Growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, John Stefankiewicz and his two brothers were the only kids on their block that spent summers at the Jersey shore. “We would always visit my grandparents at their house in North Wildwood,” recalled Stefankiewicz. “I felt extremely fortunate.” That love for the shore—instilled as a child—remains very much alive today. And that keen recognition of his own good fortune is the driving force that compelled him to give back through the Children’s Fresh Air Home (CFAH) of North Wildwood. As president of the Board of Directors, Stefankiewicz explains that the non-profit enables children who otherwise would not have the opportunity to enjoy the simple but sublime pleasures of the shore.
“The organization has served more than 20,000 disadvantaged children from this region [South Jersey and Philadelphia, many from Camden] for more than 115 years,” said the 52-year-old Washington Township resident. Many of the children are economically disadvantaged; some are from broken homes, in foster care or facing adversities.
Stefankiewicz’s introduction to the CFAH occurred rather serendipitously over seven years ago. While attending a Gloucester Township Rotary Club luncheon, he was seated next to someone affiliated with the organization. As he listened and learned about CFAH’s life-changing mission, the community-minded Stefankiewicz instantly knew it was something he wanted to become involved with.
Vice President Stefankiewicz (who works in Preferred and Small Business Banking at Bank of America in Cherry Hill, NJ) explains that for decades, about 300 children, ages 7 to 11, would spend two week stints every summer (at no cost) at the sprawling, four-story, 10,000 square-foot seashore house. The children were identified through social service agencies, community organizations, school systems and churches. Groups of about 30 girls and 30 boys would alternate stays. Their experience encompassed positive and nurturing programming that fostered social skills, leadership abilities and peer and mentorship interactions.
Stefankiewicz described CFAH as unique: “There’s no other seashore house at the shore, two blocks from the beach, that serves disadvantaged children from our region.”
History of the CFAH
The non-profit was founded in 1896 by L. Ida Dukes of Camden, a 41-year-old mother of six who invited children whose families were unable to afford it to a day of fun along the Delaware River. In 1911, Dukes brought a group of children to Wildwood; in 1923, the North Wildwood home at 1100 Surf Avenue opened its doors. After Dukes passed away in 1937, Myra Loring, a local educator, served for 50 years (1938-1988) as the home’s superintendent. Her work each summer was on a volunteer basis. Following her death in 1988, Kris and Laura Perkins became superintendents. And from 2003 to 2006, that leadership role was passed to Moorestown residents Craig and Karen Wille.
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After the 2006 summer season, the well-worn home, in dire need of major repairs and upgrades, was forced to close. It was no longer safe to house the large number of children, explains Stefankiewicz. But the thirteen-member hands-on, hard-working board was committed to keeping CFAH’s mission going. So children were sent to Camp Haluwasa in Hammonton for a couple of summers.
In 2012, the “Just for a Day” program was created, enabling children to spend a fun-filled day at the beach. The program, still in operation, culminates with a barbeque in the backyard of the house. “The house is on a triple corner lot and has a big backyard,” noted Stefankiewicz, who has witnessed the transformative nature of bringing children to the shore. “When these children set foot on the beach for the very first time, you can see how all their worries are washed away.” On one particular “Just for a Day,” Stefankiewicz was helping out at the barbeque when two brothers, returning from the beach, approached him. “They hugged me and said, ‘We don’t want to go home.’ It’s very emotional. It made us feel really good that we’ve provided an experience for these kids that they wouldn’t ordinarily have.” Stefankiewicz says the impact would be far greater if these children could again stay for a longer duration.
So in 2014, the board launched a Capital Campaign, setting a goal to reopen in the summer of 2016. The first of a three-phase renovation plan is under way with the rebuilding of the home’s foundation. With a projected $1.5 million cost for the entire project, Stefankiewicz says there’s been a lot of support from local vendors, community organizations and businesses. For example, the New Jersey Carpenters Union donated more than 800 man-hours to demolish the interior of the home. Others, like Paul Marconi of UCI, will be donating labor toward demolition of the old foundation and Jim Hemmingway of Garden State Demolition has offered services at a significant discount. “When we reopen our doors, we will be ADA-accessible and have heating and air conditioning. This will enable the home to be operational for three seasons –spring, summer and fall,” said Stefankiewicz, who understands the enduring power of the seashore.
“The Jersey shore is imprinted on my soul,” said Stefankiewicz, who savors the family time he spends with his wife, Christine, and sons Chris, 31, and Adam, 25, at their seasonal home in Cape May.
Interestingly, notes Stefankiewicz, many of the current donors—who still live in the community—were actually those children who were once the recipients of this gift of summer. To reach their lofty goal, he says, much help is needed and fund-raisers are planned (see box).
Community members have also stepped forward, supporting a cause that has impacted generations. Ron Gelzunas, Jr., a Wildwood Crest resident who grew up in North Wildwood, remembers vividly the image of the corner property and the line of children (every summer) walking to and from the beach. “That home was part of the fabric of the community,” said the 48-year-old attorney. In fact, his father, Ron Gelzunas, Sr., a family physician who still practices in the town, would often volunteer his services to care for the home’s children when they were sick.
“One summer [in 2007], the kids just weren’t there anymore,” recalled Gelzunas, who became concerned. Area residents were equally alarmed. A few years later, Gelzunas and his wife, Angel Daniels—a former CFAH executive director—became members of the volunteer board. “Since the turn of the century, the CFAH has been providing a service to these kids,” said Gelzunas, who serves on the Construction Committee, and oversees the rebuilding of the house. “We realize that many of these kids have never been out of their environment. They get to experience the seashore, which is invaluable.” In addition, Gelzunas says some board members have conducted research and found that providing this experience has an overall positive impact on the children’s lives.
Board member Erica Burgoon of Haddonfield recognizes that impact on multiple levels. A child psychologist and member of the Capital Campaign Committee, Burgoon has been connected to the home for over 20 years. She worked as a volunteer counselor every summer during high school, from 1993 to 1996. “The experience was eye-opening,” said Burgoon, 36, now married with children ages 5 and 3. Raised in Haddon Township, her youth pastor from Haddonfield Methodist Church and former CFAH superintendent, Kris Perkins, introduced her to the home.
“All of the children were from the local community, the majority from Camden,” said Burgoon, pointing out that Camden was just one and a half miles from her hometown. As a child, Burgoon’s family would regularly spend time at the beach. She was struck by the realization that a lot of the children had never been to the beach before, a stark contrast to what was commonplace in her life. “It gave me a wider world view,” she said. “It was such a wonderful experience. It combined two loves in my life: children and the beach.”
And although North Wildwood was only about 90 minutes away, Burgoon recalls that being at the home felt like a sanctuary for the children. It proved incredibly rewarding for Burgoon as well, who loved the rich tradition and history at CFAH. “It felt like an opportunity to step away from the everyday,” she said. “It provided a safe, nurturing, meaningful experience for children who ordinarily wouldn’t experience that in their world.”
So in 2000, when Burgoon was asked to serve on the Women’s Auxiliary—now integrated with the larger board—she didn’t hesitate. Burgoon foresees playing a major role as the CFAH is rebuilt. “The world has changed rapidly in the last decade in regards to technology,” said Burgoon, who plans to utilize her professional expertise and knowledge to recreate programming to benefit the children.
“We have such a gem of an opportunity,” said Stefankiewicz, referring to their fund-raising goals. “The CFAH has been the seashore house for disadvantaged children from our region. We will continue to be that for the next 100 years.”
For information or to donate, contact John@freshairhome.org or (609) 522-2716 or visit www.freshairhome.org.
Checks made payable to the Children’s Fresh Air Home should be sent to: Children’s Fresh Air Home, PO Box 413, Haddonfield, NJ 08003
Sunday, September 27: “Ride to Rebuild” will begin at Adelphia Restaurant in Deptford and conclude at the CFAH in North Wildwood. Details will be posted on the website.