CUMBERLAND - Tiffany Johnson has enjoyed reading, playing the piano and walking a "big" and "grayish" dog named Maggie during her visit to Maryland over the past 11 days.

But her favorite summertime activity has been swimming - for the purest and most innocent of reasons.

"It makes me happy," said Tiffany, 6, during a break from swimming at Constitution Park pool in Cumberland.

Tiffany is one of eight children from the New York City area to live with families in Allegany County through The Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps 5,000 children escape the hustle and bustle of the city streets and experience the great outdoors in "Friendly Towns" across the country. Eight children who visited families in the Cumberland area leave for home today.

For the past several years, families from the Potomac Highlands region have hosted children for up to two weeks at a time. Some children visit the same families year after year. Tiffany, on the other hand, is a first-time visitor. She admitted she was a bit nervous coming to Maryland and living with strangers.

But her host family, LaVale residents Linda and Jim Mellon and their adult daughter, Jessica, 22, made it easy on her. The Mellons are old pros with hosting children. They began hosting Fresh Air children when Jessica was just 8 years old and continued for several years. After an extended break, Linda's retirement gives her family a chance to resume opening their homes and hearts to their neighbors to the north.

"It's been great," Linda Mellon said. "I haven't been this happy in a long time."

Mellon talked of Tiffany's inspiring ability to see everyday things and attach a significant - things that locals have come to accept as commonplace and therefore ignore. To Tiffany, the mountains are higher and the trees are greener. Mellon said Tiffany has developed a particular fondness for the "reindeer" that visit their home near Parkside Elementary School on a regular basis.

"She sees everything," she said. "It makes me cry."

Mellon's chief concern about The Fresh Air Fund is the lack of participation by area families. The Cumberland area alone used to need two full buses to bring the children. Now, it takes only one - and that bus makes stops in Grantsville and Keyser, W.Va., as well.

Contact Kevin Spradlin at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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