It’s been cold and gray for weeks here. No snow to speak of, but too wintry to want to be outside. I haven’t seen much of my neighbors and the neighborhood has been unusually quiet. I spent some time thinking about the people on my street, especially the cooped up kids and the older people, many of whom live alone. I decided to have a valentine making party for the kids, with crafts and snacks and then a trip around the block to deliver our handiwork. I made some flyers and went door to door, delivering them to houses where children lived.
The morning of the party, I baked heart-shaped sugar cookies and decorated them with 8 kinds of sprinkles. I gathered my art supplies and organized them on the table. I do art with my students every day, so crafting with the neighbor kids doesn’t feel at all strange. A quick search of my house and classroom provided all the cardstock, construction paper, doilies, stickers, scissors, markers, and glue that we could possibly need.
At 3:00 the neighbor girls rang the doorbell. The older sister is in 3rd grade and has been to our house many times to play with my daughter, but this was the first time her 4 year old sister had been allowed to join the big kid activities inside. She was thrilled to be a part of the action and had carefully accessorized her hair with seven or eight barrettes so that she would have “rainbow hair” for our party. I explained that we were making cards for the older neighbors on our street and turned the kids loose on the craft supplies.
The sisters and my 4th grader and I happily cut and glued ad stickered. My 14 year old, who long ago declared herself too big to hang out with the neighbor kids, couldn’t resist the fun and came in to join us. She showed the younger girls how to make pop-up cards and offered advice on spelling and design. The littlest sister proudly showed off her newly acquired scissor skills and her sister avoided the minor crisis of not knowing how to spell her sibling’s long and non-phonetic name by skipping the signature and writing “your neighbor” instead. Fifteen minutes into valentine making, another neighbor girl came to the door. She was new to our neighborhood and had not yet met any of the kids in my kitchen, but quickly joined in the conversation once her hands were busy with paper and glue.
The five girls chatted and worked and admired each other’s valentines. The three 9 and 10 year olds go to three different schools, but they found games and projects their schools had in common. There was interesting discussion on whether their houses were messy or neat and the observation that in the tidiest houses the kids helped clean. And there was lots of talk about neighbors. We reminisced about fun neighborhood activities we’ve done over the past year, talked about inviting the kids who just moved in across the street to come and play, and named people we knew and which house was theirs. I mentioned that our older neighbors who live alone must get lonely and that they may not have anyone to remember them on Valentine’s Day. One of the kids commented that this made the valentines we were creating even more special and important.
The cards were marvelous, full of inventive spelling and random heart arrangements and far too much glue. When I collected them all, there were enough for 4 or 5 each for the neighbors on our list. An abundance of heart felt love notes for the people on our block. We cleaned up and ate our cookies, comparing the sprinkles and sampling more then one type. Then we bundled up and headed out to make our deliveries.
The girls took turns ringing doorbells and handing over cards. Our across-the-street neighbor was surprised and delighted to see a whole group of grinning girls on her doorstep! The next neighbor was an elderly man the kids had never met. I told them that he always came to the door with his little dog in his arms, and after several long minutes, he did. As we walked away, one of the kids said, “I think we woke him up from a nap.” I told she might very well be right, but that waking up to a visit from them and a whole pile of valentines was probably the best part of his day. The bitter cold burned our faces and hands as we walked up the block, but the kids chattered away about the neighbors we were visiting. They shared what they knew about each one and talked about how kind the older people were to them. At a couple of houses, no one came to the door. We left our valentines in their mailboxes and wondered over what our neighbors would think when they found our surprises.
Our last stop was at the house of our neighborhood’s oldest resident. He is 93 and increasingly frail, but always is interested in the children. He knows their names ad has special treats for them at Halloween and Christmas. The kids all know him and a few of the girls had made special valentines just for him. When we arrived at his house, we were invited inside. He and his daughter, who cares for him, chatted with the kids and made introductions for the newer girl. Then they read through all the cards, savoring the messages and the glue-damp decorations.
There was no need to tell the kids that we had done a good thing that day. They already knew. And they were proud and excited to be part of the experience. They all skipped home, cold and happy and a little more connected to the neighbors around them.
I walked home, too, thinking about how my small efforts have changed my neighborhood. I found the courage to knock on doors and met the man with the little dog and dozens of other neighbors up and down the block. We know each other’s names now, and wave when we see each other or stop to chat. I’ve taken the time to really listen to neighbors I already knew and I’ve learned so much about their interests and their skills. I’ve gotten to know some of the kids on my block, talked to them and invited them over and I’m forming real relationships with them. I’ve hosted parties, something I’d never done, and watched as all sorts of neighbors met each other and found interests in common. And my neighboring actions have shown others, including kids, how to be good neighbors.
I have learned that Neighboring is not that difficult. It doesn’t take a lot of time or money. But the benefits are so rewarding. I am much more connected to my neighbors, now. My neighborhood is friendlier and more inviting. My neighbors are excited about knowing each other better. I am excited to learn more about them and find new ways to reach out. Neighboring has changed me and changed the way I view my neighbors. I look around my neighborhood now and see such abundance, such interesting people, such a good place to live. Most of all, I see such hope.