Fresh Air Fund: Matey Family Welcomes Journee Back to the Jersey Shore

By MONIQUE M. DEMOPOULOS | Jul 31, 2019
Photo by: Kelly Matey

Manahawkin — Nine-year-old Journee Wade is living her namesake one summer at a time. She just made her third journey from Harlem to Manahawkin to spend a week on the shore with the Mateys, her Fresh Air family. Fresh Air hosts Matt and Kelly Matey were delighted to pick Journee up from her travel chaperone in Toms River.

Founded in 1877, the Fresh Air Fund is a program designed to give underserved children in New York City the opportunity for, well, fresh air! Fresh Air children spend one week of their summer with a host family outside of the city. This allows children a spacious experience of the outdoors as they build skills through enriching activities and adventures. Furthermore, Fresh Air children expand their horizons and broaden their perspectives by bonding with new communities, and ultimately, developing social skills and a sense of independence.

Matt and Kelly said they both have been involved in a similar youth development program called Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Kelly explained, “I actually started with my ‘little sister’ when she was 6. She’s now 19. So, now she’s like a big sister to our daughter, Samantha. Matt has had his little brother now for three years.”

Three years ago, Kelly went on a search for a program that would allow the Mateys more of an integrative experience with their family. “They (little brothers/sisters) do become part of the family, but that program is a lot of us taking our little brother or little sister out of the house for one-on-one time. We wanted something where we could bring a child into our house with our family.” When she found the Fresh Air Fund, Matt fondly recalled four years of his youth when his parents were Fresh Air hosts, and so it was decided. That summer, they welcomed Journee into their home – and an integrative experience it has been!

The Mateys consider Journee a part of their family. “I finally have a little sister,” said Samantha, the Mateys’ 11-year-old daughter. Samantha is a very active child, engaged in basketball, volleyball, golf and surfing. According to Kelly, bringing Journee into their home each summer has been extremely beneficial for both young girls. “Samantha is an only child, and Journee is the only child in her household. So when Journee first came, they kind of had to figure it out and learn how to interact with each other.” Kelly elaborated, “Samantha had to learn how to share and accommodate someone else in her life. This year, they are inseparable.” Kelly said that on Journee’s first evening at the Matey home this week, she and Samantha were up after midnight, giggling and playing Monopoly in bed.

Despite growing up with very different lifestyles, the two girls have formed an earnest bond. An expressive Samantha was thrilled to share what she and Journee have in common. “She’s a night owl, like me, so she likes to stay up and hang out. She likes to make ‘Tik Tok’ videos with me, and we just like all the same things.” Kelly elaborated that even Samantha’s friends have all come to know and love Journee.

According to Kelly, Journee’s mother works at a summer camp in Harlem, which provides her daughter with the fortunate opportunity to attend the camp activities and trips during the summer. Still, life for children living in congested cities can feel confined and overwhelming, yet physically under-stimulating. Journee lives in an apartment building, without a backyard to escape to, a luxury so many suburban children take for granted.

When children visiting the Jersey Shore are asked what they enjoy the most, one might anticipate their response to be a list of recreational activities. Journee’s response was humbling: “I like that it’s quiet here, and there’s not a lot of people in the way. And you don’t hear trains at night.” When asked specifically what her favorite activity was, she responded, “I like to play with Samantha and make jokes.” Far beyond the mindset of summer vacation, Journee is grateful for the peaceful atmosphere and nurturing relationships she is afforded here.

Not having much exposure to animals in Harlem, Journee appreciates being around the Mateys’ many pets, which include two dogs, two cats and a hamster. The Mateys have always been involved with the local animal shelter, and Samantha aspires to run her own animal rescue someday. Journee is also passionate about helping others. She shared that she wants to grow up to become a pediatrician.

On her first visit to the Jersey Shore, three years ago, Journee did not know how to swim. The Mateys said that each summer she has made considerable progress. Matt was pleased to report that the first thing Journee did upon arriving to the Matey home this week was jump into their pool for a long afternoon of swimming.

“Journee teaches us new things, too,” said Kelly. For example, Kelly said she and Samantha are learning the art of African American hair braiding from Journee. This week, the Mateys plan to take Journee to the beach for her first time. Samantha is a surfer in the making and in a Lifeguard in Training program. She looks forward to sharing her love for the ocean with Journee. The Mateys also planned to take Samantha and Journee to the 11th annual Jetty Coquina Jam, an all-women surf competition with proceeds going to David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation, of which the Mateys are members. In addition to sharing their ocean-oriented culture with Journee and supporting women in surfing, they also want to share their dedication to community support. The Mateys are particularly connected with David’s Dream and Believe, as Kelly just spent her last year overcoming her valiant battle with breast cancer.

Matt and Kelly are glad to be able to share family summer ventures with their Fresh Air child. “Today was a rainy day, so we made tie-dye, and tonight we’ll take the girls out to eat,” Kelly explained. “Tomorrow we’re taking them to Great Adventure.” They spend their more low-key days swimming, either in their home pool or at the Manahawkin Lake. According to Kelly, they also play board games and do a lot of arts and crafts.

Matt and Kelly took their relationship a step further, visiting Journee’s family in NYC. Prior to their first time meeting, they had interacted only via Facetime. “It was neat for us to go up to Manhattan and meet Journee’s mom. We went to the wax museum and had lunch,” said Kelly. “It was a nice opportunity because this woman is sending her child to us, and it’s a very trusting bond you need to have between two families living in two completely different worlds.” According to Matt, they also attended Journee’s birthday party at a roller rink in NYC this February. They hope to make another trip in the winter. Matt and Kelly are even considering having Journee join them again in Jersey this winter.

The Mateys expressed the utmost gratitude for the resources that the Fresh Air Fund provides to children living in the city. In addition to hosts and chaperones, it also has mentors and tutors, and provides children with academic guidance. Kelly explained the fund even has social workers on call 24/7 in case of emergency.

“It’s a really great program. I’m glad that we found it,” said Kelly. To learn more about the Fresh Air Fund, visit freshairfund.org.

— Monique M. Demopoulos

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