Cultivating Our Community Spirit

By Eleonore Hebal

The phrase “community spirit” is one we may often see and use, but what “IS” it? Why is this concept important and what are the benefits of this so-called “spirit?” Perhaps more important than a definition, how do we nurture this idea of interconnectedness and pass it on to our children and grandchildren? In our modern world, one click from connecting with someone thousands of miles away, is it necessary to cultivate friendships with our neighbors? If so, why?

Community spirit is created when people come together to share their ideas and resources for the benefit of everyone involved. It is the feeling of understanding, belonging, and security, perhaps even excitement or “lightheartedness,” that arises with positive interactions between neighbors. Sometimes shared pride in a local event, celebrity, or sports team (such as our Falcons football team) plays a profound role in community spirit. This phenomenon can manifest in a number of ways: a community center, parades, street fairs, festivals, free public events, environmental and urban beautification projects, more comfortable and friendly social experiences, a neighborhood watch group, or a new school. Perhaps the experience of opening our hearts and minds, while putting our differences aside, for the common good, is what makes being part of a community worthwhile. Nina Cass, founder of Amherst’s Own Child Care, eloquently states, “For me, community spirit is not about 'what,' 'where,' 'who,' or even 'how,' but, rather, it is embodied in the 'why?' The motivation to support and spread goodwill across all avenues of social endeavor is both perspective-taking and life-giving. We drink from that cup of abundance and, as it strengthens the bonds between us, we are made whole.”

Since community spirit is something that dwells in our hearts and minds, it is best explained through personal anecdotes. Mariah Singer- Brown offers her poignant insight into this “feeling:”
"As a young widow with small children, I moved to this community based on a feeling...the feeling of how welcome I felt when we visited. To me, community spirit means feeling like you belong, it means looking out for each other and pitching in when we see the need. I know some people make the case for blending into a bigger city where nobody knows your business. But not me. I love living in a small town where we are seen, involved and included. This is what the Amherst community means to me and my family."

Many share Mariah’s experience. Local renaissance man, David Wright, reflects, “ The community Spirit to me is the expressed general attitude of the community in which the people live. In other words, if someone is asked, “What do you think of this place?” I would answer, “We may be a one-horse town, a place filled with country bumpkins, but everyone here is friendly. We have all the services we need. The town is charming, well kept and so peaceful we don’t even need a cop. Most importantly, the folks here care, they care about the village, the schools and each other. And that’s just the village. We have trails, wildlife, picturesque farms, no pollution, a great school with every kid above average, no crowds, arts, music, beer and more citizens that care. Interestingly, it seems everyone appreciates it like it is.”

Tommy Enright, owner of Black Rabbit Farm, agrees. “There's something magnetic about a place that people believe in. To me, that's what Amherst is...we've got a community of people that have faith in each other, and that raises everyone up - from how we treat each other to how we do our jobs."

Chamomile Nusz, founder of the Tomorrow River Community Charter School, writes:
"I grew up here in Amherst and needed to spread my wings after high school and explore the world. In my explorations I came to the realization that where I grew up was just the place I wanted to set my roots and raise a family. I saw in the community a desire for educational options and worked to start the Tomorrow River Community Charter School (TRCCS). At TRCCS we are working to instill a strong sense of community and responsibility for others and the environment in our students. Curriculum is noncompetitive and the children work together to achieve their goals. We also work to create a strong school community for the families by encouraging volunteering and seasonal gatherings, many of which almost 100% of families attend. The strength, stability and warmth created by this community produces a safe and stress free learning environment for the students."

Sandra Lynne Schmutzler, member of the Tomorrow River Area Initiative, believes community spirit is learned through involvement and being surrounded by its benefits: support, friendship, and a sense of belonging. It is a willingness that arises to kindly help each other out, despite personal differences. Authentic human interactions (eye contact included) are imperative in sustaining a healthy, functioning community, our own physical health, and in the development of our children. “Face-to- face” human relationships and “heartfelt” understandings are more important than ever to encourage and nurture within younger generations during this age of advanced technology and political polarity.

Is coming together as a community in good times and in bad, the secret to life-long happiness and better health? Let us consider another culture for a moment. Denmark consistently tops the chart as “happiest” country in the world in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report. What makes the people in this cold, Northern European country so lighthearted and content? Many propose the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”), roughly translated as “coziness,” “togetherness,” or “community closeness,” is behind their mental and physical wellbeing. Hygge is hard to define because it is an experience. Sitting around a table, sharing pleasant conversation with friends and family? That is hygge. Feeling your heart open up as you sing Christmas carols with your community? Definitely hygge. Extending your actions to make things a little bit more comfortable and magical for everyone, whether by lighting candles, sharing kind words, or baking cookies, is hygge. I have personally experienced this phenomenon all over Amherst, from kneading dough in the kitchen of The Village Hive to singing along at the elementary school’s tribute to veterans. I hope you have, too!

We are clearly blessed with an abundance of hygge and spirit in Amherst, reflected in the many groups and events committed to our community. Our aptly named newspaper, devoted solely to good news, a rarity in our nation, continues to thrive after 14 years thanks to all our spirit. The Lettie W. Jensen Community Center & Library, the Tomorrow River Business Association, the Tomorrow River Chautauqua, the Tomorrow River Lions & Lioness Clubs, and the Tomorrow River Area Initiative, are all groups dedicated to bringing us together and sharing our ideas about the environment, politics, education, and culture. If you are seeking new friends, new activities, or new experiences and ideas to ponder this winter, please consider one of these groups. Remember, scientists and doctors proclaim that friendship and community closeness is greatly beneficial to our psychological and physical health. Many experience reduced stress and fear, increased happiness, shorter recovery times, and increased vitality when surrounded by a positive support group.

Everywhere I have lived, the strength of the community’s spirit has helped determine the community’s ability to move forward effectively and grow. I have observed that a community’s spirit is directly reflected in the recreational and educational resources available, the success of independently owned businesses, the presence of crime and discrimination, the health of the natural environment, and the overall quality of social experiences. I am proud and relieved to make my home in Amherst and to raise my children among others who share the same community values based in compassion, problem solving, and generosity. We have an opportunity to improve the world for our children in unimaginable ways. Let us trust the wisdom of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Let us come together and cultivate a world of kindness, innovation, and beauty for ourselves and for our children.

- Eleonore Hebal

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