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A Functional Family, Just Outside Your Door

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You’ve probably heard of borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor, but what about borrowing skills, talents, and support? In Yes! magazine, John McKnight and Peter Block convince us that utilizing the gifts of the people in our communities can help rebuild families and neighborhoods.

Although the term “dysfunctional” is often used to describe a unit that is not working, McKnight and Block say that the problem with today’s families and neighborhoods is not dysfunction, it’s non-function. The essential roles once played by kinfolk and neighbors—babysitters, caregivers, listeners, teachers—are frequently outsourced, leaving us isolated and disconnected. The benefits of reinstating community function are clear, say McKnight and Block:

Where there are “thick” community connections, there is positive child development. Health improves, the environment is sustained, and people are safer and have a better local economy. The social fabric of neighborhood and family is decisive.

But how, exactly, do we repair our non-functional communities? McKnight and Block point us toward a success story propelled by a group of six neighbors who named themselves the Matchmakers. The group was born after Naomi Alessio witnessed a simple act of kindness: A friendly, older neighbor named Mr. Thompson invited her son Theron into the metal-working shop in his garage and taught him how to fashion a few pieces. Naomi and the Matchmakers wanted to pair up other like-minded members of the community and began taking stock of their neighbors’ various talents.

It took three weeks to visit all the men on the block. When they were done, they were amazed at what they had found: men who knew juggling, barbecuing, bookkeeping, hunting, haircutting, bowling, investigating crimes, writing poems, fixing cars, weightlifting, choral singing, teaching dog tricks, mathematics, praying, and how to play trumpet, drums, and sax. They found enough talent for all the kids in the neighborhood to tap into.

The kids on the block had their own usefulness, too, teaching older folks how to use computers or listening to their stories and writing down the oral history of the neighborhood.

Beyond skills and talents, neighbors can share other resources, like food or yard space. What can result is a neighborhood that feels connected and capable—a new kind of functional family. So when you hear your next-door neighbor practicing “Slow Ride” on his Stratocaster for the twelve thousandth time with cheers from his toddler in the background, don’t think of ways to silence the offender; think instead, I wonder if I offered an hour of babysitting if he’d teach me that sweet lick? 

Source: Yes! 

Image by Islam Elsedoudi, licensed under Creative Commons.