STOCKTON SPRINGS — In the last two years, this town has experienced the tragic deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and Maddox Williams, 3, the latter just last month. Now a program run by Midcoast Maine Community Action aims to offer adults who would like to be able to help but do not know how to get involved training and tools to support families under stress.

“It takes a community to prevent child abuse and neglect,” said Caitlin Gilmet, communications strategist for MMCA. The statement expresses the idea behind the Front Porch Project, which will be offered to Stockton Springs and Searsport residents Aug. 4.

Originally developed by the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, the program has been adopted in Maine to teach community members who may be concerned about a child how to get involved in a way that keeps families safe. The Maine Children’s Trust funds the Front Porch Project in Maine, using money from its Marissa Kennedy Fund, established in honor of the Stockton Springs girl who died in 2019 as a result of child abuse.

The program is designed for anyone, Gilmet said, and is available free online and also by in-person presentation. It takes three to six hours, and can be presented in one or two session. Individuals can take the training, and MMCA is also offering it to community organizations, service groups, professional societies and others.

The training aims to increase participants’ comfort in getting involved when they are concerned about a child or family, Gilmet said. It helps trainees identify the sources of stress in a family, which might include housing, food, isolation, work issues and more, and to assist them in finding help. She noted that “Parenting is hard, even in the best of times,” and with the isolation and financial hardship brought on by the pandemic, many parents are experiencing more stress than usual.

The program teaches participants to help struggling parents before their situation escalates to the point of child abuse or neglect – by providing resources, offering a friendly ear or letting them know that they are not bad parents because they are having a hard time. Trainees are encouraged to offer help with child care, provide a meal, even just listen attentively for a little while to help parents feel that they are not alone with the hard task of raising children.

Stockton Springs Ambulance Director Ken Folette recently heard about Front Porch through his work for the emergency service. He got in touch with Dawn Flagg, community coordinator for MMCA’s Families CAN! Program, and arranged to take the training online with several other trainees. “It’s very interactive,” and in-depth, he said, adding that it made him think about his own childhood and examine his assumptions about child abuse and neglect.

“A lot of time abuse is happening in the real nice houses,” he noted, contrary to what many people think.

Rather than being just “an information dump,” he said, the training was very personal, taking an approach of helping struggling parents rather than judging or reporting them.

He plans to have the entire Ambulance Department take the training Aug. 3, in part because the deaths of Marissa and Maddox “have definitely affected the ambulance crew,” he said. In addition, he thinks it will be helpful for them to learn a different way of looking at this issue.

Folette said he would “absolutely” recommend that anyone who is interested in the training take it.

The training will also be offered in person at the Stockton Springs Town Office Wednesday, Aug. 4, at 9 a.m. This training will be limited to residents of Stockton Springs and Searsport because of the trauma they experienced with the deaths of Marissa and Maddox. Contact MMCA’s Melissa Kettell at 442-7963, ext. 286 or melissa.kettell@mmcacorp.org to register.

Flagg told The Republican Journal that additional trainings will be scheduled that will be open to all Waldo County residents.

Gilmet said Front Porch counters the common notion that family matters are private and intervening in a family situation that you are concerned about means you are criticizing someone’s parenting. In fact, she said, it may not be necessary to refer to conflict in the household at all. Just stopping by to chat for a few minutes or bring over a prepared meal can help a struggling parent feel supported and boost their confidence in their own parenting.

She said tragedies often have their roots in a lot of little things that accumulate until someone reaches their breaking point. In the same way, she added, it is important to remember that we are not expected to be heroes, singlehandedly saving families facing a crisis. Rather, each small contact, each little act of support can make a difference.

MMCA’s Families Can! Program, through which the Front Porch training is offered in Knox, Lincoln Sagadahoc and Waldo counties, has a number of other classes for parents and other family members.

For more information about the Front Porch Project, contact Dawn Flagg at dawn.flagg@mmcacorp.org.