Jim Kenyon: Claremont thrift store offers a little help to cancer patients going a long way

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 02-27-2022 8:26 AM

When her best friend — in her late 20s, married with three children — was battling cancer, Johanna Stone searched for a way to help.

What did Stone come up with? Yard sales.

Stone set about raising a few dollars at a time to ease the financial burdens that Britini Atwood and her family faced. “What Johanna did for my daughter was amazing,” Atwood’s mother, Nancy Church, of Claremont, told me in a phone interview. “If things were tight, and she needed money for gas or food, Johanna was there.”

Atwood, whom Stone got to know when they lived in the same apartment building in Claremont, died in 2017. She was 28.

Shortly before her death, Atwood encouraged Stone to continue finding ways to support other cancer patients and their families.

“That’s when a light bulb went off in my head,” Stone said.

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With the money she raised through yard sales, Stone began buying gift cards for cancer patients that could be used to pay for gas needed to get them to and from medical appointments.

That’s how Stone’s nonprofit called Helping Worries, which now operates a thrift store in downtown Claremont, got started.

Never heard of it? Neither had I until Matt Sullivan, an Upper Valley oncologist, emailed me a couple weeks ago. “Literally, social workers and doctors are handing out (Helping Worries) gift cards daily to patients,” wrote Sullivan, who splits his time between Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon and Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont.

Since receiving its tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in late 2020, Helping Worries has provided roughly $70,000 in gas cards, Stone told me.

Most of the time, Stone gives the cards to medical providers who make sure they end up in the hands of needy patients. But occasionally, Stone hears from someone who has a medical appointment the next day in Lebanon or Keene, and their gas tank is almost empty.

“I’ll just meet them at the pumps,” Stone said.

Valley Regional’s patients tend to be older or disabled people on fixed incomes, said Christen Emerson, a registered nurse who serves as the hospital’s clinical coordinator for infusion services.

They receive chemotherapy at Valley Regional but must travel 30 miles to Lebanon for radiation treatments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“If you’re going (to Lebanon) five days a week for radiation with gas prices the way they are, it’s not feasible,” Emerson said.

Some patients don’t own a car. “The only way they can get a ride to their appointments is to offer someone a gas card,” Emerson said.

Along with cancer patients, Helping Worries makes the cards available to area kidney dialysis centers.

The name Helping Worries conveys the nonprofit’s mission: By giving people with serious medical conditions a little financial help, they’ll have less to worry about.

The thrift store on Pleasant Street is open Thursday through Sunday. Unlike most thrift stores, the focus isn’t on clothing. It’s mostly furniture and housewares, including coffee makers, blenders and crockpots. A back room features children’s toys, jigsaw puzzles and board games, along with shelves of glassware, ranging from coffee mugs to martini glasses.

Last Sunday, Kayla Hanson, a single mom who lives in downtown Claremont, pushed her 2-year-old daughter, Jayleigh, to the store in a stroller.

“Whenever I need anything, I check this place first,” Hanson said, before leaving the store with art supplies and children’s books for her daughter and cooking pans for her mother.

“I feel so good about buying stuff from here,” Hanson said.

For a city that has more than its share of residents who struggle to make ends meet, Claremont can use a thrift store like Helping Worries. “We’re helping low-income people by keeping prices low,” Stone said.

By no means is Stone going it alone. She has a small army of volunteers who help sort donated goods. When I stopped by last Sunday, Stone’s husband, David, and son, Dylan Kemp, were doing the heavy lifting of moving newly arrived items.

At one point, Kemp gave his mother a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-with-this look as held up a bowling ball.

“We get everything here,” Stone said, with a shrug. A few days later, the store’s Facebook page was advertising a “vintage bowling ball with case. Ball looks in great shape, no pits or dings.” Asking price: $25.

The store doesn’t accept drop-offs. With relatives and other volunteers, Stone offers free “clean outs,” of homes in exchange for unwanted furniture and other belongings. If the price is right, the nonprofit sometimes buys used goods they store at a Claremont warehouse.

Helping Worries has provided furniture for struggling veterans who are moving into apartments and families who have lost everything in house fires. They’ve given tents and sleeping bags to homeless people living in encampments.

As an employee of the nonprofit, Stone, who has worked as a restaurant manager in the past, could draw a modest salary. But she and her husband, who both grew up in Claremont and now live in Alstead, N.H., have been reluctant to take that step. “We want to make sure it’s running good first,” she said.

During the pandemic, some months have been tougher than others. Rent on the store is $1,000 a month.

“We’ve paid the bills here quite a few times,” said David Stone, who works as a mason.

“People look at us like we’re crazy for doing this,” his wife added.

But then there are the days like the one in mid-February when Johanna Stone posted on Facebook that Helping Worries had just delivered 60 gas cards (usually for $20 apiece) to area hospitals and kidney care centers.

“It’s heartwarming,” said Church, whose late daughter Britini was the Stones’ inspiration. “They’re helping so many people and holding onto my daughter’s memory too.”

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

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