Shawnee neighborhood program marks record year

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
Community Renewal's Zoe Loeser prepares boxes of supplies for COVID-safe block leader meetings in summer of 2020, which took place in the yards of block leaders across the county.

In a year hit with COVID-19, many might say nothing good came out of 2020, but that sentiment is not so for a local nonprofit's neighboring program.

Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County recently gathered virtually to celebrate a record year for its Block Leader program.

Despite the pandemic — or maybe, in part, because of it — the initiative is paying off.

“The reason so many people are out walking and feel free to stop and visit is that we've been trying to make this happen for five years,” Block Leader Craig Walker said. “Now we've got a community where people do that sort of thing.”

The program operates by supporting block leaders in developing “BIG” habits — Being visible, Interacting, and Gathering their neighbors, Zoe Loeser, Community Renewal's director of neighboring, said.

In addition to adding 22 new block leaders, another important record also was broken in 2020 — more neighborhood interactions were reported than the previous two years combined, with a 100-percent increase over 2019, she said.

“In other words, people were interacting with their neighbors during the pandemic more than they had for years previous,” Loeser said.

Loeser said the numbers from 2020 communicate the Block Leader program is very stable.

“It's becoming self-sustaining,” she said, “which gives us the energy to be able to shift focus to ensure that the larger body of our community gets the support and education they need to grow in neighborhood engagement.”

It's not a sign to ease up though; the nonprofit is still striving to get more community members interacting together.

“Often in our community we see people have knowledge of the neighborhood programs, but not the school initiatives, or the other way around,” Loeser said. “It was a unique opportunity to get to connect the dots — you know how you’re pouring into these students that they’re worthwhile; the goal is they grow up to be the people you’ll see tonight, who love their neighbors. So when they grow up, they invest in their community.”

Neighbors play a Christmas-themed game at Block Leader Jill Rother's neighborhood party.

Ceremony

Thanks to new challenges in holding the Block Leader Celebration virtually, Oklahoma Baptist University’s Kappa Phi Beta social club assisted by delivering meals and party packs to the Block Leaders attending virtually. The Kappas have supported Community Renewal for the past three years — especially by volunteering with children in Community Renewal’s after-school clubs.

Each year, she said Block Leaders who are being BIG on a habitual basis for six months or more are selected for special recognition via the Mr. Roger’s Award.

“Since the program’s establishment in Spring 2016, there have been 24 families vested with the achievement, including 2020’s record number of 11 awardees,” Loeser said.

Award winners

Mr. Rogers Award winners for 2020 are:

• Rebecca Blaine

• Channing Seikel

• Annie Minnigh

• Lynda Thompson

• Cheryl Cowden

• Michelle Hamilton

• Craig Lewis

• Leesa Sparks

• Rachel Ostroske

• Frank Reece

• Debbie Bosch

Loeser said she expects new and exciting things coming in 2021 for the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Network — which reached 4,300 members in 2020 — including neighboring challenges and incentives.

To learn more about the Neighbor to Neighbor Network or become a member, visit communityrenewal.org/neighbors.

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.