The mission of Kids First is to help divorcing couples to not put the kids in the middle.

But sometimes being in the middle – a different way – is exactly what the child wants.

Take the case of a little girl whose parents separated before she was born. She had never seen her parents together other than in a police station lobby, where visitation drop-offs and pick-ups happened. After her parents went through the Kids First nine-week program known as ICOPE – Intensive Co-Parenting Education – they took her out for ice cream. Together. It was the only time she could remember holding both of their hands.

“I told them, ‘You’ve given your daughter a gift that nobody else can give,’ ” said Justice A. Mark Horton, who orders divorcing families to take part in Kids First programs.

“These classes teach really small, basic things that make a huge difference for the kids,” said Elizabeth Stout, who was the girl’s guardian ad litem.

“Basically, we expect them to be parents together even if they’re not together,” Horton said.

As painful as separation and divorce may be for adults, it is the mission of Kids First to do just that – make children the top priority. With a center on St. John Street in Portland and satellite programs around the state, Kids First serves 3,500 Mainers a year, providing programs for parents, step-parents, teens and children.

Adult classes help parents set up a co-parenting relationship that is respectful and businesslike, while children’s groups are a safe place to talk and learn coping skills.

“The gala is the single largest special event we do,” said Peg Libby, executive director of Kids First. “And we provide services regardless of a family’s ability to pay. As you can imagine, people going through divorce feel financially fragile.”

As a result, the organization provided $54,000 in financial aid last year. And about 60 percent of the Kids First budget comes from its annual auction gala, according to gala chairperson Kimberly Kump.

This year’s auction at The Woodlands in Falmouth brought in over $73,000 – or 20 percent of the organization’s annual budget. The highest bid was for $1,250 to host a private jazz party featuring the smooth sounds of local band Standard Issue and catering by The Black Tie Company.

Preparations for the gala began six months ago, with board members soliciting 50 sponsors for auction items, said Kump, who has been gala chair for the past five years.

She first got involved with Kids First years ago after seeing her sister go through a divorce. “I saw how it affected her as an adult,” she said, “and I couldn’t imagine how it affects children.”

“It’s so easy for the parents to put the kids in the middle without realizing it, and when they consciously realize it, their behavior shifts,” said Enes Conedera, a therapist who refers ex-couples to Kids First. “And they begin to see, ‘Oh, if we put our child first, then we’re on the same page.’ ”

The four-hour Saturday workshop for parents is the Kids First signature program.

“Everybody takes a little something different from it,” said Nancy Morin, a family law attorney, mediator and guardian ad litem. “But, usually, it’s a way to get people to start talking again.”

“It’s not therapy. It’s not counseling,” Libby said. “It’s giving parents the tools they need to forge a new relationship with their children’s other parent. It’s like a business relationship. You may not like them anymore, but you have to work with them.”

Parents with serious, long-term differences can be court-ordered to ICOPE for nine weeks.

“It’s not easy to undo that in a couple of months,” said Judge Keith Powers. “But for the people who want help, it’s a great program. We need to give people co-parenting tools and show them how to put the kids’ interests first.”

Powers leads the first session of the 9-week class and the graduation, both of which are held in a courtroom. At the first session, the parents are as far away from each other as possible. But, at the graduation, Powers said, they often sit together.

Karen Brown of Gorham runs the Kids First teen support group for grades 9 to 11, creating a place that fosters open communication. “I’ve been able to identify kids at risk and speak with both parents and hopefully recommend a better path,” Brown said.

Natalie Kuhn, a senior at Falmouth High School, is a volunteer assistant at a Kids First divorce support group for children in grades 1 to 3.

“You can see their transformation as they go through the six weeks,” Kuhn said. “They become less reserved, and by the end of it, they’re sprinting around and they’re open. You can see them lightening up a little and being more like kids again.”

As a divorced dad, Alan Barthelman had split custody of his children and wanted to be the best parent he could be under those circumstances. His children are now grown, but he’s been facilitating a monthly Divorce and Dads group since 1999. 

“It gives dads a safe place to talk, and I think it’s contrary to popular belief that men do go to support groups,” Barthelman said.

“I believe so much in the mission – as an adult child of divorce – that I come back and volunteer every year at the auction,” said Sheila Nee, a former program director at Kids First. “We would hear back from parents whose children attended the program what a difference it made in their lives.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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