Kenyon: Readers chip in so Claremont girls can attend summer camp

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 07-05-2024 7:30 PM

Modified: 07-08-2024 3:11 PM


During a visit to the summer day camp run by a southern Windsor County YMCA on Wednesday morning, I talked with Ashley Denofrio’s 11-year-old niece.

I asked her what she’d be doing, if not attending camp.

“I’d be home, probably sleeping,” she said. “This is more fun.”

With the help of Valley News readers, the girl and her 12-year-old sister are spending seven weeks this summer at the Y Day Camp in Springfield, Vt. They are swimming in the camp’s outdoor pool, hiking its nature trails and canoeing on the nearby Black River.

“The generosity of complete strangers is just amazing,” said Denofrio, who became the court-appointed legal guardian for her nieces in March. “I can’t thank them enough. It renews my faith in humanity that there are so many good people out there.”

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Denofrio’s struggles with the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF for short. Denofrio’s story “clearly hit a nerve” with people, said Sue Fortier, executive director of the nonprofit Meeting Waters YMCA, which has been offering the day camp that caters largely to low-income families since 1965.

Last year, Denofrio took responsibility for bringing up her nieces, after DCYF determined her younger brother, who currently lives in a homeless shelter, and his partner couldn’t adequately care for their two school-age daughters.

Denofrio, 39, and her partner, John, who don’t have children, were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Charlestown when DCYF asked if she’d become the girls’ foster parent.

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She was working at two Dollar General stores and taking classes online for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Although it would be a drastic change for them, Denofrio and John, who is carpenter, agreed that taking in the girls was the right thing to do. They couldn’t bear to see the sisters split up or placed in a group home.

The couple found a three-bedroom house in Claremont to rent for $1,900 a month, plus utilities.

As a foster parent, Denofrio received roughly $2,100 a month from DCYF to help cover the costs of raising the girls.

DCYF failed to explain to Denofrio, however, that in March when she went from being a foster parent to a legal guardian, she was no longer eligible for its monthly payments. Instead, she’d be put in a federal program for needy families. But it provided only about half as much in financial support that she was receiving as a foster parent.

Last month, a spokeswoman for DCYF told me, “Legal guardians begin to assume the same financial responsibilities as all parents.”

Including the cost of summer camp, which is no small expense. The Y Day camp costs $225 a week per child.

With Denofrio and her partner working day jobs, they need the camp for child care, which is the case for many families.

When Denofrio signed up her nieces in February, she was still a foster parent. It was Denofrio’s understanding that DCYF would still cover the total costs — $3,650, including registration fees, for the two girls combined — after she became their legal guardian.

But by late May, Meeting Waters still hadn’t heard from the state. Fortier, its executive director, reached out as well. She too got nowhere.

With the camp’s opening week approaching on June 24 — and still no word from DCYF — Fortier had to inform Denofrio that she could no longer hold the girls’ spots. The camp, which can handle about 80 kids a week, has a waiting list.

But knowing how much Denofrio and her nieces were depending on the camp, Fortier told me in late June that she was enrolling the girls — with or without New Hampshire’s help — for the remainder of the summer, starting Monday.

Of the 250 kids attending the camp for a week or more this summer, 70% receive financial aid. Much of it comes from the state of Vermont.

Kids come from 23 Vermont and New Hampshire communities. Meeting Waters is paying $30,000 this summer for two buses because “we know a lot of kids can’t come unless they have transportation,” Fortier said.

Many of the teenagers working as counselors are former campers, including Sofia Bianconi, 17, who is headed to Amherst College in the fall.

“Not all parents can afford a $1,000-a-week camp,” Bianconi said. “It’s important these kids have a place to go.

“They’re getting opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. They’re meeting kids from different towns and just having fun.”

The camp, located on 52 acres that Meeting Waters purchased in 1985, features an in-ground pool, large playing field, and a log cabin-style pavilion for arts and crafts. (The pavilion also comes in handy on rainy days.)

“I love it that the camp is all about being outdoors,” Denofrio said. “This is the best thing for kids.”

Donations from Valley News readers meant Fortier didn’t have to dip into the Y Day Camp’s scholarship fund to cover Denofrio’s nieces.

With each donor’s permission, Fortier can use money earmarked for Denofrio’s nieces to defray camp costs for other families in need.

Still Fortier, who has worked at Meeting Waters for 25 years, didn’t want to let the state of New Hampshire off the hook.

Last weekend, Fortier received confirmation via email that New Hampshire, through its child care financial aid program for working parents, would pick up at least some of the costs for Denofrio’s nieces.

How much, the state hasn’t said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.