SULLIVAN — Symphany Ellison laughs in recalling the first time she set eyes on the Scherpa house three years ago. It’s in the middle of the woods — deep in the woods, even by rural Monadnock Region standards — and the narrow, rutted, gravel driveway coils upward like a sidewinder.
“It was kind of scary because I’d never been where there was so much nature,” says Symphany, 11, comfortably seated at the wooden kitchen table in a house adorned by wood, floor to ceiling, with 360 degrees of woods outside. She has just finished breakfast on this warm, summer morning and would soon join her host-family siblings on the playground in the yard.
Eight-year-old Jaylen Marshall, here for the first time, had a similar reaction Monday when he arrived from New York City.
“There’s so much woods!” says Jaylen, who lives in the Bronx.
Symphany and Jaylen are among a handful of kids visiting the area in the Fresh Air Fund Friendly Towns Program that matches kids in the city with families in the country. The group from New York arrived by bus Monday at Wheelock Park in Keene, where they were met by their host families. Kids who have been here a couple of times, like Symphany, often stay for two weeks while young first-timers such as Jaylen start out with one-week visits.
This is the fourth year Dr. Malinda and Tom Scherpa, who have three children, Lexi, 10, Anthony, 7, and Ariana, 3, have hosted Symphany, who lives in Queens. Symphany says the nervousness of that first year has long since worn off, and she eagerly looks forward to her two weeks in the country with the Scherpas. In addition to country staples such as hiking, swimming, rock climbing, miniature golf, campfires, visiting the Friendly Farm in Dublin and eating ice cream, last year Symphany joined them for a family wedding in York, Maine.
“She knows it now. She knows the place, and she knows us,” Tom Scherpa says.
Jaylen is in the feeling-out stage, his first real adventure away from home, and he and Anthony burn through the playground equipment. The Scherpas understand homesickness is a possibility — Symphany went through it mildly her first year, but couldn’t wait to return the following summer. Her younger sister, Serenity, 8½, is also staying with a local family, her second year here. At home, Symphany will be entering 6th grade, and she loves to write, especially poetry.
“My mom writes poems and so do I,” Symphany says. “I write when I feel sad or something — I put my emotions into my poems.”
Even though Symphany and Jaylen may not be fully aware of it, they are equally giving back to the Scherpas. Malinda says they first learned about the Fresh Air Fund online and did some research about the Monadnock Region’s ties to the program.
“There were so many people I discovered in the area who had been a part of it; there’s so much history,” Malinda says. “We were trying to find a positive way to expose our kids to diversity so they can get to know and understand that there are different ways of life.”
The positive experience prompted them to join the Au Pair in America program, and they have a student, Tais, from Brazil living with them. “It’s another opportunity to get that cultural exposure, and it’s worked out really well,” Malinda says. Their young children are learning about a South American culture, and they will welcome another au pair into the household in October.
Malinda and Tom Scherpa met as undergraduates at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (class of 2000), where he rowed for the crew team and she was the coxswain. She’s a pediatrician at Cheshire Medical Center, having earned her medical degree from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Tom has a master’s degree in fire protection engineering from WPI, and works for DuPont as a chemical and fire protection engineering consultant.
Like Jaylen, Symphany was 8 when she first stayed with the Scherpas, and they all knew it would be a learning experience. “It’s hard for them to be away from home and go someplace they don’t know,” Tom says.
Being close in age, every year Symphany and Lexi tighten the bonds of their friendship. They’ve known each other for only a couple of days, but Jaylen and Anthony are doing the same. Lexi says having Symphany around is one of the highlights of her summer.
“I like having a friend with me for a week or two,” Lexi says. “We have a lot of fun.” Next week, after Jaylen returns home, they will attend day camp together, and a trip to the White Mountains is possible.
The Fresh Air program has reaped some remarkable stories through the years, beyond relationships that continue for decades. For instance, in 2012 Robert Porras of New York City tracked down his host family, Harvey and Lee Sawyer of Jaffrey, to personally thank them 44 years after staying with them for one year. “I never had a childhood,” Porras said during the 2012 reunion. “That week saved my life. It really did.”
Jaylen says he likes basketball — and is a Celtics fan to boot — and he’s getting used to being in the woods. In listing her favorite things to do, Symphany consistently returns to the Friendly Farm, and you get the feeling she could visit every day.
“It really kind of forces you to step back and enjoy what we have here,” Tom says. “You’re seeing it through their eyes.”