Before Vicky died at age 35, she changed my life.

In 1954, when I was six years old, almost everyone I knew was either a farmer or a Mennonite or both. Then Vicky Martinez blew into my life — all the way from Manhattan! She stayed with us for two weeks.

Vicky Martinez upon arrival on the farm, 1954

Vicky was like me. We were both high-spirited girls close to the same age.

But in almost every other way, we were different. Vicky was Catholic. I was Mennonite. Vicky knew about the city. I knew about the country. Vicky had many sisters and one brother older than she. I was the oldest and I had only one brother when we first met.

Vicky, Gladys, and me on my grandparents' porch, 1954. My mother misidentified Vicky's sister's name as Alicia in this scrapbook caption. There were five sisters and one brother in the Martinez family.

We played country games such as pinwheels (above) and running through the sprinklers. I was barefoot every chance I got. Vicky liked to keep her shoes on.

Vicky returned every summer to visit us on the farm. She loved our animals, rode on our tractors, enjoyed our growing family (picture above, summer 1960, shows sister Sue holding a puppy and sister Doris trying to catch one in her skirt), and asked me lots of questions about why I was now wearing a prayer covering on my head like my mother.

Most of the children who participated in the Fresh Air Fund that sponsored Vicky’s visit stopped coming to the country after age twelve. The last summer Vicky visited us was in 1961.

After that, all we had was letters. Our mothers corresponded at Christmas and on birthdays.

That’s how we found out that Vicky had developed multiple sclerosis. And that’s how we got this newspaper clipping of Vicky as the poster child for MS, posing with Micky Mantle.

Vicky died on January 10, 1985.

Her father Joseph died in 1987. Her mother Josephine, a remarkable woman we got to know through her letters, died in 2001.

Today would have been Vicky’s 64th birthday. This post is dedicated to her and to her siblings, most of whom also participated in the Fresh Air Program.

When I first started writing childhood memoir, the story of how Vicky changed my life was the first one I wrote and the first one to win a prize and get published. If you want to read the compete essay, “The Fresh Air Girl,” it can be found here. The story will also be included in chapter three of my forthcoming memoir.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a letter from Vicky’s youngest sister Irma. She had read the essay above online. We’ve never met in person but have connected online. I hope to see her the next time I visit my mother.

Where does Irma live? Manhattan, where she was born? No. Lancaster County, Penna. I know there’s a story there. Can’t wait to hear it.

Vicky, I wish I had thanked you while you lived for the way you opened up my world. But perhaps it’s not too late. Happy birthday! And thank you!

Is there a “Vicky” in your life? Tell your own story of a person who opened you up to the world below. Be sure to thank him or her while you can!



Shirley Showalter


  1. Ray Evans on January 23, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Good Morning Shirley,

    A lot of folks shy away from telliing their stories because they think their life has been too ordinary. Not so! Everyone’s story is interesting and there are many stories within stories! All we have to do is follow our lives backwards.

    TOG, (the Old Geezer from Geezerville)

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Ray, thanks for starting the conversation today. “All we have to do is follow our lives backwards.” Love it. Also, I completely agree that every life contains enough drama to keep a reader spellbound — if the author follows the thread back to the deepest sources of universal emotion.

  2. Betty on January 23, 2013 at 10:01 am

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. It reminded me of the fresh air we got one summer that got so homesick she had to go back home! If I remember correctly she was close to 12 and my sister and I were more like 6 and 8 so it was not a good match. She was not interested in the same kind of play my sister and I were. It’s amazing the images and stories your questions conjure up in my mind. I love it!

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2013 at 10:09 am

      Thanks, Betty. The program has a challenging job to do in matching families. It can’t always get it right. And even if the match is good, it may not feel that way on any given day. The key, I think, lies in finding enough common ground (like age!) and in maintaining the curiosity of both sides about the lives of the other, without judgment. And of course caring. I’m sure there was plenty of that at your house. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your own memory.

  3. Mike Yoder on January 23, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Great story, Shirley, and one I can also identify with since my farm family in rural central Illinois also had fresh air children, from Chicago. We did not keep in touch with all of them and vice versa, but my brother did keep in touch with Rodney Gonzalez and his mother. You are correct. The program did as much for the host families as it did for those being hosted and getting the “fresh air.” I think all of us got fresh air.

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2013 at 10:41 am

      Thanks, Mike, for offering this window into the program. I had thought of it as NYC only. I wonder how many other cities participate? The nature of a breeze, I guess, is to stir everyone in its path. Glad you were stirred also.

  4. Melanie on January 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, Shirley: It’s beautiful, and a great reminder of the ways even our smallest interactions can have powerful and life-long influences (something I’m talking about in my memoir class today, so I may mention you, if that’s okay . . .)

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      Of course, Melanie. Feel free to share. And thanks for thinking of me. I’d love to hear what it’s like to teach memoir to undergraduates. If you ever want a forum to share your reflections, feel free to contact me. The closest I ever came to a whole class on memoir was teaching the personal essay in expository writing.

  5. Tina Barbour on January 23, 2013 at 11:24 am

    A beautiful story. It’s wonderful that you have those memories and still have connections to Vicky’s family.

    When I was about 7 or 8, we hosted two Japanese students traveling in the U.S. They stayed with us in Virginia for several days, and we showed them around our farm and some of the “sights” in the area. I loved meeting them and learning about their lives in Japan. I still have a beautiful woven keychain that they gave me.

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Tina, thanks for connecting your memory to an object. That’s a great way to share an experience of opening out to the world. So glad you still have the object. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have any of the things Vicky may have given us from NYC. But, thanks to my mother, I do have photos and letters, and they are precious!

  6. Pat on January 24, 2013 at 2:03 am

    Lovely tribute to friendship, Shirley. Also loved the old black and white photos. Priceless.

    • shirleyhs on January 24, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Thanks, Pat. I am so glad my parents purchased one of those Brownie Kodak cameras and took pictures. I could gaze at some of the old black and white photos for hours. There’s a story embedded in each one! If you want to explore more of these, you might want to sign up on this page for my free e-book guide, which will also entitle you to a free weekly email called Magical Memoir Moments. These consist of one picture from my own collection and a set of reflections and writing prompts. I’d be happy to have you join me there too.

  7. Kathleen Pooler on January 26, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    This is so lovely, Shirley and speaks to the importance of sharing our stories of the extraordinary events in our ordinary lives. We think our daily lives won’t be of interest to others but this is so engaging and takes me back to my own childhood memories. Having grown up in a small town, we had Fresh Air kids come every summer to our neighborhood, and always looked forward to playing with them and hearing about what it was like to live in the big city. And how wonderful you have connected to Vicki’s sister-through your award-winning- story. I know you will find a story there too 🙂

  8. shirleyhs on January 27, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Thanks, Kathy. Thanks for sharing your memory.

    I have discovered so many people who had some kind of contact with the Fresh Air program. What a powerful idea that minister who started it had. Not all the stories are as happy as this one, and we had our own rough moments, Vicky and I. But I am eager to hear more from Irma and her siblings about the impact of the program on their lives also.

  9. Richard Gilbert on January 27, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    I enjoyed your essay about Vicky before, and now this deepens the story. It is saddening she died so young. I wonder if in your mind she lives as that little girl she was?

    Key friends, looked at in the way you asked your question, seem legion. But one or two stand out. It would be nice to be that person for someone else.

  10. Shirley on January 28, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Yes, Richard, since the last time I saw Vicky she was twelve years old, I do think of her as being forever young.

    However, we do have a few pictures of her with boyfriends later in her life, from letters she or her mother wrote to my mother.

    Since I never knew her as an adult, it will be all the more wonderful to meet her adult youngest sister. I’m eager to hear what impact the program had on the Martinez family. Judging by how many of the children (and the parents!) moved to Lancaster County or to upstate New York, I’m guessing that they would call it great.

  11. Kas on January 30, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story, especially since I’ve never heard of this Fresh Air program. I wonder if it exists today in the suburbs of southern Calif where I live & grew up? In addition, your retro photos & your endearing story conjured up memories of old friends of mine who changed my life too. It inspired me to write about it as well! So thank you, Shirley.

    • shirleyhs on January 30, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Hi, Kas, welcome to this blog. I am not sure whether other cities have this program or not, but surely the people at the Fresh Air Fund would know this.

      So glad you enjoyed the photos. I can get lost in these old black and white images.

      Now I’m off to check out your story.

  12. Julie on February 2, 2013 at 2:36 am

    Thank you for sharing! I’very been a host parent since 2000,& yes, some years are better than others..but the good far outweighs the bad! I’m also the Fund representative for the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We are in need of host families this summer, as well as volunteers! I’m learning that it isn’t just young families that are good hosts, but even empty jesters are excellent! Thanks fir sharing your story, and getting the word out!

  13. Julie on February 2, 2013 at 2:39 am

    So terribly sorry for the typos above! 🙁
    Phone keyboards are not my forte’, but I so wanted to thank you! (Please forgive me empty nesters! )

  14. shirleyhs on February 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Julie, so glad you found this story. I’ll try to help spread the word on Facebook for you. A number of people from the Shenandoah Valley area commented on this blog as a link there. All best.

    And I know what you mean about phone keyboards. 🙂

  15. […] Ann appears more often than anyone except my brother and our Fresh Air Girl Vicky in my childhood photo album. Here are the other photos in which she appears in the […]

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