Bringing neighbors together is a picnic

Outings can help build community, create bonds, organizers say

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Vancouver, Clark County neighborhood associations

For more information about Vancouver's neighborhood program, visit the website or call 360-487-8608.

For more information about Clark County's neighborhood associations, visit the website or call 360-397-6012, ext. 2.

Even when the Landover-Sharmel neighborhood in northeast Vancouver didn't have a park, residents still managed to have a picnic.

"I used to have it in my yard," said Alicia Novak, who has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years.

For 10 years, she hosted the event. Now, neighbors gather annually in an undeveloped park at the end of Northeast 20th Street.

"It builds community," Novak said.

Even though picnics are fun, they pay serious dividends.

They give neighbors a chance to meet each other in a relaxed atmosphere.

"The city sees a great benefits in neighbors getting together socially," said Judi Bailey, who manages Vancouver's neighborhoods program. "Whenever there are social activities, it gives neighbors an opportunity to get to know each other, and they become personal acquaintances. It's much easier for them to work together to solve problems. There's much more of a community feel to the neighborhood."

Of the 66 recognized city neighborhood associations, about half host picnics, Bailey said. Neighborhoods in unincorporated Clark County also host picnics, but they do so on their own, said Holly Gaya, the county's outreach coordinator.

The city takes an active role in encouraging picnics by letting neighborhoods borrow equipment such as a gas grill, picnic tables, trash cans and portable toilets, Bailey said.

"Each neighborhood association decides how it wants to do the food, games and activities. It's all planned by the neighborhood association, 100 percent volunteer. It takes on the character of the neighborhood," Bailey said.

For milestones, the city provides a cake, as it did for Landover-Sharmel's recent picnic, which celebrated the association's 15th anniversary.

The neighborhood didn't score the city's giant gas grill though. The Northwest Neighborhood Association, which held its picnic across town on the same Saturday in July, reserved it first.

At the Northwest neighborhood's picnic, kids folded paper hats and went on a scavenger hunt, while adults chatted with each other. Some people who had lived in the neighborhood for just a few years and others for decades showed up at the annual picnic for the first time.

That's the goal of a picnic, neighborhood leaders say.

"Each year, I meet someone I haven't met yet," said Jaime Manriquez, chairman of the Landover-Sharmel Neighborhood Association. "My main push is to get people to interact."

The Truman Neighborhood Association in unincorporated Clark County, which disbanded and then revived over concerns about crime, had its first picnic in September.

"We were really looking for ways to draw the community together," said Barb Cabe, who serves on Truman's neighborhood council. "There's no formal meeting. … Neighbors hang out together. It really bridges that gap.

"If people are more connected, they tend to be more active and want to be involved in community projects. People kind of take ownership of the neighborhood that way."