Many of the best ideas are quite simple. That’s certainly the case with the monthly open-house events hosted by Steve and Tina Hands. Just by welcoming anyone living nearby into their home on a regular basis they’ve generated a real sense of community that is making an enormous difference to people, particularly older residents.
The couple have been living in Northbrook Road, Solihull, for nine years. A naturally friendly and courteous family, they’d always made an effort to get to know their neighbours and help out where they could with things like gardening if someone was finding it a struggle.
What motivated Steve and Tina to take their instinctive neighbourly approach further was a combination of events in late 2014.
There was a lot in the media about how isolated older people could become, sometimes seeing no one but a care worker for a weekly 15-minute visit when there’d be no time to chat. This struck a chord with Steve, particularly as his own mother was living on her own in the community, with little social contact outside her family.
“I thought, this could be happening on our own road, especially as people age, get less mobile and their friends drift away,” explains Steve.
At around the same time Olton Baptist Church, which Steve and Tina attend regularly, decided that, instead of the normal services held at Langley School hall, to get out into the neighbourhood on the second Sunday of every month. The focus of the ‘Sunday Out’ programme is on building relationships and serving the community in lots of ways, including litter picking, singing hymns with care home residents and working on local allotments.
Suddenly having more free time at weekends was the impetus for Steve and Tina to make a longer-term commitment to bringing their neighbourhood together. In January 2015 Steve and Tina posted a letter to the 80 houses on their road explaining that they wanted to develop the sense of community people used to have and if anyone else felt the same way they should pop in for a coffee.
“We didn’t know what might happen and felt a bit exposed. But we were staggered by the response – we expected half a dozen people and got over 40,” says Steve.
Since then the ‘tea and toast’ open house on a Saturday or Sunday morning has become a regular thing, with a few other neighbours taking turns to host it once a month. Numbers vary – and people don’t need to say if they’re coming or not, just turn up.
There are a lot of retired people living on Northbrook Road, many of them in their 70s and 80s. They tend to be regular visitors. Families do come along occasionally, but often have other commitments at weekends. Alternating between Saturdays and Sundays means there’s a different mix.
Steve and Tina have sometimes changed things slightly – like a wine and pudding evening, curry night and a BBQ that attracted 60 people – but still kept it simple, with neighbours invited to pop in if they want to and bring some food or drink so there’s enough to go round.
Steve now has a list of email addresses so he can send everyone a reminder about each monthly open house, and invite ideas for future events, but that’s about as far as formal organisation goes.
“It should never feel like an obligation. It’s a no-hassle way to take that step of commitment. We’ve just given people the opportunity to do what comes naturally – and seeing inside their neighbours’ houses is a good prompt for conversation and sharing information on things like reliable tradespeople,” says Steve.
“They’ve started to overcome their British reserve and open up, remember each other’s names, say hello and chat when they see people around our neighbourhood, and sometimes form stronger friendships.”
Steve may play down his family’s contribution, but their neighbours would disagree, and are full of praise for what they’ve done.
For example, one couple in their 80s, who have lived in Northbrook Road for over 50 years, said this was something that had opened up a social side in their lives, having become a little isolated.
And it has contributed to wider community initiatives, enabling email sharing for the Neighbourhood Watch scheme and offering local councillors a ready-made event at which to discuss particular issues of local concern.
Secrets of our success
- Be realistic about possible commitment
- Keep things simple
- Tap into what’s important to people
- Build on what comes naturally