NORTH WILDWOOD - Laughter and singing have been replaced by silence. Wooden chairs that once held children as they shared a meal are now stacked. But the colorful, tiny handprints left behind as decoration on the window blinds are a reminder of the days when the Children's Fresh Air Home was open.
The home's mission is, as the name suggests, to bring children, often from Camden and the surrounding area, to the shore for some fresh air away from any troubles they may be enduring at home.
Built in 1923, the home remains at 1100 Surf Ave., although it has not hosted children since the summer of 2005. The 90-year-old building's foundation began to crack years ago; by 2006 it was determined that the home could not continue to operate.
Now, its board of directors, headed by John Stefankiewicz, is busy fundraising with the goal of raising the home to replace the foundation next spring. If all goes well it will re-open to children by the summer of 2015.
"We're extremely optimistic," Stefankiewicz said, noting that architectural plans are in place and funds are being raised.
Raising the home and replacing the foundation is expected to cost about $150,000. A combination of fundraising and in-kind donations is making the work possible.
"We have enough funds to start it," he said.
Fans of the home are anxious to see its doors re-open.
Laura Burgoon, of Collingswood, spent four summers at the home in the 1990s working as a volunteer counselor.
"Playing with kids who had never seen the ocean was amazing," Burgoon recalled. "It was an eye-opening experience and a fun time, really nothing more than spending time with them."
She was about 14 when she started and the home welcomed children ages 6 to 10.
"Some of them were in crisis," she said, "This was a chance for them to enjoy themselves."
The home's history goes beyond the building's construction.
The Children's Fresh Air Home started in1896 when founder L. Ida Dukes, of Haddonfield, Camden County, with an organization called Christian Endeavor, started bringing children to a recreational area along the Delaware River for daytrips. Dukes' goal was to impart Christian values along with fresh air to children who spent their lives in the city.
By 1911, the Children's Fresh Air Home was incorporated as Dukes brought the first group of children to Wildwood. They rented sleeping quarters at a local automobile club and later used a small bayfront home.
Dukes worked out an agreement with well-known Wildwoods resident Henry Ottens to build a permanent home, and with the money and land in place the home was built, modeled after The Ottens Hotel, in 1923.
"It's time for this program to re-open," Burgoon said, noting that so many children haven't been able to come since the home closed.
She last visited the building - its signature wrap-around porch removed for safety reasons and its white steps closed off - last summer.
"It hurt a little bit to see it like that," she said.
More than 20,000 children came through the home during its years in operation, and nearly all likely sat on that porch and happily climbed those steps.
Since it closed, Stefankiewicz said, the home's board has sent children, most coping with personal, social or economic adversity, to a religious camp in Winslow Township known as Camp Haluwasa.
And in 2012 and 2013, the home hosted a day trip for children, held on the grounds complete with a barbecue.
But the group's focus has been reopening the home and returning to its original mission, hosting groups of children for 12 days at a time through the summer.
"For a child who is going through something difficult at home, you need a break. You need a chance to be a child," Burgoon said.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian:
For more information
To learn more, see www.freshairhome.org or call 609-522-2716.