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Jim Kenyon: Leaving No Child Behind

Last fall, Raelene Lemery took the lead in organizing a chicken biscuit dinner at the United Church of South Royalton to benefit a young family in dire need of a helping hand.

Michael Perkins was only 30 years old, but an inoperable brain tumor almost certainly meant his time was limited. Lemery, who runs the church’s Red Door thrift shop, and others wanted to ease the burden on Perkins, his wife, Emily, and their two daughters during what was looking more and more like his final months.

The church dinner raised $1,200. Lemery and her friend Alison Gravel also put up collection jars around town and established a bank savings account that drew hundreds of more dollars in donations for the Perkins family.

“The family is just having a real hard time, and the community is pulling together to help,” Lemery told me in August when we talked about her fundraising plans. Shortly thereafter, I wrote about the community’s efforts and Michael Perkins’ nine-year battle with glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and deadliest of malignant primary brain tumors in adults.

The battle ended Jan. 23.

Thirteen days after her husband’s death, Emily Perkins’ future became uncertain at best. Perkins, 27, was charged in connection with a November 2011 shooting in Bethel that, from my reading of a lengthy Vermont State Police affidavit, sounds a lot like a drug deal gone bad.

Police say Perkins shot 19-year-old Emma Jozefiak three times with a .22 caliber handgun and left her for dead. In interviews with police that go back two years but weren’t made public until last week, Perkins maintained the shooting was an accident. Last Thursday, she pleaded not guilty to attempted second-degree murder and several other charges.

On Monday morning, I stopped by the thrift shop, which is located in the back room of the 108 Chelsea Station restaurant. Lemery, 73, was drinking coffee at her customary corner table.

I wondered if the news of Emily Perkins’ arrest and the state police account had changed Lemery’s thinking. If she knew what was about to unfold, would she have gotten involved? (It was a question I had also asked myself, since I had written about her effort.)

I didn’t have to wait long for Lemery’s answer.

“My heart aches for those two little girls,” she said. “It was for them that we did it. They’re going to need our help for a long time to come.”

Lemery told me that her concern for the girls outweighed everything else, including the long circulated rumors around town about their mother’s involvement in what happened at the mobile home on Dartt Hill Road in Bethel more than two years ago. Along with Jozefiak, state police found the body of 48-year-old Scott Hill, who owned the home. His death was ruled a homicide, but no charges have been filed.

According to state police, Emily Perkins acknowledged having a “pill problem” and buying prescription painkillers from Hill. Since Perkins’ arrest, Lemery has heard grumbling: “You raised money for her and she went out and bought more drugs.”

Lemery is confident that wasn’t the case. Emily’s mother, Peggy Ainsworth, who serves on Royalton’s Selectboard, would have made sure that the money was used for its intended purposes, Lemery said. In an email, Ainsworth told me this week that the money helped buy gas and groceries, along with clothes for the girls. It also paid for utilities and car repairs. The family “very much appreciated all the help that was given to them,” wrote Ainsworth, who is now caring for her granddaughters, ages 5 and 4, with her husband, David, a former state legislator, at their dairy farm.

Still, I can see why some people might think their generosity was misplaced. The next time they see a collection jar on a store counter, they might hesitate before dropping in a $5 bill.

“In small communities like this, credibility is everything,” said state Rep. Sarah Buxton, who replaced Ainsworth in the Legislature. “I don’t want it to make people reluctant to support members of their community who are in need. Feelings should be tempered, especially in a situation where we’re talking about children.”

Josh Moore is the pastor at the United Church. Moore, who is from North Carolina, only arrived in South Royalton five months ago, about the time the fundraising was in full swing.

“The motivation was to help this struggling family,” he said. “If it improved those girls’ lives, it’s worth it.”

The more I think about it, the more I agree.

On Monday morning, a single mother came into the thrift store with her four-year-old son. The woman explained that she had received a call from her son’s preschool. He wouldn’t be allowed to play outdoors until he had waterproof clothing.

Lemery found a pair of black snowpants the boy’s size. The mother asked how much she owed.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lemery replied.

“Are you sure?”

Lemery nodded. She watched the woman make her way outside, holding her son with one hand and his new snowpants in the other.

“No child should be cold,” said Lemery. Or left out in the cold.