For New York girl, 10, time in Waterford is a breath of 'Fresh Air'
Waterford — Ellen Gottfried's condo does not look as if it would be home to a 10-year-old.
It's decorated in white and pastel tones, with lace doilies on wooden furniture and a china cabinet with antique dishes stored behind glass. An elderly black-and-white cat named Princess curls up on the couch and purrs deeply.
But sitting across from Princess and the 66-year-old Gottfried is Mahogany Hampton, age 10, wearing flip-flops and summery clothing and fake nails painted with the American flag.
Mahogany lives in Elmont, N.Y., with her mother, grandmother, brother, uncle, three cats and a dog; Gottfried lives alone in a Waterford condo. Mahogany is African-American; Gottfried is white. Mahogany attends church nearly every Sunday with her great-grandmother; Gottfried goes to Temple Emanu-El near Crystal Mall.
But despite their differences, the two have become close; they tease each other and know each other's family history. Mahogany took a bag with horses on it that Gottfried bought her to school every day this year. Gottfried keeps a wooden boat Mahogany made at Mystic Seaport a few years ago to remember her by when she's on Long Island.
It was four years ago when Mahogany's mother signed her up for the Fresh Air Fund, which sends children from urban environments to live with host families in a more rural setting during the summer months. The girl said she didn't want to go to summer camp and was interested in meeting a new family.
For the first year, Mahogany stayed with a different family. But she's been with Gottfried the past three summers - her mother chose the retired teacher in Waterford because she wanted someone with a grandmotherly vibe, given Mahogany's close relationship with her great-grandmother.
Gottfried, who is divorced and has no children, said the program worked well for her. Mahogany has become "almost a grandkid," she said. Mahogany stays in Waterford for a week each summer, but during the year she calls Gottfried regularly to chat, and Mahogany visits for a few days during each winter break.
"I like it because, well, Ellen was a teacher," said Mahogany, who said Gottfried is always giving her new information to think about.
Gottfried taught her this week about the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, groups she'd never heard of, and told her about John Lennon's assassination (a "sad story," Mahogany admitted). And then the 10-year-old taught her about singer Ariana Grande, who has starred in television shows on the Nickelodeon channel.
"She didn't know Ariana Grande, I didn't know the Rolling Stones, so it kind of balances out," explained Mahogany.
She had also never heard of records, so Gottfried pulled some out to play.
"It looks like a huge CD, it's so weird," said Mahogany.
When she visits New London County, Mahogany and Gottfried go to bed late and sleep in, because they both like that. Gottfried, a former vegetarian, still mostly avoids meat, and Mahogany has been a vegetarian since Monday, "which is a big improvement for me," she said, because her previous attempts lasted a day and a half.
And Mahogany, practiced at feeding her younger brother, made breakfast for Gottfried one morning.
"It was yummy," said her host, "and it was such a treat, because I'm divorced and live alone, and for someone to make breakfast for me … it was great."
Gottfried made sure Mahogany's week was packed with activities: getting "up close and personal" with farm animals in Gales Ferry, visiting the synagogue with Gottfried, shopping at the Crystal Mall, eating ice cream at Cowlick's Creamery, riding bikes with a girl in a neighboring apartment, serving food at the New London Community Meal Center, going to the Goodspeed Opera House to see a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and meeting the actors.
Both Mahogany and Gottfried are interested in musical theatre. Mahogany first saw the movie "Annie" during her first summer with Gottfried and was hooked - she's since memorized the lyrics to all the songs.
Gottfried said she was concerned, at first, when she learned Mahogany wanted to visit her alone and not with other Fresh Air kids. Kids like playing with other kids, she said.
But there's always been a young neighbor nearby, and Mahogany said she likes the chance to escape her busy house, with an attention-needing 6-year-old brother and an Xbox-playing 17-year-old uncle.
"It's quieter, definitely, here," said Mahogany. "It's fun with a loud family, but sometimes you just want to get a break."
Plus, she said, "Ellen is sort of like a big kid. She likes to fool around a lot."
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