This article has been updated from its original text.
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. After an intense period of observing social distancing rules and keeping to ourselves, it can be even harder. Here are five ways to safely rebuild those ties during the summer and generate a good community vibe that keeps on going.
1. Grow together: gardening in community
If you lack acreage or a place to plant your own seeds, consider sharing a garden with like-minded individuals or families. The benefits go both ways.
First, you’ll grow more food together than you could ever grow individually, because you’ll be more motivated and efficient. Working together means you are more likely to get things done, notice issues, and fill in any gaps that arise, because there are more pairs of eyes on every plant rather than one.
Second, if you have children, they’re more likely to enjoy their gardening time when friends are regularly present. Parents also enjoy the therapy of talking together with their hands in the dirt.
Finally, there is always someone available to weed, water and tend the backyard garden when one or more of the partners are on holidays. Work out a schedule in advance that gives everyone time off and shares the load equally. Once you start, it’s hard to imagine how you ever gardened alone.
- Decide in advance how you will divide labor, inputs and produce. In terms of financial output, you can divide expenses for items like seeds, compost and organic fertilizers equally. The garden’s owners will often take care of long term investments like fencing, irrigation, and slow-release soil amendments because they benefit more from these over the long term.
- Schedule the season in advance. In late winter, put together a schedule of potential work dates for garden partners and adjust as the season evolves. One day a month is all it takes from February until April. Between May and June, you’ll be busy planting and replanting as often as it takes. When July and August rolls around, it’s a good time to divvy up the weeks and take turns being in charge of watering, weeding, and planting . Harvesting is easiest if left open to everyone all season long.
- Share the bounty through recipe exchanges or pot-luck meals in-season. With garden partners dropping by to work together, it’s nice to share a weekend lunch with children joining in. It’s fun 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
Working together outdoors is a great way to reconnect and get things done.
Previously our family participated in five work bees each year. These were pre-arranged to take place at a different family’s house throughout the spring and summer. We organized the work bees to occur once per month, and committed to missing no more than one in any given year. One of these work bees occurred at our place, and on that day we welcomed anywhere from eight to sixteen helping hands who arrived with children, sporting a pot-luck lunch and an array of previously requested tools.
Through these work bees we accomplished tasks we would never have completed ourselves. We learned new skills to use and share with others. We also watched the children involved grow from babes-in-arms to capable workers willing to share the load (and the fun).
With a little organization, community work bees can help those involved take pride in the progress made by friends and neighbors and share the load while reconnecting.
- 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 rake and garden gloves”)
- 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.
Cooking for individuals or families in need was once a mainstay in many communities. Finding a meal at your door when you’re experiencing grief or overwhelmed by circumstances can give you strength to carry on and know that someone cares.
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.
- Get organized. 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. It’s okay to cook for people you don’t know very well, along with people you’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. Given present circumstances, however, it’s important to keep in mind people’s comfort level with those they don’t know. Be sure to ask before you organize.
- Keep it simple. Meals cooked for others don’t have to be fancy. Many one-pot recipes fit the bill, along with those that are low-meat alternatives.
- 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.
This is something many people took on during the pandemic as a way to boost the morale of workers or simply to reach out to those alone or in need. More than one health care worker came home to find flowers or baked goods at their front door. Still others were serenaded by socially distanced choirs.
Pre-pandemic, 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. Before the pandemic, families in our community took turns hosting different seasonal events. These gatherings evolved over the years to include simple celebrations around Spring Equinox or Easter, Summer Solstice, and Midsummer’s Eve. Pot-lucks were usually involved, along with outdoor games or impromptu performances. Sometimes a camp-out followed. Community members came to rely on these celebrations to mark the seasons and set a rhythm for the year.
Getting back into the celebration mood takes time, and it makes sense to start small as communities grapple with changing regulations and guidelines. But there is always room for creativity.
- Share the load. Although you may decide to host a gathering, ask other families to get involved. 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. Keep in mind your local community’s restrictions (if any) on size of gatherings.
- 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 will soon be offering the opportunity to get involved in community celebrations. 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.