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The neighbourhood champion trying to foster connection

Karen Schilstra and her family want Thorold residents to reconnect with their neighbours; 'Get away from our screens, get away from our phones and sit out on the porch'

When was the last time you borrowed a cup of sugar from your neighbour?

In a world where we’re increasingly invited to live our lives online, it seems that some offline connection has been lost.

That’s why community group One Thorold launched their Neighbourhood Hubs initiative a few years ago.

The project aims to find champions who will foster a sense of community on their street.

“A personal face-to-face connection is so big,” explains hub champion Karen Schilstra, in an interview with ThoroldToday. “Technology is great and wonderful, but it’s not helping our anxious souls. We need a hug, we need a high five. Get away from our screens, get away from our phones and sit out on the porch.”

Being a champion for your community can take many different shapes and forms. It can go from writing cards to your neighbours, to spending quality time on the porch. 

“Everybody’s hub is catered to their street and to their personalities,” Schilstra says. “When we moved on our street we build a big front porch. We are intentional about living in the front yard.”

The Neighbourhood Hubs project was conceived by Schilstra and her friend Hilda Vander Klippe back in early 2020, but the initiative really took off during the early days of the pandemic.

“Things really heated up because people were at home,” says Schilstra. “We just encouraged people to connect with their neighbours, send cards, just support each other. Some of these neighbourhoods flourished and got to know each other.”

But as the world has slowly recovered from the pandemic, there’s been less enthusiasm for connecting with neighbours, according to Schilstra.

“Now we’re finding that people are very busy,” she says. “It’s harder to get people interested in connection because they are busier in life. But we still have this passion and we know that people need community and people need to feel connected.”

Going up to a stranger and starting a conversation can be a hurdle for some, but the benefits can outweigh the anxiety that goes paired with it.

“Once people come and feel connected I can guarantee their anxious thoughts are going to start fading away,” Schilstra says. “They’re no longer thinking of their anxious thoughts. They’re thinking of that other person sitting across from them.”

With Thorold being the eight-fastest growing municipality in Canada, Schilstra says it’s more important than ever to be a touchstone for others in your community.

“There are some neighbours that have moved in up the street and my husband and I have just been able to form a relationship with them,” she says. “We are people who have been able to help them find the school, find the library, just help them connect with our beautiful community.”

There are currently between 12 and 15 Neighbourhood Hubs in Thorold, but Schilstra hopes to get more people involved in the coming months.

“We’re looking for people to start intentionally connecting with other neighbours,” she says. “We know that there are people doing it already and we want to know who they are.”

To promote the project, Schilstra and Vander Klippe will be hosting a Neighbourhood Hubs Community Food Drive on June 3, as well as Neighbourhood Hubs Ice Cream Parties on July 16.

Eventually, Schilstra hopes to see most neighbourhoods in the City enrolled in the initiative. 

“Thorold is so big,” she says. “I think that every street could have a hub on it. Everybody, let’s get connected!”

To sign up to be a hub champion for your neighbourhood, head over to the project’s website.