LACONIA — They were 22 years old, practically kids themselves, when Sandi and Steve O’Riordan decided to welcome a child for a summer visit. The visitor, Kirona Cowan, came through the Fresh Air Fund. Decades later, that decision continues to enrich both parties.
The O’Riordans first signed up with the Fresh Air organization because the local organizer was a friend of Sandi’s. The idea behind the fund was to give children who live in dense urban areas the chance to spend some of their summer in a more rural area, living with a host family. Steve and Sandi had two girls, ages four and one, so they figured they were the type of home the Fresh Air Fund was looking for.
Sandi said they also figured they might get something out of it, too.
“There was no diversity in the area,” she said, and they wanted their daughters to be able to connect with people of various backgrounds. So, that’s how they found themselves on a summer day in 1984, standing in the parking lot at Opechee Park, along with a crowd of other host parents, waiting for the bus to arrive from New York City. Off that bus stepped a four-year-old Cowan, making what would become her first of many visits to see the O’Riordans.
“I remember being at Opechee, it was a hot day, so excited for the bus to arrive,” said Amanda Youssef, one of Steve and Sandi’s daughters. Some might have seen the hosts as acting out of altruism, but that’s not how she saw it. “What’s funny is, I thought we were the fortunate ones.”
The O’Riordans gained more than they could have imagined. Cowan became like a third daughter to them. Cowan is a mother herself now, and her kids come with her to join the O’Riordans’ grandchildren during the summer.
Cowan said the trips to Laconia were the highlights of her summers as a girl. She learned to swim here, went boating, canoeing, camping, took trips to amusement parks and to the Maine coast, and also valued the quiet time, sitting with Amanda and her sister Marti, braiding their hair into cornrows and talking.
“She became part of the family pretty quick,” Steve said.
Life in New York City was “fast-paced,” said Cowan, with “not a lot of positive things” for a young girl to do. “It was so much fun to be here, they never treated me different than they treated their own children.”
Cowan’s life was turbulent when she was young, and at times downright horrifying. One day, when she was eight, she was walking down the street when a stray bullet struck and killed her best friend, who was walking right by her side. Later, one of Cowan’s brothers died in a similar fashion. Her trips to New Hampshire began to last longer than the usual two weeks, sometimes she would spend a full month with the O’Riordans.
For many years, Cowan was in New York’s foster care system, moving from family to family, separated from her own parents and her siblings. The O’Riordans were a stable point, though, in a life that was otherwise unpredictable.
In her later teenage years, Cowan’s parents regained custody of her and moved to Delaware. She fell out of touch with the O’Riordans for about 10 years.
Sandi said it was like a piece of her was missing. “I feel like I have three daughters.”
Youssef took to the internet, a fairly new tool then, to see if she could track down her lost sister. Shortly thereafter, she called her mother and asked her to pick her up at the bus stop, and that she had a friend who needed a ride. Sandi was shocked and overjoyed to see Cowan step off the bus, along with her boy and girl, Donte and Tykeara.
Cowan lost her mother about 20 years ago, and her father died from coronavirus in November. “But I still have a mom and a dad,” she said, referring to the O’Riordans.