The Mighty Oak

By Shae Kitchen

In the backyard of the Good Neighbor house, there is a tiny sapling planted into the ground. It stands across from a much larger, older tree a constant reminder of what it may someday become. This sapling doesn’t look like much, and it’s not. There’s nothing extraordinary or special about it. In almost every way it is a normal tree. What makes this tree special, however, is how far it has come to get to where it is now. Let me explain.

In 2017, one of the Good Neighbor settlers, Luann, received a small sapling as a gift from the Urban Gardeners Coalition, alongside other plants that had been donated to Good Neighbor. At the time it was just a thin, fragile stick, with only a few leaves to its stalk. Luann, an avid gardener, took on the small tree and cared for it. But trees take time; they don’t pop up and produce amazing foliage in a few days or weeks. It takes years to grow a tree to maturity, especially oak trees. I heard a story as a child that said you could plant an oak when you are 4 and then come back when you are 44, and the tree will still be growing. So marking any sort of progress or growth is very difficult.

Summer turned into Autumn, then into Winter. The leaves fell away and left only the stock behind. Luann kept at it, though, watering and caring for the small tree. Her fellow settlers, all in good fun, started joking with her about caring for what was essentially a stick. Luann didn’t give up on the little tree. She renamed the sprout “The Mighty Oak.” She had faith and, when springtime came around again, she was rewarded with one tiny, green leaf. Because of Luann’s care, the sapling survived through the fall and winter months, and it could sprout new leaves and continue growing, albeit at the same snail pace that it had been. Fast forward to summer 2018, and the mighty oak has continued to grow and thrive. It has a few more leaves on it now, thankfully, and has begun to actually look like a tree.

This story about a little sapling that looks like a stick and has no leaves is funny and cute and sweet, and it makes us feel good. It’s about growth and perseverance, and it should make us feel good. But it can also teach us about how important one or several pairs of nurturing hands can be. The Mighty Oak, however sturdy and mighty it may be, would never have made it without Luann. She put in the effort to make sure that this little sapling got everything that it needed, and she also had the knowledge base to know how to make it thrive. She knew how much water it needed, and how much water would be too much, and how to acclimate it to the outdoors at the right time. Because of her, The Mighty Oak became more than a twig. It took effort and knowledge and time. It was a commitment, and Luann saw it through, and she and Good Neighbor were rewarded with a beautiful little tree that now lives on the property.

Because of Luann’s efforts, The Mighty Oak can live and thrive in its best possible way. That, maybe, is the truest lesson that we can learn here. It takes perseverance and time and effort to grow into what we want to become, but it also can require that someone else pour their time and energy and effort into us. It may require that multiple people pour their time and energy into us, and that’s okay. The way that we grow is together, helping and nurturing one another. This can be hard to hear, especially in a country that is built upon the ideal of the “self-made success,” of a person who builds themselves from the ground up into a success completely by their own efforts. The problem is that, when you find those stories and really look at them, those “self-made” people did not exist in a vacuum. They had people, or they got people along the way, that helped to build them up and make them what they were. They also had people that they loved and cared about and poured their efforts into. Two people in community can accomplish more than either one could alone. We need people to pour into us in order to become our best selves, and that is completely normal, natural, and okay.

This is also a lesson that community spaces, like Good Neighbor, can learn from. Building and nurturing a communal space takes time and energy and vulnerability. It means setting roots into a place and devoting oneself to nurturing and fostering community in that space. It means being willing and able to love others without feeling like they owe you something in return. It means time and energy without any guarantee of return on investment. It even means, sometimes, being willing to look at a twig and see what it can be instead of what it is currently. Good Neighbor is lucky to have a permanent reminder of that lesson in our own backyard, and we are grateful for the Sanger Heights community. We love it here and we, like The Mighty Oak, have set our roots deep. We have worked with so many beautiful and unique sets of people here in this space, and we look forward to continuing to work with others.

5 Ways to be a Good Neighbor

By Shae Kitchen

The poet John Donne once said that “no man is an island” and yet we have found ourselves living increasingly isolated lives. On a national scale, we are witnessing communities hunkering down and drawing lines in the sand, often refusing to engage with anyone outside of their respective bubbles. These bubbles have the power to disconnect us from each other, creating walls where there naturally should be bridges. We are all linked as human beings, so what affects one person or a group of people affects all of us. Our greatest strengths emerge when we act together to improve the life of every person. That is what it means to be neighborly —to love someone as a brother or sister regardless of our differences.

This goal requires that work be done on the local level. This is where the mission of Good Neighbor and organizations like it emerge and take action. We believe that developing neighborly communities is essential to the betterment of humanity, and a major decree of Jesus’s mission for this earth.

Being neighborly does not always mean making grand gestures. Sometimes the smallest moments, like a smile and a genuine hello, can be instrumental in helping someone get through a tough day. Here are five small ways that you can be a good neighbor today:

1.) Respect Your Space

Keep your space looking nice. Plant flowers, do some landscaping. Not only is this a way to express yourself, but spending a lot of time outside naturally results in contact with other people.  If you live in an apartment, keep the area around your front door clean and tidy. Put out some real (or fake, no one’s judging) plants, and throw out a welcome mat. Little touches like these never fail to make the place feel more homey. Even a welcome mat by itself can transform a front door space into a welcoming venue. This may seem like a small task, and it is, but by respecting your immediately visible space you are showing that you respect yourself, your space, and the space of your immediate neighbors.

2.) Introduce Yourself

It is never too late to introduce yourself to your neighbors. Learning someone’s name is the first step to forming any type of relationship and makes future interactions much smoother. Also, try very hard to remember their names. If you are having a hard time hearing or pronouncing their name, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat it. Showing that you remember someone’s name tells that person that you were actively listening to what they were saying, and makes people more likely to interact with you later on.

3.) Ask Someone How They’re Doing — Then Actually Listen to Their Answer

Have you ever had one of those moments in a conversation where you just know the person isn’t interested in anything you have to say, and is only asking to seem polite? We call it “small talk” because that is what it is, small and relatively mediocre conversations. Put an end to it. You don’t need this in your life. Practice active listening: look people in the eye when they are talking, respond to what they are saying and build upon it. Stay connected and stay present in the moment. Ask follow up questions and listen to the answers that they give you. Of course, if the other person is just not interested in talking further, don’t push the issue. Even so, remain friendly. Your consistency may be just the thing to bring some people out of their shells. This seems like a lot to think about in conversation, and if you are someone with social anxiety this task may seem unachievable. Just remember that active listening is a skill that is developed with time and experience. Be patient with yourself, and step outside of your comfort zone.

4.) Offer and Receive Help Generously

If you see your neighbor struggling with groceries or a heavy box, take a moment and offer to help them with their load. They may reject your offer, but that isn’t the point. The point is to notice when someone around you is having a hard time and take action to help lighten their burden. Likewise, when someone offers to help you with your load, remember to thank them for their willing hearts. This second measure can be more difficult than the first, especially if you are the type of person who leans more towards giving than receiving. In allowing someone to help you, you gift the giver a sense of worth and value in service.

5.) Attend or Host a Community Event

This requires a great deal more dedication in terms of time and energy than the other ideas. Block parties and community events, however, are a rare occasion that neighbors have to come together. These are moments to fully embrace and enjoy each other’s company. If these events are being held in your neighborhood, definitely take the time to make an appearance. If no planned block parties are happening near you AND you have the time and energy to invest in planning an event, feel free to take on the responsibility yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable hosting events at your own home, centers of community like the Good Neighbor House are always a solid resource. The Good Neighbor house, specifically, is intended to be such a space, with the explicit goal of bringing the Sanger Heights community together.

Being a good neighbor doesn’t always require a major time commitment. It does, however, require you to be intentional in your interactions with other people. By being consistently kind, considerate, and (for a lack of a better term) neighborly, you set an example for others to follow. This example may ripple outwards, encouraging people to act in similarly kind ways.

These are just a few examples of how you can be a good neighbor today and in your daily life. If you have some ideas that we have missed, let us know on our Facebook page, and if you found some of these tips helpful, please share this post with your friends. We’d be very grateful.

If you would like to learn more about Good Neighbor House or want to use the space, please visit our website and/or email us at info@goodneighborwaco.org for more details.