Five Ways to Build Community This Summer
“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world.” Jean VanierPosted Jun 14, 2013
The Canadian philosopher and humanitarian, Jean Vanier, once said that “Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world… It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.”
Most of us recognize the importance of a strong and healthy community, yet in our busy lives it can often be difficult to fit in community-building activities. Here are five ways to strengthen those ties during the summer months and generate a good community vibe that keeps on going:
1. Grow Together: Gardening in Community
Before we had acreage and a place to plant our seeds, we shared gardens in different locations thanks to the generosity of friends. Now that we have arable land at our fingertips, we share our garden space with two other families who like working in community. The benefits go both ways: first, we grow more food together than we could ever grow individually because we are more motivated and efficient. Working together also means we are more likely to get things done, notice issues, and fill in any gaps that arise, because there are three or more pairs of eyes on every plant rather than one. Second, our children enjoy their gardening time because friends are regularly present. Parents also enjoy the therapy of talking together with our hands in the dirt. Third, there is always someone available to weed, water, and tend the garden when one or more of the partners are on holidays. Now in our second year gardening on our current property, we have worked out a schedule that gives everyone time off and shares the load equally. It’s hard to imagine how we ever gardened alone.
- Decide in advance how you will divide labor, inputs, and produce. In our case, we divide expenses like seeds, compost, and organic fertilizers equally. My husband and I take care of long term investments like fencing, irrigation, and slow-release soil amendments because we benefit more from these over the long term.
- Schedule the season in advance. In late winter, I usually send a schedule of potential work dates to garden partners and we adjust as the season evolves. One day a month is all it takes from February until April. Between May and June, we are busy planting and replanting as often as it takes. As July and August rolls around, we divvy up the weeks and take turns being in charge of watering, weeding, and planting with one week on, two weeks off. Harvesting is open to everyone all season long.
- Share the bounty through pot-luck meals in-season. With garden partners dropping by to work together, we often share a weekend lunch with children joining in. I love to see how one family uses the freshly harvested basil, or slips chopped lemon verbena into a salad.
- If you are new to an area, consider joining your local community garden or placing a classified ad seeking garden space. We once tended vegetables in three different plots after our newspaper ad generated interest from several families with very different gardens.
2. Work Together: Organize a Work Bee
Each year our family participates in five work bees pre-arranged to take place at a different family’s house throughout the spring and summer. We organize the work bees to occur once per month, and commit to missing no more than one in any given year. One of these work bees occurs at our place, and on that day we can expect anywhere from eight to sixteen helping hands to arrive with children, sporting a pot-luck lunch and an array of previously requested tools. Through these work bees we have both accomplished tasks we would never complete ourselves and learned new skills to use and share with others. We have also watched the children involved grow from babes-in-arms to capable workers willing to share the load (and the fun). Now we take pride in the progress made by friends and neighbors and look forward to each work bee with anticipation.
- Clearly outline expectations for everyone involved. Include the anticipated start and end times for each work bee and any commitments expected (for example, “bring a pot-luck lunch to share.”)
- Provide advance notice. If organizing more than one work bee during a season, send out a calendar in advance so people can plan around the events, especially if commitment is expected. Ask the host to send another reminder as each event approaches detailing what will occur and any tools requested.
- Plan for child care. If young children are present, designate one or more parents to take turns watching the wee ones. Set up a picnic table with play dough or other art supplies or a wading pool with toys.
- Acknowledge everyone’s hard work with thanks at the end of the day and random acts of gratitude (see point number five below).
3. Get on the Meal Train:
During the first two weeks of my youngest daughter’s life, different people showed up outside my door each day at dinnertime with a meal for our young family. Although I didn’t know who to expect each day when five o’clock rolled around, I knew that a meal was on its way thanks to the organizational efforts of a close friend and a new community of people who I was gradually meeting, one person at a time. The relief of not having to prepare one more meal each day gave our family the time and strength we needed to focus on our baby in those first few weeks after birth. I did not forget that kindness and later went on to organize meals for other new moms in and around our community. Today I still get occasional requests to cook for families with a new baby or an injured family member, and I’m more than happy to take part. The spirit of generosity in the community builds with each new recipient.
- Keep it simple. When organizing food for someone, all you need is a telephone and a calendar. You can also organize by email, though it’s easy for messages to get buried (or lost) this way. Free online tools like MealTrain exist for those who are more digitally inclined, and help participants see the schedule at a glance (plus, in some cases, what each person is cooking).
- Cast a wide net. I have cooked for people I don’t know very well, along with people I’ve never met. Bringing a meal to someone in need (or someone new) is a way to make new friends and introduce yourself. Many people are looking for an opportunity to make a difference and don’t care if they are best friends with the recipient.
- Communicate any food sensitivities or preferences with those who are preparing meals. This is especially important if allergies are involved.
4. Commit Random Acts of Virtue:
Not very long ago, several families in our community formed a “virtues club” to teach their children the benefit of virtues like compassion, generosity, kindness, and honor. Each week they met to discuss a new virtue and came up with a way of exercising that virtue collectively. Their tasks included serving food to families in need at a local community event and weeding the garden of our community’s midwife (who was not blessed with free time that particular summer). Their example spawned other random acts, both in the community and among families who heard about their kindness. There are now websites dedicated to this kind of action and studies showing that random acts of virtue promote happiness and build healthier communities.
- A small act can have a big impact. Look around your community and see who is in need. Sometimes there’s a small job that you can accomplish that will make a big difference to the recipient. When I was a new mother with a colicky baby, having an acquaintance sweep my floor nearly moved me to tears. Another friend tightened a loose handle on one of my cooking pots and made my life instantly easier. These simple acts gave me the pause I needed to cope with a difficult situation and reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
- Consider what talents or time you have to offer. Does someone need their lawn mown? Their garbage taken out? Maybe there’s a neighbour who could use some of those tender greens in your garden. Finding them in a bag outside her door may be just the thing she needs.
- Don’t forget the small stuff. Smiling and being pleasant are worth their weight in gold when applied liberally.
5. Celebrate Together:
Summer offers untold opportunities to get outside and enjoy the weather, but doing so in community enriches the experience and builds connection. For the past few years, families in our community have taken turns hosting different seasonal events. These gatherings have evolved over the years to include simple celebrations around Spring Equinox or Easter, Summer Solstice, and Midsummer’s Eve. Pot-lucks are usually involved, along with outdoor games or impromptu performances. Sometimes a camp-out will follow. My children have come to rely on these celebrations to mark the seasons and set a rhythm for the year.
- Share the load. Although you may decide to host a gathering, ask other families to get involved in various aspects of the celebration. Many times we have provided space for an event while another parent organized an activity (and still another brought simple, natural craft supplies). Organizing such an event together brings a shared sense of satisfaction to everyone involved.
- The location can be wherever you like. If you don’t have a space that’s conducive to gathering, use a public space like a beach or park. An impromptu pot-luck on picnic tables at the beach with a playground nearby or a soccer ball is enough for a fun-filled afternoon.
- Volunteer at a community celebration. Many towns offer the opportunity to get involved in community celebrations, even if your time is limited. Check with your local municipality for more information.
At the end of the year we will often gather digital photographs from friends who take part in different events and put together a slide show of activities. It’s amazing to see the smiles generated when each moment is relived. These moments remind us that although we strive to accomplish a lot in our day-to-day lives, life really is about making memories. And these memories are worth much more when shared.
Shannon Cowan is a writer and editor whose novels and articles are published in the United States and Canada. She and her family are currently building a green home and converting six acres of semi-rural brush into a working farm. She blogs about their adventures at www.agreenhearth.com.