HARTFORD, Conn. ― On the outside, Jordan Porco was a typical 18-year-old college freshman.
He loved the outdoors. He snowboarded. He sought out new music, creating CDs and playlists and sharing them with his friends.
So when Marisa Giarnella-Porco and her then-husband Ernie Porco received a call in February 2011 that their son had died by suicide, they were left with a gaping hole – and questions that seemed unanswerable.
“We’re piecing together a puzzle: would’ve, should’ve, could’ve,” she said. “You live with that. . What if I’d did this? What did I miss?”
To channel their grief, in 2012 the two co-founded the Jordan Porco Foundation, a Hartford-based nonprofit that seeks to promote mental health awareness for young adults and to prevent suicide ― the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the federal Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The foundation has nine staff members, with Giarnella-Porco serving as president and Porco chairing the board of directors.
“I was wired early on to know that something good had to come out of this tragedy,” she said.
Despite being a social worker for 30 years, Giarnella-Porco said she didn’t fully grasp the prevalence of suicide until it hit home.
“We did a lot of research after my son died,” she said. “We thought, ‘What type of event could we create to promote the message that it’s OK to get help?’”
The foundation’s first, and signature, program was Fresh Check Day, an event held on college campuses that creates an approachable environment for students to talk about mental health, suicide prevention, wellness and available resources. It draws upon various student volunteers and campus organizations, and engages participants with activities such as those that use vision goggles to depict substance abuse and distorted mirrors to address eating disorders.
“We designed Fresh Check Day to create an atmosphere and an event that maybe my son would go to,” Giarnella-Porco said, adding it often includes music, food and giveaways.
The program kicked off in 2012 at Eastern Connecticut State University, expanded to five colleges in 2013 and went national in 2014, with 10 schools. From 2015 to 2016, participation doubled from 30 to 60 colleges, with about 40,000 students reached since the program’s inception, Giarnella-Porco said.
This year, colleges in 14 states, as well as Washington D.C., held Fresh Check days in the spring or fall. Universities hosting the program include Boston University, Quinnipiac University and UConn.
Andrea Duarte, behavioral health program manager in the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said she isn’t surprised that this program has taken off.
“Campuses haven’t had a service or program to address this need, so they’re kind of hungry for this,” she said.
Giarnella-Porco’s endless drive and passion for the cause has also catapulted the program’s success, she added.
“She has a lot of energy that’s contagious and engaging,” Duarte said. UConn’s Fresh Check Day, which began in 2013, attracts upward of 1,000 students during Spring Weekend and has become a campus mainstay, said Elizabeth Cracco, the university’s counseling services director and one of seven clinical advisers for the foundation.
“One of the most notable results is (students) feel like the university really cares about this issue and about them,” Cracco said.
Participants also walk away from Fresh Check Day with a heightened awareness of mental health and suicide prevention, according to the foundation’s national exit surveys. Eighty-seven percent of spring 2016 participants said they were more informed about available resources, and 92.3 percent successfully named at least two warning signs of suicide, such as behavior changes and eating problems.
Students recognizing that their mental health is just as important as their physical health is fundamental, Giarnella-Porco said, adding, “You wouldn’t ignore a broken arm and not see a doctor.”
As the program continues to grow – the goal is to have 125 to 150 schools on board next year – Giarnella-Porco said the foundation is eager to expand its new high school program, 4 What’s Next, which it piloted in the past year at East Catholic and Windham high schools. She said it’s designed to empower students to talk about transitions ― to college and also the military and workforce.
Before Jordan’s death, Giarnella-Porco said, he confided in her and Porco that he didn’t know what he was going to major in and was contemplating taking a gap year. Feeling unprepared is not uncommon, with 60 percent of 1,500 college freshmen surveyed saying they wish they’d been more emotionally equipped for college, according to 2015 data from the foundation, the JED Foundation and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
“There’s a lot of pressure to go to prestigious colleges and get good grades and it’s at the sacrifice of their own mental health,” Giarnella-Porco said.
But even with about 3.3 million college students in need of counseling, only 11 percent seek help, according to 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers data. This is where the Jordan Porco Foundation’s peer-to-peer approach is invaluable, said Leah Nelson, program manager.
“Students are much more receptive to hearing this message … from their own peers,” said Nelson. “Most students who are struggling see a friend first, not book an appointment with a professional counselor on the campus.”
With the foundation’s impact growing, Giarnella-Porco emphasized that it’s all been a team effort ― with “an amazing staff and clinical (advisers) and board of (directors) here that guide us,” as well as Porco’s business and development role within the foundation and private donations and grants that keep it going. “I’m not the Hometown Hero here.”
But to those who know her, she is exactly that.
“I can’t imagine the sense of ever losing my kid,” Nelson said. “To become a champion of (suicide) prevention methods and get out there in front of people – it takes a lot of courage.”