In the early 1970s, when Marla Gambrell was 10, she left her apartment in Harlem to spend two weeks in the wilderness of suburban Massachusetts.
It was exotic. She had grown up in a tenement across the river and in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, and she and her sister spent much of their childhood living with their mother; their father was in the military.
But as a participant in the Fresh Air Fund, a program that sends low-income New York children to summer camps and host families outside the city, she ended up with a family in Acton, a leafy little town near Concord, Mass.
"It was very Brady Bunch-like," she said. "The fathers would go off to work, the moms would stay at home, the kids would play and on Sundays you would all go out and get ice cream."
Gambrell went back to Massachusetts for four or five more summers (she learned to make rubbings from 17th-century gravestones, and she got her first job, picking and selling black raspberries there). Then she grew up, joined the Air Force and got married.
More than three decades later, she is preparing her own house, in Mount Vernon, for a Fresh Air Fund child from New York.
The fund, which started in 1877, sends more than 10,000 children to summer camps and host families from Virginia to Maine and beyond, to Canada. About 50 are taking buses to the Washington area this year. The children, whose ages range from 6 to 18, pay nothing; costs are covered by individual and corporate donations.
Standing in a garden about to burst with blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, Gambrell, 43, and her husband, Barry, grinned as they argued about what to do first with Marcia Foster, an 11-year-old from the Bronx who will arrive Wednesday.
"Number one is the Capitol," she said.
"Unless I can convince her to go boating first," he said.
The Gambrells live less than 20 miles from the nation's capital, but their house, surrounded by greenery and sitting on a plot once owned by George Washington, is a far cry from the high-rise apartments and screeching subway trains of Marcia's daily landscape.
Marcia lives in a seventh-floor apartment with her mother, older sister and stepfather. A round-faced girl with a cascade of braids, she said she is excited about going to Virginia but a little nervous about meeting the people who will be her family for two weeks.
"I'm a little shy," she said.
Marcia's mother, Tashana Henley, has promised her daughter that she'll have a good time, just as Marcia did two summers ago when she was a Fresh Air kid outside Baltimore.
"It'll be good for her with her friends," Henley said. "She can say, 'Well, I went to Virginia. I just got back.' It's a conversation piece."
The Gambrells' garden is a far cry from the teeming commercial strip outside Marcia's bedroom window, where car honking reverberates against the red brick buildings. For a touch of the familiar, Marcia intends to bring along some of the dolls she keeps in the bunk bed she shares with her sister, who also was a Fresh Air kid.
In Mount Vernon, Marcia will have her own room, freshly painted in pinks and purples, with a double bed and a private bathroom. She will have at her disposal a basement with a plasma-screen TV, a half-acre lawn, a basketball hoop and a karate and boxing room. She won't have host siblings (the Gambrells don't have children), but she will hang out with the couple's nieces and nephews and learn the joys of riding in their 19-foot Mastercraft boat, going wake-boarding and taking yoga lessons from the instructor who comes to their home weekly.
Barry Gambrell, who is originally from South Carolina, is also in the Air Force and is crazy about martial arts (the house is adorned with photos of him doing karate kicks in such places as the Rocky Mountains and Kirkuk, Iraq.)
Marcia's visit will be the Gambrells' second run as a host family. A few years ago, Marla Gambrell saw a newspaper ad for the Fresh Air Fund. "I said, 'Hey, wait a second, I was a Fresh Air kid.' " She and her husband signed up and hosted Kyle Jackson, a 10-year-old from the Bronx.
They took him to Kings Dominion and George Washington's house, and they took him boating and fishing on the Potomac River. "The most memorable experience was Kyle catching a catfish out of the Potomac, which he wanted to eat," said Marla Gambrell. "And we were like, 'No, no, you can't eat it.' "
"We actually took him to a military wedding," she added, noting that she and Kyle were the only African Americans there. "I felt like I could kind of relate to him -- this is what he's going to face in going out into the world."
Kyle's mother, Lesley Jackson, said her son still treasures his photos and a glass from the wedding. "Barry was a male role model for him," she said, noting that Kyle, now 14, does not have a father at home. "So he got to experience that one-on-one."
For Marla Gambrell, being a Fresh Air kid was formative. "I kind of grew away from my neighborhood. I grew up," she said. "And I think it really influenced where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do.
"It broadens your world -- it makes you understand other people and realize there is a whole world out there."
Henley, who also grew up in Harlem, said she never heard about such programs when she was a child. "If I'd had the opportunity that these kids have, I'd take advantage of it," she said. "When I was growing up, they didn't have the Fresh Air Fund, that I knew of -- or my mother didn't know about it."
Most of Marcia's friends have never done it, either. But Marcia said she thinks it's a good idea for kids.
"It makes them have, like, adventures and a fun time, instead of being stuck in the house being bored," she said.