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Fresh Air for the Poor

The New York Times, September 1, 1901

Nearly half a century has elapsed since the first fresh-air charity was instituted in New York by a kind-hearted editor who pitied the waifs playing about City Hall Park in sweltering midsummer days, whose little blistered feet might now run upon the cool grass beside them.

But for the saving help of the many fresh-air agencies in this city thousands of little ones would have perished during the recent hot wave which dealt suffering and death in unsparing measure in the crowded tenement districts of the city.

Nearly all the large churches in Manhattan conduct fresh-air charities for the poor of their districts, some for two weeks, some for the Summer, others for a day, but the burden of such work falls on the Children’s Aid Society, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, St. John’s Guild, St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Mont Lawn Home, Edgewater Creche and Gilbert Robertson Memorial Home. The great work of these associations is supplemented by many smaller ones, and the work of each rendered more effectual and far-reaching by co-operation made possible by the Charity Organization Society.

The Secretary of this association stated that during the hot spell not half his invitations to go to Bath Beach were accepted. The poor people were too prostrated by the heat to come for their tickets and make the journey thither. Mr. Brace of the Children’s Aid Society, on the contrary, was besieged by pale-faced, suffering children eager to go to Brace Farm for two weeks, and so distressing was their condition that the little ones were sent without regard to the adequacy of accommodations at the farm, and allowed to sleep in barns, out-houses, and anywhere about the house. Everything was cool, clean, and comfortable. Barns were like glimpses of paradise to the poor little waifs from east side sweat boxes.

The same state of affairs prevailed at Mont Lawn, near Nyack-on-the-Hudson, where for a number of years a home has been maintained in which 2000 children of the slums may spend two weeks. Some children have gone there eight successive years and show in every way the benefit which they have derived from their surroundings. When a child is over twelve years of age it is not eligible for Mont Lawn, although some young people are taken as helpers about the place.

Great care is exercised in selecting those who shall have charge of the children. They must be women of agreeable manners, sweet dispositions, refined, and highly educated. There is little actual study, but instruction is given in various ways.

All caretakers are salaried and number graduates of Pratt and Armour Institutes, Vassar, Smith and Teachers Normal Colleges, and occasionally public school Principals. The same set of teachers are retained as far as possible.

A child in Mont Lawn is never struck or spoken to harshly, and this law of love works wonders in the manners and morals of the little children of the slums.

Probably the only fresh air organization which takes whole families for a two weeks’ vacation is the Gilbert A. Robertson Home in Westchester County. Its managers state that if they had $500 more they could accommodate twice as many people. There is room enough, but not provisions enough. Families pay their own carfare, which they get at a reduction, and when more cannot be accommodated at the home board is secured for these in surrounding farmhouses for $1.50 to $3 per week apiece. The home entertains eighty-six families each season, numbering on an average 54 men, 86 women and 220 children. Some men only spend Sundays with their families. Besides these 4,670 transients are entertained for a day each. These visitors feast on fruit, vegetables, and milk raised on the place, drive about the country, or amuse themselves in the beautiful grounds. A little work is done, but almost the whole time is given up to enjoyment.

Thousands of working girls find rest and refreshment at several places conducted under the auspices of the Working Girls’ Vacation Society, while its sick and weakly members are cared for at the Santa Clara Home in the Adirondacks.

It is not possible to enumerate the lives saved by St. John’s Guild. Its two floating hospitals, the Emma Abbott and the Juliard (the latter donated by Mrs. Augustus D. Julliard) carry on an average 70,000 patients, and of these at least 5,000 are usually critically ill. Yet no deaths occur on these boats. Salt and medicated baths are given all; doctors and surgeons take women and children in charge, and the trained nurses speak between them seventeen languages, for the poor and often squalid and ignorant mothers speak seventeen separate tongues and cannot be won to confidence and contentment save by the language to which they are accustomed.

Many thousands of mothers and children are treated in the splendidly equipped hospital at New Dorp, Staten Island. But St. John’s Guild, like other fresh air charities, is hampered in perfecting and extending its good work by lack of funds. It needs more wards where mothers with very sick children may obtain isolation and quiet, just as the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor finds crying need for an isolation hospital where children suspected of having infectious diseases may be detained.

At Sea Breeze, LI, the association has at present but one room for that purpose, while among the poor families in their charge in this city are at present many cases of smallpox, measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and minor diseases. Sorting well from sick children is a difficult and dangerous task, and one which confronts every fresh air association.

The Association for improving the Condition of the Poor has spend $8,500 on improvements at Sea Breeze since last season, and now has 18 new bathhouses, one new suithouse, and a fine pavilion for children and mothers who come on day parties, and new fences around its property.

Last season 17,814 people enjoyed the day trips, and 1,510 spent two weeks each. As an average 5,300 have an outing of two weeks at Sea Breeze, Bath Beach, and the home for crippled children.

Edgewater Creche on the Hudson, opposite Fort Lee Ferry landing, has for seventeen years proved a blessing to little ones and their mothers or caretakers who flock there to the number of 10,192 in a season. Tickets to the crèche are furnished by the Charity Organization Society, and 7,000 children, attended by parents, sisters, hospital nurses, or missionaries, enjoy the shady playgrounds, bathing pools, pavilion, hammocks, and cribs provided by the crèche. Lunches and milk are furnished for a few pennies, and nothing is lacking to insure comfort and health. Mothers with sick infants are kept at the crèche until they can be sent to some fresh-air home for treastment.

Always most interesting is the word done by the Children’s Aid Society, who have nine agents in this and six Western cities seeking out and placing in good homes pauper children. More than 70,000 have been placed in homes during the past forty-seven years, and the city has been relieved of their care. Of these two have been Governors of States, several are members of Congress, and large numbers of them stand at the head of every profession and many great commercial enterprises.

Boys are sent to the Brace farm and school and remain there until they have learned how to be useful and the manners and morals of gentlemen. Homes are then found for them, usually by adoption, and each child is visited until its future happiness is thoroughly assured.

Besides the fresh-air work on the farm carried on all the year, 5,162 homeless boys and girls have been sheltered during the year in the eight lodging houses provided by the society, and homes or situations found for all. Families and children have been helped to reach friends, twenty-six industrial schools, both day and evening, have aided American, German, and Italian children-including cripples—who would otherwise not attend school at all, and five fresh-air homes at Bath Beach, West Coney Island, Kensico, NY, and East Broadway have cared for the ill or helpless or poverty-stricken children and brightened their lives, not only for a Summer, but for always.

It cost $35 apiece to place in permanent homes 581 children, who would otherwise have cost the city $120 per annum if placed in an orphanage.

The average attendance at Bath Beach is 6,508, of whom 3,955 remain a week each. At Coney Island 7,385 mothers with sick babies find rest and health, and 1,810 boys from the industrial schools spend a week at the Boy’s Farm School in Summer.

These figures do not represent half the work done by the Children’s Aid Society, any more than brief mention tells of the thousands of little slum children who learn religion and happiness at Pelham Bay, in charge of the good priests of St. Vincent de Paul’s Society; or the thousands of others who continually fill the five special trolley cars set apart for use of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor to carry children to and from the seaside.

New York leads the country in the number and efficiency of its fresh-air associations, and these attest to the wonderful influence for good exerted by the fresh air and happy surroundings upon the ignorant, the sick, and the poor.