with the same hook, uttered by "Timothy."
"Would you take me there?"
Brown said it was an advertisement that ran so frequently, the kids at school used to joke about it. "It really stuck with me, first of all that there really were farms. I'm not sure I really understood that food came from places like that. I didn't much think about it."
But Jeff Brown was from a family that could afford vacations away from the city. Jeffrey Ren is not.
During a visit to his neighborhood health clinic, Jeffrey's family was made aware of the Fresh Air Fund's travel vacations. "They do intake for the Fresh Air Fund," said Pam Brown. Jeffrey was matched with the Browns last summer for his first Harvard vacation week.
The Fresh Air children hop off a bus in Littleton to meet their local families. Each child carries identification about who they are, their home and host families. The Fresh Air fund provides medical coverage for the visiting children and indemnification for qualifying host families.
"We talked about it for a few years before we did it," said Pam Brown.
"We had a friend in town who had a Fresh Air Fund child come visit," said Jeff Brown. When their own children were young, the couple decided to wait until their kids were a little older.
The pairing of Jeffrey with the Brown family has gone swimmingly. In fact, Jeffrey was treated to swimming and boating and fishing on Bare Hill Pond this summer.
"He was so excited to touch the water," said Pam Brown. "This year we went out on a canoe and went all the way to Blueberry Island. Jeffrey was much more of a pro this year, using the paddle and all. And he went fishing."
"I caught six fish," said Jeffrey.
"Jeffrey was better casting than I was," said Jeff Brown.
"Jeffrey asked to go fishing," said Ben. The Browns helped make it happen.
The kids visited Carlson Orchards for blueberry picking. "We made blueberry muffins and blueberry pie," said Pam Brown.
The family also visited Canobie Lake Park, as part of an organized Fresh Air Fund outing, to ride roller coasters and more. It was Jeffrey's first roller coaster ride. And on Monday, Jeffrey received from the Lowell Spinners a special one-day pass so he could attend their youth baseball camp with Ben.
Jeffrey's a Yankee's fan, though he hasn't had an opportunity to play baseball before. He was excited with the prospects of climbing onto a real baseball field to give it a go.
The Browns visited Jeffrey and his family in Queens in October. "We spent time and had lunch together," said Jeff Brown. "They took us to an authentic Chinese restaurant."
"And we went to a park with all the kids called Kissena Park which is a few blocks away," said Pam Brown. The family remembered it well.
Jeffrey was matched with the Browns in March 2011. Soon thereafter, Ben Brown began writing letters to Jeffrey before his visit in July 2011. "Come July, we felt we knew him," said Pam Brown.
Jeffrey was immediately impressed with the country setting. "You have a park!" exclaimed Jeffrey when seeing the kids' swing set and sandbox in the yard for the first time last year, recalled Jeff Brown.
"You have a big house!" was another utterance that made Jeff Brown chuckle. It's all a matter of perspective, he said.
The Browns took Jeffrey bicycle riding. "The idea of going a distance was amazing to him," said Jeff Brown.
The family went on a ride from Ayer to Pepperell on the Nashua River Rail Trail. "He'd only rode outside his (New York) house by the fence that keeps him safe," said Jeff Brown.
Jeffrey was coaxed to the table to talk to this reporter, having too much fun playing with Ben and Andrew. Asked what his favorite part of Canobie Lake Park was, "The roller coaster," Jeffrey said. "I wasn't scared. It was fun. I liked the dragon coaster and the corkscrew but I liked the corkscrew better."
When serving a snack to the kids, Pam Brown noted that Jeffrey is a "really good eater" though "I'm betting the foods we have are not a lot like what he eats at home."
Jeffrey didn't stop to give that comment any thought, diving into a plate of dumplings and chicken fingers. "I'd usually eat this whole bowl of dumplings myself." Ben and Andrew giggled.
Last year, Jeffrey talked a lot about his brother back home in New York City. This year, Jeffrey's thoughts were more "I wonder what my brother's doing right now" in Maine, said Jeff Brown. The brothers would have tall tales to share with one another when they returned to the city.
When asked what he would be doing over summer vacation if he hadn't visited the Browns, Jeffrey said "I have no idea. Go to Kissena Park I guess."
Jeffrey said he's hoping to return for a third year next summer. The Browns say it's likely and hoped to spread the word to other local families.
Local Fresh Air Friendly Town Program coordinators are Lisa Mastorakos at 978 952-6956 and Sherrie Morey at 978 742-9790. Both women are in Littleton.
Though another round of Fresh Air kids are due to arrive in Marlborough in August, Mastorakos said final host family intake interviews are concluding this week. However, Mastorakos said she and Morey are always available to talk to interested local families about hosting a child for next year's summer months.
More information about the Fresh Air Fund is available at www.freshair.org.