Thursday, March 19, 2009

How I Got To Know My Community by Getting Involved

As I have written before, when I first moved to the United States in 1998, I was unable to work, since I was awaiting approval of my work permit. I didn't relish watching daytime soaps until I could work, so I started looking around to see what was happening in my new hometown. One day, I spotted a newspaper article about a local organization called "The Center For Community Renewal." I was intrigued, but a little wary that the group might be full of right-wing nutjobs who wanted to gentrify the town. The article included a telephone number, so I decided to call up to get a feel for the organization and what they were doing.

The person I talked to invited me to the group's next meeting, and I accepted. When I attended, I found a roomful of ordinary people, mostly involved with other local nonprofit and community groups. What they had in common was a feeling that Edison, New Jersey, along with many other places was suffering from a lack of community. Led by a Husband and Wife team, Ian Durand and April Cormaci, the group was brainstorming ideas about projects and programs that they thought might help foster a renewed sense of community.

Being part of this group led to a number of things for me. The people, in what was usually referred to just as "The Center," represented a wide range of people in the area, and I found out a lot about Edison very quickly. I made some excellent friends, people who are still friends today. It also got me involved with The Friends of the Edison Public Library, of which I am now President and my Wife is on the board. Above all, I found it an excellent way to connect to my adopted home. I would personally recommend that anyone moving into a new community try finding a local organization to join.

I would be negligent if I talked about my involvement with The Center For Community Renewal without saying a little about this unique and wonderful group and its origins.

In 1997, a friend told Ian Durand that he was not fulfilling his potential, and challenged him to come up with something completely different from anything he had done before. What Ian, a Canadian by birth but a longtime resident of Edison, came up with some months later was The Center. Many meetings with friends and family ensued. In a weird twist of fate, Ian's daughter was driving along a major road in Edison when she spotted a wallet. She stopped to pick it up and found contact details in it. The wallet was returned to its owner, a man named Dock Houk, founder of The National Heritage Foundation. In appreciation, Dock set up The Center as a non-profit under the umbrella of his organization and donated $1000 to get it started.

In Early 1999, Ian and his Wife April took a course during which they were challenged to create a major project unlike anything they had done before. Ian came up with a "Family Fun Day" in a local park. April came up with the idea of a huge book sale. That's the point at which I came in. "The Edison Book and Arts Fair" was the first of many local projects in which I became involved.

Have you joined a local organization as a way to get to know a new community? Have you found other ways to help with this process? If so, we would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment.


Leora said...

This all sound so interesting! And other than the Edison Library, I've never even heard about any of them. Maybe I could interview you for my blog about some of these events? The book fair especially sounds intriguing.

I volunteered to do the website for the Highland Park Environmental Commission, and in 2002, when my daughter was a baby, we won an award! I've met some very knowledgeable folks who can tell me which bird is which and have identified trees for me.

I've also done food drives for the Highland Park Food Pantry with the Cub Scouts. I enjoyed knocking on neighbors' doors with my son asking for food (instead of asking for them to buy something, which is what the scouts usually have to do).

Graham said...

Sounds like you've done some wonderful, rewarding work, Leora!

Alas, the book fair was a once-off. It took a lot of work from so many people. It was also the first time such a major road in Edison had been closed for an event. Once April had pulled it off, she said "never again!"

Of course, The Friends of the Edison Public Library does have its annual book sale at its North Edison branch, in November. Still a big project, but not quite on the same scale.

When we approach people to ask for their help, we're often confronted with "I'm too busy to have time for anything like that." However, it's true what they say, "If you want to get something done, ask a busy person."

mother in israel said...

Those events sound like fun. You don't always think about the people who get them off the ground.

Graham said...

mother in israel: You're right there. We often forget about the people running about in the background making these things happen.

Folks - mother in israel has a very interesting blog herself, and has very kindly agreed to contribute a guest post to my blog. Look out for it next week.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to become involved in a community organisation here in the Netherlands, but I did join an all-women singing group. It feels really great to work together and reach end products like concerts and music festivals. Plus all rehearsals are in Dutch, which helps me with the language. I'm also meeting native Dutch women, and I really believe that befriending locals and including yourself in networks with natives really helps you feel a part of your new home

Graham said...

@Tiffany - That sounds like an excellent way to become part of your adopted community.

How are you doing with the language? I've always had difficulties with learning languages, but I think that's in part due to poor teaching when I was a child creating a bit of a mental block. I did find that while spending a month in France a number of years ago, I did pick up a fair amount of the language. Of course, I've forgotten it all!