- Jarad Greene
That place is Front Porch Forum, an online community bulletin board available in every Vermont town. In the 24 years since its founding in Burlington, Front Porch Forum has become a Green Mountain institution, its email bulletins — unique to each town or neighborhood — opened each day by thousands of householders eager to learn what their fellow residents have to say.
"I could say, 'Well, it's like a neighborhood Facebook group' or 'It's like Nextdoor,'" an online competitor with national reach, "and usually people's faces pucker at that point," said Michael Wood-Lewis, cofounder and CEO of the company.
He prefers to liken his platform to a chemical catalyst: "There's just a bunch of inert ingredients sitting on the shelf. But you throw in the Front Porch Forum, and suddenly all these great things happen."
Vermonters use their neighborhood forum in all sorts of ways: They sell used tires and kitchen tables, seek recommendations for house cleaners and auto mechanics, discuss local politics, hunt for homes, and form book clubs. Joining is easy. Users register a name and address to start receiving emailed batches of messages posted by neighbors.
During an era when other social media companies are accused of imperiling democracy, Front Porch Forum stands out as a rare social network capable of strengthening communities and real-life relationships. Nationally, the site has gained a reputation among academics studying digital spaces as a rare example of the internet gone right.
"Front Porch Forum has an intimacy and an interactivity," said Paul Costello, former executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. "It lets communities think through political issues for themselves, and in our state of democracy, that's infinitely valuable."
- Michael Wood-Lewis
Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, created a bare-bones version of the message board in 2000 to serve their neighborhood in Burlington's South End. The couple, then new to Vermont, sought to connect with their neighbors. Michael had just left a job at a tech startup and was looking for a new project.
The community bulletin board caught on and attracted attention. In 2006, Wood-Lewis hired a recent UVM grad to write code for a slightly more accessible version. Front Porch Forum expanded to all of Chittenden County, and later to the rest of the state.
By 2011, federal emergency workers arriving to help clean up the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene were amazed with the complex organizing already in place in some towns, Costello said. Vermonters pointed to Front Porch Forum.
"They said, 'We're not organizing,'" he explained. "'We're just sharing.'"
By 2012, the company reported annual revenue of $400,000, according to a grant application it filed. The money came from advertising sales, custom subscriptions, expansion partnerships and supporting memberships.
The company's reach widened to all of Vermont the next year, with the help of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and $370,000 in federal funding earmarked for digital infrastructure for disaster recovery.
In communities where residents were already civically active, such as Montpelier, Front Porch Forum caught on quickly. In other places, it took time to reach a critical mass. Wood-Lewis remembers personally hanging flyers and chatting about the service with town librarians.
While Wood-Lewis wouldn't disclose Front Porch Forum's current revenue, he said the company has gone from being a "break-even and threadbare" operation to having enough income to offer full employee benefits.
"We finally kind of graduated to having all of these things," he said.
Front Porch Forum employs about 30 people who moderate posts, sell ads and develop the site. The company hosts a total of 202 forums, most in Vermont but a few in nearby New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. While most towns have their own forum, bigger places such as Burlington are split into several neighborhoods. Some small towns share a forum with nearby communities.
Front Porch Forum's web design remains radically simple. It wasn't until last year that it enabled users to upload photos with their posts. The site lacks the reaction buttons and comment fields that allow venting and personal attacks on most social media platforms. That's deliberate.
"The solution to our crisis of democracy isn't spewing our political beliefs back and forth. It's working on a project together," Wood-Lewis said.
Some people have criticized the company's moderation, saying it censors free speech. Wood-Lewis holds that it is necessary for civic health.
"We're about the original promise of the internet: decentralized, distributed communication to get people information and to do a different thing," Wood-Lewis explained.
The forums are abuzz with hyperlocal discussions that can keep town officials abreast of public opinion. Last week, Shelburne neighbors protested the paving of Pond Road, the town's sole remaining gravel route. Earlier this month in Stowe, neighbors met to discuss potential homegrown solutions to the town's housing crisis, coordinating through Front Porch Forum.
When catastrophic flooding devastated some communities last July, Costello witnessed the power of Front Porch Forum again. In hard-hit Montpelier, where he lives, "You'd post about needing help, and 20 people would show up," he said. Neighbors lent sump pumps and offered each other places to sleep.
While Wood-Lewis has no interest in expanding to other states, Michael Sugarman, director of media at the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, remains hopeful that Front Porch Forum could lead others to a new era of constructive online spaces.
"It's funny because it's just these incredibly unassuming Vermonters who have created this kind of comparatively boring website," Sugarman said. "But it really stands out as an inspiring model."
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Laura Smith-Riva of Montpelier with an electric meat grinder she offered for sale on Front Porch Forum
To better understand Front Porch Forum's role in Vermonters' lives, Seven Days requested access to a single day's worth of posts statewide. (Users typically see only the posts shared in their neighborhood.) The company agreed and provided all 688 posts from January 5.
The posts offered the usual mix of items for sale, requests for help, public announcements and idiosyncratic messages. A Montpelier woman offered up her electric meat grinder. "Great for game or small processing operation, sausage etc." A Burlington resident thanked an unknown neighbor who had spotted an overlooked ornament on their discarded Christmas tree awaiting curbside collection and left it in their newspaper box. In South Hero, an ongoing saga concluded with this post: "Thank you all for your interest in the turtle. He has been claimed!"
From the flotilla of messages, we chose seven that reflect the diversity of the platform's posts. Then we talked to the people who wrote them to find out what happened as a result. Here are those posts, edited for length, and the backstories of the Vermonters who shared a want, an offer or an idea on Front Porch Forum on January 5.
To the Nines
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Jacquelyn Hughes working on a painting in Montpelier
As soon as Jacquelyn Hughes saw the picture of Hailey Bieber wearing a white Yves Saint Laurent dress, she could think of nothing else. In a different color — and for about $5,000 less — it would be the perfect dress for her to wear to her husband's cousin's wedding a year off. She knows that sounds a little fanatical.
"I'm not into celebrities or anything, but I swear to you, I can never find what I'm looking for," she explained. So Hughes decided to post on Front Porch Forum to see if anyone in the Montpelier area would be willing to make her the dress. "I'm happy to give somebody a shot," Hughes said.
The post caught the eye of Birgit Loveall, a local bookkeeper and driver who spends her evenings altering clothing for loyal clients. Loveall, born and raised in Germany, has been sewing since her mother taught her when she was 10.
"I thought about it for a while because making a dress for somebody if you don't have a pattern is not the easiest thing," Loveall said. "But it's a challenge, and I like challenges."
After a lively email exchange, the women decided to work together.
It wasn't the first time Hughes found what she needed by posting on Front Porch Forum. The 37-year-old woman dabbles in acrylic painting and, more recently, fiber arts. Last spring, Hughes found herself the proud owner of some raw, local wool: perfect for her projects, but unprocessed. In a Forum post, she sought a drum carder — a large wooden device that disentangles, cleans and intermixes raw fiber. A local woman responded, giving her a drum carder and some fiber supplies that had belonged to her mother, who had entered an assisted-living facility. She also gave Hughes a picture of her mother weaving.
"It was supersweet and touching," Hughes said. She's working on a painting of the woman's mother as a surprise thank-you gift.
Loveall, meanwhile, has started sketching the dress and has asked Hughes for her measurements. She plans on making a trip to a fabric store with Hughes to get a sense of the type of material she's looking for and may even source fabric while visiting family in Europe this year.
The two women haven't yet set a price for the labor that will go into creating the dress. But Loveall said she isn't too concerned about how much she'll be paid. "I'm just doing it for fun, honestly," she said.
Vermont School Essentials
- Schoolchildren at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro
Starksboro's Robinson Elementary School has a fine sledding hill for a playground, and principal Edorah Frazer, whose office window has a view of the hill, likes to make sure her students are equipped for it.
So nearly every year, she asks people on Front Porch Forum to donate sleds, mittens and gloves. "And it always yields results," she said, "so I keep doing it." The gear stays at school, where it gets heavy use. "When you've got a bunch of kids riding on sleds, they don't last all that long," Frazer said. And mittens tend to get lost.
This year's post yielded fewer items than usual, which Frazer attributed to unfortunate timing. Her request landed in inboxes just before snow and high winds walloped the area, knocking out power. "There are greater needs right now," she said.
The lesser response didn't shake her faith in the town. After last year's post, a woman brought in about 20 pairs of mittens and gloves. When Frazer asks for volunteers, people step up. If she asks for sneakers, "people go out and shop."
"If it's been a while since we've asked for anything, there are actually people who will start to ask, 'What do you need?'"
Frazer has been the school's principal for nine years. Robinson Elementary, a K-6 school with 100 students, enjoys strong community support, she said. Two years ago, Mount Abraham Unified School District superintendent Patrick Reen proposed sending Robinson students to another school to repurpose the building. "The town was outraged," Frazer said.
To keep the school running, residents voted to leave the district, but another town in the district blocked Starksboro's exit. The district school board ultimately rejected Reen's proposal, so Robinson remains open.
Frazer attributes the town's fierce support for the school to multigenerational families involved in the community. People turn out for town meeting, she said, where high school kids babysit the little kids and lunch is exceptionally good. If townspeople run through their agenda too quickly, a resident will say, "Somebody bring up another topic so we can stay and talk." Those at their first town meeting go home with a jug of maple syrup.
About a decade ago, Frazer said, residents at town meeting rejected the school budget — so they could increase it. "It's not a story you hear too often," she said.
The school, in turn, supports the town. A week after her Front Porch Forum appeal, Frazer wrote another, reminding residents that the school is an emergency shelter and was open for water and charging electronic devices while winter-storm power outages continued.
- Caleb Kenna
- Pam Spatafora at her home in Middlebury
She had put off the task for more than a year, but the time had finally come for Pam Spatafora to say goodbye to her husband's prized possessions. The 68-year-old woman watched from the garage of her Middlebury home as a white van emblazoned with "Browsing Is Arousing" backed into her driveway. She introduced herself to two men, then led them up a stairwell to a landing filled with mismatched wooden dressers and half a dozen dusty bookcases.
Everything here can go, she said, pointing toward hundreds of paperbacks and DVDs. The old records, too. "And there's more in there," she said, gesturing toward a cabinet overflowing with military-themed books.
Pam had already decided what to keep from Frank's vast collection: a biography of Chicago's iconic Franks Drum Shop, mostly because of the book's name: Franks for the Memories; and another about Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing" and one of Frank's favorite musicians.
"And this one," she said, pulling out a white coffee-table book. It was a history of the U.S. Navy, in which Frank had proudly served. She ran her hand across its cover. "This one I gave to him."
Pam had said goodbye to many of her husband's belongings in the 15 months since his death. She found new homes for his five vintage drum sets. She donated books and DVDs to libraries and thrift stores. But there was still so much left, and the thought of losing it all at once terrified her, because it represented so much of who Frank was.
She had met him online in 2006, and they bonded over their Long Island upbringings and appreciation for music: He was a jazz drummer; she played the flute. Their shared love of books filled relaxing weekends together, from afternoons in secondhand stores to reading on the beach in Maine.
A few years ago, Pam noticed Frank was losing interest in his hobbies and had bouts of forgetfulness. She encouraged him to see a specialist, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. His mental state deteriorated in the following years to the point that by the end, Pam suspected he no longer remembered who she was. In 2022, she reluctantly moved him into an assisted-living facility, where he died from kidney failure.
The second floor of their home had felt like a mausoleum since then, and Pam avoided going upstairs whenever possible. Lately, though, she had started to worry that his collection could wind up in the dump if something happened to her. As she typed a post for Front Porch Forum seeking people who would appreciate his items, she told herself that this way, she had some control.
The first to respond was the 81-year-old owner of a large bookstore on Route 7 in Middlebury, where Frank had bought many books over the years. A few days later, Dick Chodkowski and one of his employees at Monroe Street Books arrived in the white van to haul away Frank's stuff.
Pam pointed out that her husband had meticulously cataloged his items.
"He could have been a shelver for us!" Chodkowski said.
Pam laughed. He was at the store enough, she said. She pointed to the photo she had displayed at his memorial service. Frank's decades-old dog tags hung from the frame. "That's his face."
"Oh, yeah! Yeah. I think I remember him," Chodkowski said.
Pam watched the men pack for as long as she could, then went downstairs and into the kitchen to collect her thoughts. She stood in the garage as they loaded the final box into the now-filled van, then watched them drive away.
Standing among the empty shelves the following day, she took solace in the knowledge that Frank's collection would live on. But she also felt the weight of it all — another piece of him gone.
- Daria Bishop
- Anne Groom auditioning for the Shelburne Players' production of Kodachrome
A determined spirit courses through Vermont thespians. Patrick Houle, who has performed at least 100 roles — most of them in Vermont — marvels at how that spirit fuels a medley of volunteers to transform a barn, museum or town hall so they can put on a show.
"Blows me away every time," Houle said. "It's like somebody has this creative energy and it has to go somewhere, and they can't rest until it's done."
Houle, 44, first felt its spark as a teen. "I was in a production of a really, really bad comedy in high school," he said. "The premise was, essentially, this guy who works for the mob falls in love with the godfather's daughter, and they tried to run away together." He played the lead. Despite the bad script, he remembers feeling surrounded by creativity and loving the "charge I got from it."
He graduated from Canaan Memorial High School, earned a theater degree at Johnson State College — now part of Vermont State University — and taught theater there. Before he had kids, he said, he was always in at least one show. "I remember leaving the cast party of one show to go to the dress rehearsal of another," he said.
Now a resident of Jeffersonville, Houle was in the audience of the Shelburne Players' last play, in November, when he won two tickets to the company's next show, Kodachrome. Because it was likened to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the play appealed to Houle, and he made a mental note to consider auditioning.
The 22-year-old all-volunteer theater company advertised audition dates on media sites, newspaper calendars and Front Porch Forum. And on January 8, Houle sat with 15 others at Shelburne's old town hall as they took turns reading parts for director Alex Nalbach.
The beauty of community theater is the way it brings together the hardware store owner, the librarian and the waitress to play — in this case — a hardware store owner, librarian, waitress and 13 other roles. Love — new, old, requited, unrequited, lost and unexpressed — is at the heart of the Adam Szymkowicz play.
Houle, now a high school soccer coach and a senior copywriter for Dealer.com, wasn't nervous during auditions, he said a few days later: "I feel like I've just been at this rodeo so many times." Though not for a while. If cast, this would be his second show in seven years. He took a break when his real life took some dramatic turns. In 2017, his father died and Houle got divorced. The experiences, though painful, have provided rich material for him to draw on.
Reading the part of the hardware store owner as he stands at his wife's grave asking for permission to date again stirred the awkwardness and grief Houle felt in the Northeast Kingdom funeral home where he had asked for time alone with his dad. Houle told his dad he hoped he had made him proud. He apologized for things he'd said as a teenager. Then he apologized for not apologizing sooner.
Regardless of its outcome, auditioning was fun, Houle said. "When you are not cast, it's very rarely about your talent," he added. Some characters need to be old, for example, some young. "It's all like putting together a puzzle."
Kodachrome offers much for audiences to connect with, Houle said after the audition. "I really do think that people should come to see the show ... Even if I don't get cast, I'm definitely going to see it. I mean, I have two free tickets, after all."
Turns out he won't need them. Houle landed the role of the hardware store owner. He'll appear in Kodachrome's six performances in April at the Shelburne Town Hall.
On the Loose
- Daria Bishop
- Doug and Jeanne Landry by the Lamoille River in Johnson
The drama on Johnson's Front Porch Forum started after Doug Landry, out for a walk, spotted a lone white goose floating on the Lamoille River. Something about the solitary bird worried him. "I thought to myself, That doesn't belong there," Landry said. "He was quacking as if to say, 'Look at me! I'm lost.'"
So that evening, Landry logged on to Front Porch Forum and composed a simple message: "White goose spotted on a river in Johnson across from town sand pile. Possibly domestic."
The forum was soon abuzz with neighbors contributing to the goose chase. "The goose is still there, seems to be in distress. I tried to call the local game warden but have not heard back yet," one neighbor wrote.
"Our friend Davis is missing two of his white geese. We'll check it out tomorrow," someone else chimed in. Another person passed along the number of a woman who "does these types of rescues."
On January 2 the white goose was spotted again "at the end of Lendway Lane heading downstream," another person announced on the forum. The next day, Landry used the forum to let people know that he had contacted a "professional" and was "going to put together a team to try capturing and relocating the goose."
Paul Nowell, a Johnson native, posted: "I would like to volunteer my services as a professional goose wrangler. I have attached my credentials below, and look forward to helping you in this quest to retrieve this goose as soon as possible." Attached was an almost convincing "certificate of goose wrangler."
Jokes aside, Landry did put together a rescue team. He got in touch with Amanda Perkins of Derry, N.H. The 31-year-old works professionally for a waterfowl rescue group, answering its hotline. In her free time, she cares for her own three geese.
"Geese are so sweet," she gushed. "They are definitely as loyal as a dog, and they have so much personality."
On January 6, Perkins drove the three hours to Johnson. She and Landry trudged along the Lamoille River until she found the goose. She played goose calls on her phone to lure him.
But he was spooked, and much to Perkins' surprise, took to the air. Domesticated geese cannot fly very far, Perkins said, so the goose was likely a cross between a Canada goose and a domesticated one. As the sun set, Perkins gave up on the rescue, at least for the moment.
"When geese — even a Canada goose — are alone, they become very distressed and they risk their safety to try and find their family," Perkins said. "This goose needs to be rescued."
Landry has continued to keep tabs on the bird. He's still in touch with Perkins, who wants to assemble a larger group for a coordinated rescue. Until then, though, the people of Johnson wait with bated breath.
"Is there an update for our friendly neighborhood white goose?" Ashley McGrann posted on January 13th. "My friends and I are heavily invested in how this wild goose chase ends!"
Jill of All Trades
- Rob Strong
- Hannah Lepisko and her dog Jewels on a walk in Perkinsville
Hannah Lepisko was skeptical of Front Porch Forum when her grandmother introduced her to it a few years ago. This place is silly, she thought as she scrolled through the first few batches of posts. It's for old people trying to find someone to shovel their driveways.
She was partly correct. But the more the Brownsville resident browsed the daily digest, the more she realized its potential. She's since used it to find housing and a dog walker.
Recently, the tourist-reliant general store where she works reduced her hours because of the ski season's slow start. The loss of income turned Lepisko from someone hiring a dog walker into a person offering dog-walking services, along with errand-running and house-sitting.
"I have a little truck," the 28-year-old wrote, "so even if it's some larger items, we can make that happen."
Her post has already paid off. Four people inquired about her dog-walking rates, and she's already committed to walk one canine several days a week. She hopes to cobble together enough gigs to sustain herself while she figures out what she wants to do long-term. One potential option: dusting off her spatulas.
A lifelong baker, Lepisko attended the New England Culinary Institute and has worked in professional kitchens, yet she always felt intimidated by the thought of trying to replicate such efforts at home. The pandemic-era boom in bread making inspired her to give it a try, and she now dreams of starting her own baking side business. "I could have a dog-walking business where I bring people bread and walk the dog," she mused.
For now, she's focused on staying afloat. Thanks to her Front Porch Forum post, she recently connected with an elderly woman in the Upper Valley who needs someone to run errands. She'll start that gig next month.
Who knows, with the recent snowfall, she might even end up shoveling a driveway or two.
Living in Harmony
- Daria Bishop
- Tigran Ehtesham-Cating speaking at a unity event in Jericho
Despite a sudden afternoon snow squall, the Mount Mansfield Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Meeting House was filled to capacity on January 14, the evening before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. About 40 people, most still bundled in snow pants and scarves, sat shoulder to shoulder in the intimate barn. Overhead, hundreds of string lights twinkled.
"When three Palestinian men were shot down on a Burlington street, we had to face the reality that Vermont is just not that special," Brian Walsh, a member of Jericho's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, told the crowd.
"We're here to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. King and to promote the power of love for all people, regardless of their skin color, ethnic origin, spiritual beliefs, gender or sexual orientation," Walsh said. (Police have arrested a suspect in the Burlington shooting, and they are investigating whether it was a hate crime.)
Jericho's diversity committee and the Mount Mansfield Unitarian Universalist Fellowship organized the event to promote solidarity. Speakers addressed global crises, mainly the war in Gaza, as well as issues closer to home. Tigran Ehtesham-Cating, 17, talked about their experience as a mixed-race person in overwhelmingly white Vermont. Another speaker, Joanna Weinstock, read aloud her late husband's experience as a "hidden child" living in disguise as non-Jewish during the Holocaust.
"I invite you to reflect on parallels to what's happening in the world today and what we might learn and do," Weinstock said to the crowd.
The speeches alternated with lively songs performed by the Freedom & Unity Chorus, Mountainsong and Last Minute Choir. The groups started with "One Day" by Matisyahu.
"One day, this all will change, treat people the same. Stop with the violence, down with the hate," the choir sang. Some in the audience swayed. A few young children stamped their feet.
Maria Rinaldi, a member of Jericho's diversity committee, led the chorus. She is paralyzed from the chest down and said she joined the committee to share her perspective as a disabled person.
For Rinaldi, singing is a mechanism for healing. Hosting an event with her chorus was a no-brainer. Choosing how to publicize it was also easy.
"With Front Porch Forum, you can reach out to a lot of different communities and a lot of different types of people you've never met before," Rinaldi said.
In fact, the Freedom & Unity Chorus might've ceased to exist had it not been for Front Porch Forum. By the end of the pandemic, the group had dwindled from around 40 regular members to just 20. When in-person rehearsal seemed feasible again, Rinaldi had friends in several towns post on their local Front Porch Forum about the chorus. Enrollment swelled to 60 people.
Leading up to Sunday's event, Rinaldi posted on Jericho's forum a number of times. One attendee, Kelly Lawson, laughed about how she had learned of the meeting on Front Porch Forum rather than from her own child, Sonnet Lawson, who is a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
As the event ended, attendees filed into a hallway where home-baked cookies awaited. The room buzzed with discussion. In a corner, Leslie Dunn, a member of the Universalist Fellowship, beamed with excitement. She had almost skipped the gathering but had felt a virtual push from Rinaldi's post the day before.
"The thing I like about Front Porch Forum is that it's a place to exchange things and ideas," Dunn said. This day, she explained, was a perfect example of the latter. "I wrote a list of action items during the talks," she said, consulting her phone. "I'm inspired. I want to get more involved."
— R.H.Correction, January 24, 2024: This post was updated to correct pronouns and the number of performances of Kodachrome.