From Brooklyn to a Suffolk summer

Published 6:57 pm Saturday, July 21, 2018

For his first year in Suffolk last year, Michael Randall, 14, only got to spend a week with his host family.

But when he arrived in Virginia Beach on July 10 for his second visit, he had three whole weeks of vacation ahead of him with what’s become his family away from his home back in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“He made an impression, I guess,” David Peterson laughed with Michael, his wife, Amy Peterson, and their son Andrew, 14, in their living room on Wednesday.

Email newsletter signup

Michael, a rising ninth-grader in Brooklyn’s Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences, is a participant of the Fresh Air Fund, an independent nonprofit that has provided free summer trips to more than 1.8 million children from low-income communities in New York City since 1877, according to the press release.

Thousands of children each summer — from ages 7 to 18 — visit volunteer host families from rural, suburban and small-town communities along the East Coast and southern Canada through The Fresh Air Fund’s Friendly Towns Program.

Amy Peterson said she found out about the program from a news broadcast and immediately felt compelled to volunteer.

“As soon as I saw it, honestly I just knew that I wanted to do this,” she said. “It was just instant.”

David Peterson said he was convinced when he looked back at his 23 years spent in the Coast Guard.

“I did a lot of traveling, so I just kind of felt that it must be my turn to host someone else to get out from their community into something else and see something different that might inspire them,” he said.

Michael has been busy with new experiences since he returned to Suffolk, from catching a pair of bluegills at Sleepy Hole Park with David Peterson to riding roller coasters at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, which were much bigger the rides at Coney Island, he said.

“I rode all the major ones that he’s been on to see if I could catch up to him,” Michael said, pointing at Andrew, “which I did. My favorite was The Griffon.”

“They rode that one twice, back-to-back and in the front,” Amy Peterson added.

There’s been some friendly competition in the Peterson household since Michael came back. The Brooklyn teen hasn’t managed to beat David or Andrew in chess yet, though he did win a match against Amy.

“I did beat you in checkers,” Amy countered.

Then there was the dinner at CiCi’s Pizza, where Michael and Andrew competed to see who could eat more slices. Andrew left the table with a victoriously full stomach.

“You’ve beaten him on everything since then, but you couldn’t beat him on pizza,” Amy Peterson said with a smile.

“He doesn’t have (CiCi’s) up there, and he wanted something that he’s never heard of before,” David Peterson said.

The differences between Brooklyn and Suffolk have been stark for Michael, like driving a mile or two to find a grocery store instead of walking a few blocks or navigating a subway, while seeing animals that he would never see in the streets of New York City.

“There are so many animals. I’ve seen a bear, a deer, a turkey, a pig, cows. You see a dog where I’m from and that’s it,” he said, and maybe a duck or a horse-drawn carriage.

He’s enjoyed both summers in the Peterson’s pool, where the family has seen progress from floating with a life jacket to increasingly competent strokes.

“Now he can swim laps,” Andrew said.

He said he’s loved the food he’s been able to try in Suffolk and that he prefers a lot of what’s available further south in the United States, whether it’s Chick-fil-A or just homemade pizza with the Petersons.

“It was like the best pizza I’ve had here in Suffolk,” he said.

But his favorite treat by far? Cheerwine floats at Cook Out.

“They have Cheerwine here,” he said as he excitedly raised up both fists.

“Last year, he was so funny,” Amy Peterson explained, “he tried it and was like, ‘this should be America’s drink.’”

Aside from the rest and relaxation, Michael has also helped out with chores around the house and at church. He joined the family at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Portsmouth to sweep, mulch and clean.

Amy Peterson explained that the program encourages host families to have the visiting children do chores.

“We had a workday at the church, so he had a workday at the church,” she said.

Having Michael for the summer has meant a lot to the Petersons, especially Andrew, who’s spent late nights with Michael watching “The Lord of the Rings,” playing Nintendo Switch or spotting planets and constellations in the night sky. Michael had never been able to see the stars back home.

“I learned that the world is different wherever you are, (and that) we have different experiences here,” Andrew said.

Michael has been in the Fresh Air Fund for more than five years. He is the son of Takisha and Marcus Randall and one of seven siblings. Jeremiah, 5, is at home in Brooklyn. Makalia, 8, Danielle, 11, and Daniel, 12, are part of Fresh Air Fund as well. His older sister, Anaysia Randall, 21, is in college, and his older brother Akiem, 23, lives in the Bronx.

Michael said his mother wanted him and his siblings to have the chance to see the country through the Fresh Air Fund. At home he helps look after his younger siblings and their dog, but this gives him a chance to sleep in, at least until he returns to Brooklyn on July 30.

He recommended the program for other kids to broaden their knowledge and get a new feel for the world while meeting new people, like his Suffolk family.

“I feel like I’m part of their family, and I feel like I’ve grown on them a lot. I have a big family, so (it) getting bigger isn’t a problem for me,” he said.