Friday, January 8, 2010

The First Neighborly Exchanges

Here's a story I wrote for today's Press about some of the first participants in Neighbor to Neighbor:



BRISTOL – Neighbor to Neighbor, a new initiative of the Bristol Community Organization, harkens back to the old notion of lending a helping hand to someone in need.

The program, said Thomas Morrow, director at BCO, has the lofty goal of reducing childhood poverty, and it aims to do it one family at a time.

Neighbor to Neighbor pairs two families – one a client of BCO, often through the Head Start program, and one that is from the community, often linked to a local church. Together, the pairs try to address life improvement goals set by the BCO family.

They do it through weekly emails or phone calls and monthly get-togethers that are “like a playdate,” said BCO client Teena Quirion, a single mother of two.

Quirion and her daughters were among the first BCO families to take part in Neighbor to Neighbor. She said it sounded interesting, a way to find out how other families do things.

“We were more or less the guinea pigs,” she said, and it’s worked out well.

Her daughter, 16-year-old Britney Correll, said the idea sounded “cool.”

Quirion said she wants to move out of Zbikowski Park, where she’s lived her entire life, get a new car and maybe go to college. She wants, she said, to better herself for the sake of her children.

She gets a lot of encouragement from the Knowles, Quirion said, a Bristol couple who got involved through their church.

John Knowles said he grew up in Hartford in a neighborhood not unlike the housing project where Quirion and her children live. He’s back in school now, he said, after losing his job, and can offer her encouragement to do the same.

The Knowles pay attention to Britney, too, if she needs help with homework or other support.

Of course, the kids are friends.

Quirion’s youngest, four-year-old Morgan Shimo, is rather fond of seven-year-old Nicholas DiMaria, the son of John and Christine Knowles, the community family that got involved through St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“He’s my best friend,” Morgan declared. “I hug him.”

Nicholas said he likes Morgan well enough, but there’s a limit.

“I do not want to marry her,” he said.

Mary and Doug Larson, members of St. Joseph Church, said they learned about Neighbor to Neighbor from a notice in their parish bulletin.

“We decided to give it a try,” said Mary Larson. She’s a teacher and her husband is an accountant, she said, and their two sons are grown, so they thought they might be able to help.

“We wanted to give back to our community and this is a way of doing it,” Mary Larson said.

John Knowles said that’s also what motivated him and his wife.

“It sounded like an interesting concept,” he said.

The Larsons’ skills have come in handy for Head Start parent Jeannie Stewart, who along with her husband Jesse and their two children were matched with the Larsons.

Jeannie Stewart said Mary Larson has given her “a lot of pointers” with her special needs son.

Doug Larson said his advice to the Stewarts is, “Don’t spend. Save your money.”

Did it help?

“No, ‘cause I’m still broke,” Jeannie Stewart said with a laugh.

But Doug Larson said they’ve deliberately tried to take part in some free activities with the Stewarts.

“I wanted them to see that there are a lot of activities in Bristol that are free,” said Mary Larson.

The two couples and children get together once a month, doing a variety of activities, from going bowling, to seeing a drive-in movie to going to an outdoor concert in Brackett Park and to Lake Compounce.

All four families said they believe they’ve built a true friendship over the past year.

“We keep in touch with each other through email or by phone,” said Jesse Stewart.

Christine Knowles said she’d like to do more things with Quirion’s family, but that tight schedules can make it difficult.

Mary Larson and Jeannie Stewart both said they would encourage other families to try the program.

“It’s local and you can help people right here,” Mary Larson said. “People are apprehensive about doing it. They think it’s a big commitment. It isn’t.”

“It gives them the opportunity to meet people they may not have the chance to meet, get out of the house and be part of the community,” said Jeannie Stewart.

The Stewarts decided to get involved in Neighbor to Neighbor, Jesse Stewart said, to see if the program could benefit the children or them.

“It’s a very good program,” he said.

Jeannie Stewart said she likes Neighbor to Neighbor. Thorough it, she said, her family has been able to get out a little bit and get to know other families in a relaxed way.

Creating a friendship out of strangers isn’t necessarily a speedy process.

“It took awhile to get it started,” said Doug Larson.

Though he’s supposed to be mentoring the Head Start family, said Doug Larson, he said his family has gained from participating.

“We also make new friends,” he said. “By interacting with each other, we do things in the Bristol community now that maybe we otherwise wouldn’t have done. I haven’t gone bowling in years.”

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