Simple acts of kindness make great neighbors
After the past couple of years, it would seem what the world needs now is one massive hug. People are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and loss on many levels. What one person battles daily looks quite different for another. That’s when something as small as a smile or simple act of kindness can help open doors of healing for hearts and souls.
David Burton works for the University of Missouri Extension in Springfield as a county engagement and community development specialist. A couple of years ago, he came up with a community outreach guide and pitched the idea to his boss. It was the seed for what is now known as the Engaged Neighbor Program.
It was on a long drive back from Colorado listening to an audiobook about relationships that David had an “aha!” moment — he was a horrible neighbor. As his family slept, David thought about the fact they had lived in their Republic neighborhood for 16 years, yet he couldn’t name most of those living in the homes around them.
“I have a friend who says, ‘Eat crow while it’s young and tender,’ ” David says. “The fact we hadn’t connected with the neighbors or even introduced ourselves was the crow. And it wasn’t young and tender because some of the neighbors had lived there quite a while.”
Soon, it was personal conviction which drove David and his wife, Stacey, to put together plates of cookies with a handwritten note, photo of their family and all the ways they could be contacted. “I literally went door to door and said, ‘Hey, I’ve not been a very good neighbor.’ ”
While he’s now read dozens of books on neighboring and communication, David will be the first to say it was the audiobook “The Art of Neighboring” by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon which served as the catalyst for his own change.
“The art of neighboring involves our being able to both give of our time and energy and, just as important, to receive of others,” shares the book’s authors.
An official outreach of MU’s Extension Program since 2020, the Engaged Neighbor program is gaining traction in other counties as other extension specialists are working to incorporate good neighboring ideas locally.
As part of the outreach, businesses are stepping up and joining in the grassroots effort to be good neighbors. This year, awards were given to more than 15 businesses and neighbors who participated in Missouri’s Good Neighboring Week in September. Nearly 5,600 acts of neighboring were submitted by nearly 100 groups or individuals. In Greene County, David promoted a “1,000 Acts of Neighboring Challenge” which was well-received.
“We more than doubled our goal for acts of neighboring,” says David, noting county residents officially documented 2,281 acts of neighboring which included everything from baking cookies and giving them away with notes of encouragement to people mowing the yards of elderly neighbors free of charge.
Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, where the Burtons attend, recently added a neighboring outreach to their local mission efforts.
“We call it the ‘We Are Neighbors Initiative,’ ” says Kelsey Kleier, director of missions for the church. “We will lead the church through six challenges throughout this year. Those will include meeting their neighbors, praying for their neighbors and loving their neighbors by doing acts of kindness. While there are external things to do, we’re trying to cultivate relationships.”
David makes it a priority to be available to speak, coordinate and consult on any projects related to neighboring. A free Engaged Neighbor newsletter is a great electronic resource for everyone. Those who want to learn even more can attend free monthly Extension Neighboring 101 classes online or even pay to attend Neighborhood Leadership Academy, a 10-session class offered online and in-person in the fall.
According to David, there are numerous reasons why neighboring has changed over the years. “I’ve heard the blame placed on fenced yards, homes without porches and even air conditioning,” he says, noting the additions of cell phones and computers also allow people to “entertain ourselves to death these days.”
While those are external sources of blame, we all get to choose how to spend our time.
Let’s face it: It’s easy to pull into the driveway after work, open the garage door, drive in and close the door. Then we pop out like weasels from our dens the next morning, repeating the entire process. We don’t have to see anyone else unless we purposely choose to do so.
Desiring to be a good neighbor isn’t a new trend. In an official proclamation in 1978, President Jimmy Carter noted, “Understanding, love and respect build cohesive families and communities,” adding that as the nation continued to struggle to build friendships among people in the world, “We are mindful that the noblest human concern is concern for others.” Since the proclamation, a day in September has been set aside as National Good Neighbor Day, now celebrated on Sept. 28.
The concept of neighboring may seem daunting if you tend to be shy or unsure of how to start conversations. No matter how large or how small the effort, a good chain reaction is likely to begin. You may find a new friend or simply realize some good neighbors are there to let you borrow a cup of sugar, if you happen to need one.
Neighboring can be as simple as a smile and a wave as you pick up the mail or as big as hosting a neighborhood s’mores party at your backyard firepit. Small beginnings plant seeds which, in time, can grow into beautiful gardens of friendship or simply make great neighbors.
“You don’t need a license to change someone,” David says. “You just need to care.”
You may contact David Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org; 417-881-8909. For more information about MU Extension’s Engaged Neighbor program or find free resources, go to www.extension.missouri.edu and search for engaged neighbor project.
Learn more about Ridgecrest Baptist Church’s neighboring efforts at www.ridgecrestbaptist.org/neighbors.