Neighborly Spirit

Good neighbors abound in America's communities

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Neighborly Spirit

When the city of Boise, Idaho, invited nominations this fall for its annual Good Neighbor Award, Robyn Mattison found it hard to propose just one name.

In February, her husband, Scott, had developed a near-fatal skin infection that needed six surgeries before he could be flown to a burn unit in Salt Lake City. There he would spend three and a half months undergoing eight more surgeries and 17 days in a medically induced coma. “We nearly lost him,” recalls Mattison, who spent a month with Scott in Utah. That meant leaving their three little girls at home, in the care of her mother-in-law.

And that’s when her neighbors sprang into action. They cooked and delivered three hot meals to the Mattison household each week. The YMCA gave the Mattisons a free summer membership. Their car insurance agency covered their premiums. A house painter refused to charge for painting the bedroom Scott would return to. And then there was “Miss Maria” Williams.

“She is our 4-year-old’s preschool teacher,” says Mattison, “the kind of person who leaves presents on doorsteps on holidays. She was also the first to bring us food. But the thing that helped my mother-in-law most was that every day Miss Maria picked up our youngest and drove her to preschool and dropped her off at the end of the day. It made such a difference.” And so Mattison nominated Williams.

“Maria is not just a good neighbor,” Mattison wrote in her nominating letter. “She’s the best neighbor anyone could ask for."

"Maria is not just a good neighbor. She’s the best neighbor anyone could ask for."

Robyn Mattison

Most Americans say they know at least some of their neighbors, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Neighborly bonds are more likely to be deeper in rural areas, where 40 percent of Americans say they know all or most of their neighbors. In contrast, 24 percent of those who live in urban areas and 28 percent in suburban areas say they know all or most of their neighbors.

Yet even in a big city, the right kind of community spirit can foster neighborliness and acts of kindness, says Jennifer Winch. A retired IT analyst, she lives alone in the same Berkeley, California, neighborhood she’s called home for 33 years.

“I live where two one-block streets intersect, and we all know each other,” says Winch. “One neighbor hosts a summer barbecue and a winter holiday party, and she makes a point of inviting everybody. People chat with me as I walk my dachshunds. And when you work in your garden, people stop to see what you’re doing.

“So when my neighbors heard I was having knee replacement surgery in September, they said, ‘Oh, is there anything I can do?’ And they meant it. They ferried me to my medical appointments, transported my dogs back home, shopped for me. It’s because we have these connections. We are happy to help one another."

40 percent of Americans in rural areas say they know all or most of their neighbors

Even casual connections can yield unexpected acts of kindness. Carol Cox, of suburban Fort Worth, Texas, recalls the time one of her horses was “sick with colic, lying on the ground and writhing in agony.” Just then car salesman Davis Keene arrived to deliver the car Cox had bought from him. “Davis was in a suit with fancy leather shoes on,” Cox recalls, “but he got covered in mud and muck as we pushed and pulled to get my horse to stand up."

Sometimes it’s an act of kindness that introduces one neighbor to another. Nick DiSabatino, 66, of rural Landenberg, Pennsylvania, admits he’s “nervous about heights” and not much help when Good Neighbors Home Repair, for which he volunteers, needs help replacing a second-story roof.

But DiSabatino has learned to operate a backhoe for Good Neighbors, a Christian-based nonprofit that repairs at no cost the homes of struggling families in southeastern Pennsylvania and a neighboring part of Delaware. He also drives building materials to job sites. And sometimes he accompanies members of Good Neighbors’ professional staff as they visit families seeking assistance.

“I see the conditions they’re in. I speak with them about their lives. I might only see them once, and we don’t go into a lot of depth,” says DiSabatino. “It’s just to let people know there are others who care about them."