Neighbors of West Old Town Greenwood Group Builds Lifelong Connections

Photographer: Erin Feldmeyer

The cherished days of neighborhood block parties, progressive dinners, bridge parties or just dropping by to visit a neighbor unannounced are long gone. In this generation, more people connect through the fences of digital technology than face to face. But one neighborhood group is setting out to prove good neighbors can bring back those good times.

A resident of Old Town Greenwood’s west side, Tiffany Woods, decided to start making connections with neighbors but not just on Facebook. The young mom took some time off teaching fifth grade to be at home to raise her sons. Without the daily connections to people at the school, Woods was anxious to build new connections in this new phase of her life.

Woods, an avid reader, was reading “Last Child in the Woods.” In the book, the author discusses how this generation has a deficit of being outside in nature. The topic resonated with Woods since she thought about wanting to give her kids the opportunity to be outside riding bikes and enjoying nature. She and her husband had recently moved into the west old town Greenwood area, and she didn’t know many neighbors yet. The thought of her kids riding bikes around a neighborhood where the people don’t know who you are didn’t seem safe.

“The neighborhood isn’t less safe these days, but if no one knows me or my kids, they won’t look out for them as they ride by,” she says. “Even in this generation, it takes a village to raise kids.”

So, she began to think of how she could get connected with them and help them get connected too.

What happened next was the best little accident she could have ever imagined. Woods decided to reach out to the few neighbors she knew with whom she was also connected on Facebook. She intended to share her thoughts and ideas on how she could bring the neighbors together. So, Woods opened Facebook messenger, began the message with “Hello” and hit ENTER.

“I was just trying to scroll down to the next line to type the rest of my message, but on Facebook, hitting ENTER sends it,” she says, “So, they all got my one-word message. But then, I got replies, and we continued the conversation. Everyone was on board with the plan.”

The first activity of the Neighbors of West Old Town Greenwood was a pizza party get-together at a nearby pizza restaurant. Woods and her friends started calling neighbors to invite them, and about 35 people joined the party.

“We met such wonderful people and heard such fascinating stories. It was a hit,” Woods says.

With that little spark at the first get together, Woods and her friends were ready to dive right in to plan the next event. Just two weeks later, she decided she wanted to plan an Easter Egg Hunt, and not just the kind in your own backyard. Woods and her friends decided to involve the whole neighborhood, and they had a perfect spot in the neighborhood for the event. After getting the word out for the event, the group was expecting about 40 people to attend. Acting out of caution for the safety of the kids, Woods decided to call the city to request the streets to be blocked, and they granted her request. On the day of the hunt, not only did the 40 neighbors show up, but 120 people showed up, Easter eggs in hand, ready for the hunt.

The group activities started catching on. More neighbors wanted to get in on the fun. The group decided to name itself. They took the easy approach. Since Mobile app NextDoor refers to the neighborhood as West Old Town Greenwood, they called themselves the Neighbors of West Old Town Greenwood. They began building more connections through their Facebook page, and the creativity kept flowing. Soon, they planned the first neighborhood block party, book club gatherings, cookouts, progressive dinners, holiday parties, caroling at the holidays and much more.

As much as these activities were catching on, Woods and her friends realized something was missing.

“Many of our more senior residents aren’t on social media,” she says. “So, at our large-scale events, we set up a table with contact sheets for new neighbors to fill out. From this, we’ve created a newsletter and email it each month. When all else fails, we canvas the neighborhood with flyers or make yard signs to promote an upcoming event.”

The events have gotten more diverse, and the neighbors attending them even more diverse.

“We find that some people who aren’t as social will attend a large-scale event and hang out, while a more intimate event such as a chili cook-off or bunco at someone’s home tends to make them uncomfortable,” Woods says. “The wide range of activities gives everyone an opportunity to participate in a way that’s most comfortable for them. We’re not asking every single neighbor to feel obligated to attend each event. We just want to provide opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other and make a happier and safer community.”

Not only can neighbors pick and choose the activities they want to join, they can also pick and choose to lead activities that play to their own personal strengths.

“I encourage residents to develop their role in the community by showing off their talents,” she says. “A former high school English teacher leads our monthly book club, a woman who works for the Center of the Aging Community at U of I led the group of Christmas carolers who sang for our senior residents, and a group of teen girls have formed a babysitting club for families in the neighborhood. A neighbor who recently built a beautiful pergola led morning yoga classes this summer under it. A woman who is the third generation owning her home was the perfect hostess for our Christmas cookie exchange party. There is opportunity for everyone to contribute towards the betterment of the community.”

In the short time the group has been in existence, neighbors are already noticing. Neighbor Kelly Munoz moved into the area just two years ago and calls the neighborhood amazing.

We’ve met so many neighbors who do so many little things that make a big difference,” she says. “Like if your car is stalled, the community jumps in to help you. My husband and I have a little, free library. I set out a dog water dish for dogs on walks. We get Facebook alerts when someone is new to the neighborhood, or they just need a pick me up. Yesterday my doorbell rang three times for cheer from neighbors. I lead a yoga class outside in the summer, followed by meditation lead by another neighbor.”

Woods is delighted that the group’s efforts have exceeded her expectations.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would take off like this,” Woods says. “I started out as a stay-at-home mom in search of other moms to connect with and find playdates for my kids. But it’s turned into a group that welcomes new neighbors with goodies, and neighbors keeping an eye out for children and looking after them as they ride their bikes down the street. I’d like to think that we’re recreating a small piece of what it must have been like in Mayberry. I hope we continue to build a stronger community.

The benefits of building strong connections within a community are widespread. Relationships lead to a sense of belonging and help deepen the concept of “love where you live.” The best part, any community is capable of reaching out and recreating the types of neighborhoods we hear about from “the good old days.”

If you live in the West Old Town Greenwood neighborhood and would like to connect, or you’d like to get ideas of how to make connections in your neighborhood, visit the Neighbors of West Old Town Greenwood Facebook page.