Fostering Love and Trust
She went without many things, including warm clothing, and vividly recalls sitting in the school parking lot while her classmates played in snow banks during recess.
"I didn't have snow pants," she said. "I remember wondering, 'Why can't I have a snow suit?'"
Today, at 22, Contarino is a success story. She was adopted at age 12 by a loving couple, Kim and Steve Contarino, she owns her own pet care service and is enrolled at North Shore Community College.
"My parents got me on the right track," she said. "I couldn't be happier."
But Ashley realizes there are many foster kids behind her, living that same life in foster care and going without even the most basic necessities. She hopes the community will rally to help the 800 children currently in foster care in the Merrimack Valley.
On Thursday, Sept. 29, Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley is holding its largest fundraiser to date — a Pauline Wells concert at Blue Ocean Music Hall at Salisbury Beach. Tickets are $30 each.
"The $30 could buy a foster child a winter jacket and some boots," Ashley noted.
Wells is a Cambridge police lieutenant and Irish music singer who mostly recently performed at the 9/11 ceremonies in New York City. Blue Ocean has donated use of the hall that night, Pauline Wells volunteered to perform, and Coady's Towing of Lawrence is a major event sponsor.
"So 100 percent of the proceeds go to Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley," said Kim Contarino, a longtime volunteer for the nonprofit group. Formerly of Methuen, Steve and Kim now live at Seabrook Beach and own Adamson Industries of Haverhill.
Annually, the group provides backpacks, school supplies, toiletries, clothing, toys and more to Merrimack Valley foster children. Duffel bags are also provided to kids so they don't have to move from foster home to foster home carrying their belongings in trash bags.
In 2001, when Ashley went to live with the Contarinos "she arrived with two trash bags that were half-full of clothes that didn't fit her," Kim said.
In foster care, Ashley said, she never had new clothes, only hand-me-downs. By the time she was 8, she was changing diapers for younger kids in the foster home. At 10, she was giving them bottles. She couldn't sign up for after-school sports, because she had to get home and baby-sit the other foster kids.
She lacked affection from a parent and longed "to be a normal kid," she said. "I just wanted a family to call my own."
When she was 11, Ashley's social worker took her to a foster care "adoption party" held at Cedarland in Haverhill. She was playing a race car driving arcade game, she said, when Steve Contarino introduced himself and asked if he could buy her some more tokens.
About a year and many visits together later, Kim and Steve officially adopted Ashley. Before doing so, they were required by the state to complete an eight-week parenting course.
"They want to make sure you are ready for this and you're not going to give up," Steve said of the classes.
While thrilled, Ashley said it took her time to adjust and relax to her new home with her new parents.
"I was so happy. I had my own room," she said. "But it took me a while to actually be able to trust. Everyone else in my life had always left me."
Kim remembers the relief Ashley displayed after her last name was officially changed to Contarino.
"You could see a weight was lifted right off her shoulders," she said.
Now, at Christmas, Ashley helps wraps presents the Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley provides to the foster children. She loves watching the kids when Santa Claus arrives at the party. "They all light up when he comes through the door," she said.
Kim Contarino also remains a strong supporter of foster care adoption. Private adoption can cost upwards of $50,000, she noted, while adopting a foster child is free and equally if not more rewarding. Both Ashley and Kim agreed that many foster kids are falsely labeled as bad or troubled.
But these kids end up in foster care because their parents' problems, which include drug and alcohol problems.
"If you have the room, patience, love and understanding, the kids are just great," Kim said.