- Anne Wallace Allen
- Rep. Terri Williams and Owen Tillery at Williams' house in Granby
Owen Tillery was just 5 years old and living in Brooklyn when his mother put him on a bus and sent him up to stay with strangers in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom through the Fresh Air Fund.
That year, 1981, Tillery spent two weeks getting his first taste of country life. The couple he stayed with, Terry and Terri Williams, took him fishing and hiking. They went to baseball games and played bingo. Tillery, who was growing up in public housing, discovered farm animals, the darkness of the rural night sky and Santa's Village, the Christmas-themed amusement park in nearby Jefferson, N.H.
Tillery returned for the next four summers and forged a deep connection with the couple, who don't have children of their own.
"I guess this was the family I belonged to," Tillery, now 46, told Seven Days. His father died when he was 4. "It was like pieces of a puzzle fitting together."
Two years ago, Tillery used Facebook to track down the family he hadn't seen since he was 9. After two years of conversation during the pandemic, he visited the Williamses at their home in Granby in mid-August with his wife, Shaquana, and their 10-year-old son, Tavaries.
Tillery vividly remembers many details from his summers in Vermont, including specific roads he traveled and features of the Williamses' home, then in Concord. He told Shaquana about those summers in their teens, when the two were dating.
"It was always in my heart," he said.
Terri Williams, now a Republican state representative for Granby, was working as a baker when Tillery stayed with the family, and he remembers delivering baked goods to local stores with her. During his recent three-day visit, she made doughnuts, fudge and cookies for Tillery, and she cried as she described the bond that he formed with her family.
"He looked a little troubled, and he was very fidgety and pretty shy," Terri recalled of Tillery's first visit in 1981. (She and her husband said family and friends often refer to them as "she-Terri" and "he-Terry.") "Plus, you could tell he loved the woods and the outdoors, and he was excited about learning about it. He was saying, 'What are we doing tomorrow? What's next?'"
Looking back, all of the adults involved are surprised by the trust that parents in New York placed in the host families.
- Owen Tillery in the early '80s with nieces and nephews of Terri Williams in Concord
The Fresh Air Fund started in 1877, when a Pennsylvania clergyman brought nine children from New York to live with families in his rural congregation. Over the years, according to the organization, 1.8 million young people from New York have experienced the outdoors through Fresh Air Fund programs; this year, those programs will serve about 3,000.
The Fresh Air Fund has no record of how many kids from New York City stayed with Vermont families in the early '80s, when Tillery was in Concord. In 2019, 157 Vermont families hosted a child, CEO Lisa Gitelson said.
Five-year-olds can still stay with host families. The process of selecting those hosts includes a home visit and house inspection, in-person interviews with everyone in the house, background checks, and references, according the organization's website.
Terry, who spent his career working at Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury, said he asked Tillery's mother in a phone call if she was apprehensive about sending her very young child so far away.
"She said, 'I figured that no matter where he went, it was better than where he was,'" he recounted. "He grew up playing on the stairs in his building. He didn't get to do anything or see anything."
Tillery's mom died this summer.
The Fresh Air Fund sends children to stay with families outside of New York City through its Friendly Towns program, one of several programs for children and youth. The children stay with host families up and down the East Coast, from Maine to Maryland and Virginia.
The Friendly Towns program hasn't operated since it was suspended during the pandemic. In its absence, the Fresh Air Fund created other programs, some virtual, to provide learning and outdoor opportunities to children, family and youth, Gitelson said, including sending children to a variety of overnight summer camps.
Next summer, Friendly Towns will start up again, Gitelson said. She called it "our legacy program," adding that a few thousand children a year took part each summer before the pandemic. The length of stay varies; some children visit for just a week, while others spend a month. "We work with the families," she said.
- Owen Tillery on a visit to Vermont in the early '80s
Gitelson wasn't surprised to hear about the reunion of Tillery, Terri and Terry. Former Fresh Air Fund families and kids regularly tag the organization in their wedding and vacation photos, she said — and, for some reason, she's seen a lot more of those reunion photos than usual this summer.
"I get pictures pretty regularly of people who remain in contact as they are adults and starting their own families," Gitelson said. "It is lovely."
Tillery's first visit was a turning point for Terri, who had wanted a large family but wasn't able to have children and found adoption too expensive, she said. After hosting Tillery, the couple got involved in foster care programs and opened their home to several teenagers, some of them for years. Both also worked as sports coaches, and Terry refereed basketball games.
"Owen helped us see that we wanted to do this," Terry said. "That was what made us realize there were a lot of children out there that we could spend time with."
On the Vermont trip this month, the four adults took Tavaries to Santa's Village, now updated with a water park and new rides.
Tillery said summer in Vermont is synonymous with family for him. He's not sure he would have fit in with anyone else; the low-key extended Williams family, with nearly a dozen children his own age, was the perfect match.
"I never had love like that," he said. "That's family love to me: the freedom, the fresh air. This is life."