WATERVILLE — Thirteen-year-old Je-Laya Johnson, of Brooklyn, N.Y., squeezed into the back seat of an SUV in the parking lot of Shaw’s grocery store Monday night, wearing a “Maine” sweatshirt and a beaming smile.

This is the fourth year Johnson has returned to Maine, where she has spent two weeks every summer with the Couture family on their small farm in Benton. She is one of nine New York City children and teens who arrived in Waterville this week through the Fresh Air Fund, a program that places city children in suburban and rural homes and small communities as part of their mission to provide free summer experiences away from the hot, noisy city streets.

“I like the fresh air,” said Johnson, an answer that was common among those that arrived after a seven-hour bus ride. “And that I get to run every day, and the farm and the animals and bunnies and the food. The food is great.”

The Fresh Air Fund, based in New York, places about 9,000 city children in small communities on the East Coast — from Maine to Virginia — each year. The children stay with host families after going through an application process that includes meeting income eligible requirements, filling out an application and in some cases an interview. Those who came to Waterville this week will be staying at small farms and homes in the country. One 6-year-old boy is going to an organic farm in Thorndike where the family grows all the food it eats.

It’s not uncommon for relationships to form and for the children to return to the same family each year. For a first visit, the child must be age 6 to 12, but many older children are invited back by their host families and continue to return through the program.

Johnson has been staying with the Coutures — Kim and John and their two children, Luke, 14, and Leah, 13 — for a couple of weeks during the last three summers.

“I don’t think I would do it for anyone else, but we really love having her,” Kim Couture said. “She always tells us she loves to wake up and hear the cows.”

Waterville was the last stop for a bus carrying 24 children, all from New York City and aged 6 to 18, to Maine on Monday. There were stops in Topsham, Auburn and Augusta before the last nine got off in Waterville — greeted with colorful posters and signs by their host families.

“We don’t do anything fancy, just hang around,” said Brandy Jewell, of Skowhegan, the chairperson and fund manager for the Fresh Air Fund in the Skowhegan and Waterville area. “A lot of families feel like they have to spend a lot of money, go to a fun town and things like that, but they really don’t. Just going to a local beach, like we have Lake George in Skowhegan, or just having a barbecue at home, the kids love doing that. We encourage the host families to keep it laid-back.”

Jewell, of Skowhegan, has two children of her own and runs a home day care center. For the last six years, she has volunteered for the Fresh Air Fund. Jewell started by hosting a young girl whose family eventually moved to Africa. In her current role as a regional organizer, she has hosted several other children, including 12-year-old Shania, who has stayed with her family for the last three years and is staying for a month this summer. In December, Shania, who is also from Brooklyn, spent Christmas with the Jewells.

“We wanted to invite her back because we had three kids stay with us last summer and it wasn’t really fair,” explained 11-year-old Clara Jewell, who got to Shaw’s around 4 p.m. with her mother, almost two hours before Shania was scheduled to arrive.

The family had plans to get dinner at Friendly’s with Jewell’s mother, who was hosting an 8-year-old boy through the Fresh Air Fund.

The Fresh Air Fund has two more scheduled drop-off dates in Maine this summer, and it still needs host families for visits in August, according to Jewell. Requirements include living near what the organization calls a “volunteer community,” where host families can pick up a child and get access to resources during the visit; and an interview with a Fresh Air chairperson or representative.

“I’ve always known about it and just thought I’d give it a try,” said Jessica Ellingwood-Simpson, of Farmington, a first-time Fresh Air host. She has two young children, ages 4 and 3, and on Monday her children joined her to pick up 7-year-old Gabby, who will be staying with them.

“Her mom called me this morning and said, ‘She’s on the bus. Her bags have been packed for a week,'” Ellingwood-Simpson said. “I kept checking my email today to make sure it was the Shaw’s parking lot that we were supposed to go to. We’re pretty excited.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

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