What Makes a Community?

WHAT MAKES A COMMUNITY?

BY ERICA RUCKER  PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM DESHAZER

When you hear the word “community,” do you immediately think of an area defined by geography? In Louisville, this might mean our broad metro community, or much smaller neighborhoods like Belknap, Shawnee or St. Matthews. Many of us develop a sense of who we are based on where we live. Community can be that and so much more.

Perhaps your greatest sense of community comes from a support group, people with whom you share faith, a hobby or a similar life circumstance. These communities, the ones that we make, can give us our greatest sense of belonging.

Keeping a community connected is not an easy task in this age of solitary “social” technology. People often feel engaged without having to leave their homes or see another person. As Tom Stephens, Director of the Center for Neighborhoods, says, “We’re incredibly interactive without interacting with anybody.”

“A lot of it still goes back to the basics of sitting down face-to-face with somebody, getting to know them, building the relationship that hopefully will build and grow over time,” he adds.

The Center for Neighborhoods works to foster community development by partnering with engaged citizens to build healthy, safe and sustainable neighborhoods. Through several initiatives, the organization supports existing geographic communities and helps create social communities through engagement; education and training; data and digital mapping; and assessment, planning and design.

“For us, it is about creating tangible change, both physically and socially,” says Stephens.

By definition, a community is any group of people within a larger society united through a common location, interest or characteristic. Hal Warheim, the subject of our Who Inspires Us column on page 16, was certainly a community maker in so many of these ways. Other community builders are moved by their faith, as we see in our sidebar on Community Ministries on page 15. Some join through the impetus of illness or necessity, or merely common interests. Regardless of the path, what we do in our communities can have effects that last for a lifetime.

A COMMUNITY TO LIGHT THE DARKNESS

“‘You have cancer’ are some of the most feared words in the English language,” says Gilda’s Club Executive Director Karen Morrison. The organization offers a supportive community to help those affected by the disease not only cope with their fears, but live as fully as possible.

Community comes in many forms at Gilda’s Club. From therapeutic groups and dance classes to crafts and friendly gatherings to discuss books, Gilda’s Club allows those affected by cancer to live their lives with joy, style, purpose and laughter.

Gilda’s Club recognizes that each person’s cancer journey is unique. “It is defined by them and those who live with them,” adds Morrison. “If a person with cancer wants to come to the center and not discuss cancer, that’s fine. If they want to only talk about their illness, that’s fine, too.”

“Some people hit the gigantic pause button on life when they get a cancer diagnosis. It begins to consume their whole life. They put everything else on hold,” says Morrison. “Our philosophy is that you continue to live your life while cancer is a part of it.”

“The symptoms that we treat — fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness, hopelessness — those symptoms impact the entire family,” she adds. Anyone in the family is welcome to visit and participate in Gilda’s Club programs, free of charge.

“I never thought I’d voluntarily commit to something for so long, but I have been a regular for over a year and a half,” says club member Robin McNeill. “I’m always interested in knowing how my Tuesday and Wednesday night support group friends are faring and, occasionally, trying something new.”

BUILDING A COMMUNITY THROUGH THE CREATIVE ARTS

In West Louisville, where poverty is rampant and opportunity is slim, the West Louisville Women’s Collaborative is carving out a place for shared creativity and the pursuit of peace in an area often recognized for everything but those things. By combining creation and community building, the group hopes to address issues of blight and abandoned properties in the neighborhood.

The Collaborative creates with the idea of community in mind. The public art projects they have tackled have been heavily influenced by the community in which they are situated, but also have been created with hands-on participation from members of the community.

“The main idea is to get people from all over the city to come, not just to that place, but to think about other places that could be made to feel welcoming for people, no matter where you live or what neighborhood you’re from,” says Louisville visual artist, Collaborative member and Community Foundation of Louisville Board Member Gwendolyn Kelly.

TRADING ISOLATION FOR CONNECTION AND MEANING

It wasn’t all that long ago that people with developmental disabilities were marginalized and isolated from mainstream communities. Nonprofits like Day Spring Community Living are changing all that. “We value the gifts that every person brings to life in our community, and we believe that all are enriched by the presence and participation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Sarah Trester, Executive Director of Day Spring Community Living.

The organization is focused on small group community living, which provides better one-on-one care and an enriching experience for the residents. Currently, Day Spring Community Living enhances and empowers the lives of about 120 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in 70 locations throughout the Louisville area. The residents are encouraged through a small and close-knit support community to strive for their best.

“I love my community,” says resident Mary Ann Lewis, who lives in a Day Spring Community Living home located on Illinois Avenue near the Louisville Zoo. “The staff is so wonderful, and my friends are so wonderful there. It’s just a wonderful place to live.”

“In most settings, residents have access to staff support on a 24/7 basis. Staff assist in areas such as personal care, health and nutrition, community access and transportation,” says Trester.

Day Springs Community Living’s model of care creates an experience for residents that is a more dignified and therapeutic approach to the issues of developmental or intellectual disabilities than in years past. Parents of residents say the organization alleviates the worries that come with a child who needs 24/7 care for the rest of their lives.

“Being a widow, I always worried what her future would be like without me,” says the parent of one resident. “Now I know she will be well-cared for, with ‘family’ to love and support her future needs. This is such a reassuring feeling.”

A PLACE TO BELONG AND GROW

“The Boys & Girls Club has always been a place where I felt I belonged,” says Kentrel Duncan, Boys & Girls Club of Kentuckiana (BGCK) member and 2017 City-Wide Youth of the Year. Duncan, 16, is a tall, soft-spoken young man with an easy smile. He’s been involved with BGCK since he was in middle school and he is proud of his accolades and the support from his BGCK chapter, which has helped him find multiple summer jobs.

With incidents of bullying, drug use and other risks on the rise, there has never been a more critical time for establishing safe communities for today’s youth. BGCK is one of the organizations in Louisville continuously working to create these safe, functional and education spaces and programs for such youth. The organization began 57 years ago to inspire and enable young people to realize their full potential.

Duncan is one of many like him to have benefited from BGCK services. In just the last year, the Clubs have provided out-of-school programming for over 3,000 young people. They have also served more than 79,000 hot meals for food-insecure youth.

The clubs pride themselves in their impressive accomplishments; 98 percent of members finish high school. Many of the students go on to secondary education and maintain a lifestyle of activity and leadership. The out-of-school support the kids receive through the BGCK community gives them a stable, caring and nurturing environment to set them on the path of purpose and achievement.

With continued community support, these clubs work to provide a safe and valuable experience for kids and families of at-risk youth, so more students like Duncan can stay on track to graduate and realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.

CREATING YOUR OWN COMMUNITY

Community can be many things. It can be a neighborhood. A support group. A club. Even a home. We are all connected by many different communities. How we choose to participate, to grow and thrive in those communities is up to us.

While a community might frequently be tied to a place, it is so much more than geography. Organizations like Gilda’s Club, West Louisville Women’s Collaborative, Day Spring Community Living and Boys & Girls Clubs demonstrate that in very different ways. What really creates a community are the people who choose to engage in it, and it is those connections that help make a community where people and place thrive.