Nearly a century ago, Camden philanthropist Ida Dukes, a devout Christian mother of six, opened the Children’s Fresh Air Home in North Wildwood -- after meeting a $30,000 fund-raising challenge.
The Surf Avenue landmark Dukes founded in 1923 went on to offer free summer getaways to generations of South Jersey youngsters in need until 2006, when structural problems forced it to close.
The home has since been gutted, raised, and anchored to a freshly built foundation. The beloved institution plans to reopen next year -- if a $300,000 fund-raising challenge can be met.
“The two numbers, $30,000 and $300,000, are amazing to me,” says board member Angel Daniels, of Wildwood Crest. “It’s a ‘Wow!’ But Ida Dukes met her goal and we can, too.”
The campaign (freshairhome.org) so far has raised $110,000; it needs $190,000 by May 1 to qualify for a $300,000 grant the City of North Wildwood is prepared to offer.
“We’ve come tremendously far,” says Daniels, a legal assistant who got involved with the home about 10 years ago. She now serves on the board of the nonprofit organization, which continues to offer programs off-site.
“We’re still doing wonderful things for kids,” adds Carlo Chinosi, a bank executive and board member who lives in Medford.
“Raising money is very challenging,” he says. “But we’re a scrappy group that cares.”
Supporters raised about $600,000 for the earlier phases of the project. Local tradespeople and others have donated or volunteered their services, and in January, a trio of well-known Wildwoods social-media outlets --“Wildwood Boardwalk,” “Wildwood 365,” and “Watch the Tramcar Please” -- joined forces to promote completion of the project.
“The community and the city recognize that the home is a very special place,” notes North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello.
“One of my most vivid memories is of watching kids from the home enjoy the beach,” he adds. “That was a unique experience. I’m not aware of any other place that gives children that opportunity.”
Says Joey Contino, a radio professional who maintains the “Wildwood Boardwalk” page on Facebook: “The home has been here for generations. People grew up with it here. And for the kids who stay there, it’s their happy place. It’s their Disney World.”
Traditionally, groups of children between the ages of 7 and 12 spent two weeks at the house during the summer. The guests were referred by churches, schools, or family service agencies in Camden and other South Jersey communities.
In the early 1970s, Frank Iannelli and his younger brother, Joe, were among them.
“It was a great experience,” says Iannelli, 54, who grew up in East Camden and now lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he works as a medical transporter.
“They treated us like we were family, and we all ate family-style in the big dining room, which was nice.”
The new home will have an elevator, handicapped-accessible facilities, and, for the first time ever, central air-conditioning and heating systems.
But the communal dining room and the wraparound porch -- a signature feature, and a popular gathering spot -- will be back. And with some modifications, the traditional program of beach days, boardwalk excursions, and arts and crafts activities will be back as well.
“We want it to always stay what it is, what it has been,” says Daniels, who, like Chinosi and others involved in the effort, has a great passion for the home and its mission.
After all, Ida Dukes simply wanted to give poor kids from Camden and elsewhere a chance to “see the ocean and play in the sand,” Chinosi says.