Front Porch forum expanding

VERMONT - Looking for a cider press to borrow or a trusted babysitter for Saturday evening? Want to warn neighbors about a troublesome bear? Wondering who lost the hub cap you found along the road?

When it comes to sharing hyper-local information, a growing number of Vermonters turn to their neighbors by using Front Porch Forum (FPF). As a modern-day cross between community bulletin boards and virtual town greens, FPF provides an easy way for local residents to connect with one another.

It's free. It's local. And it's friendly.

With a recent expansion, FPF is now serving every Vermont community. To sign up for this free service, visit FPF uses technology to bring neighbors closer together. Members of a local forum submit their own messages, which FPF distributes to nearby residents as an online newsletter. Because the service is moderated and real names accompany postings, the discussions remain civil, engaging, and relevant.

Husband and wife Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis launched FPF in their Burlington neighborhood in 2006. It has grown steadily and today more than 60,000 households across Vermont use their local FPF to find roofers, give away strollers, rally volunteers for pie suppers, trade equipment, and describe wildlife sightings. Common topics also include school budgets, town office candidates, events, or starting a food shelf. "Posts in the updates are always from a clearly identified nearby neighbor.

It's not anonymous. It's not the worldwide web, it's just your neighbors," Michael Wood-Lewis said. FPF is popular, because it works.

"There was a mother near us, with a teenage daughter who was having a birthday," Michael Wood-Lewis recalls. "The girl wanted to go canoeing with her friends for her birthday, but when her mother checked the price of renting canoes, it was too high. Her daughter said, 'I see lots of canoes in backyards around here,' but her mother said, 'You can't just ask people you don't know for their boats.'"

Still, she put a one-line notice on their FPF, saying they needed six canoes. Before the day was out, people were coming by and canoes were just piling up in their front yard. She wrote me a note afterwards:

"'What a great feeling. What a great reminder of how to be a community. Why didn't I get to know these people 10 years ago?'"

Recent natural disasters across Vermont sprouted a new role for FPF. Local residents began posting road closures, returning lost rowboats, organizing rescue efforts, and sharing damage reports to help each other cope with sudden changes. Even without flooding, FPFs informal network of announcements prove helpful for residents navigating unanticipated interruptions to daily patterns - as towns found out when the worst mud season in recent memory left many roads impassable.

FPF and the Vermont Council on Rural Development's Vermont Digital Economy Project are teaming up to bring this service to all Vermonters for free. New forums start in "registration" mode and become fully functional once 100 residents sign up. Experience has shown that a variety of posts makes a much more robust forum. This threshold will help them kick-off with a critical mass of people on board.

In addition, Michael Wood-Lewis adds, this model encourages the people who want the forum to act as champions for the service and encourage their neighbors to sign up.

"When there's a local effort to attract people, there's a much greater chance of quick success for each FPF."

Front Porch Forum is winning national accolades for its community building innovations. Members find they are better informed about what's going on around town and more connected with their neighbors. This increased communication helps residents feel closer to their community and they tend to get more involved in civic life.

Vermont's Congressional delegation played a crucial role in getting this project funded and off the ground in the state.


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