At Great Lakes Urban we love to feature the residents that together make up strong neighborhoods. Raul Garcia is one such resident from the Westcore neighborhood of Holland, MI. The neighborhood has seen wellbeing grow as the community connector program has blossomed. Living in a connected neighborhood can shape one's vocational trajectory, as we learned from a recent interview with Raul.
Raul, you have a fascinating story. You've gone from being an engaged neighbor to a connector, from a connector to a city council member. Where did it start for you?
I grew up Westcore and have always had deep love for its people and character. Those who don't grow up here have a different perception about it. I have always wanted to be a change agent, to help Westcore be known for its strong qualities, incredible neighbors; a desired place to live. I began honing my skills as an AmeriCorps Volunteer and learning about asset based community development. I also created a business plan for my undergrad degree that helped establish Westcore Neighbors as the organizational structure to help the neighborhood live into its strengths. And together, we got a lot done during the 7 years I served as the community connector for Westcore Neighbors.
But in community development we talk about how it's not enough to give a man a fish, or even to teach him to fish. People need to have access to, and ownership in, the pond. So that's when, after a lot of prayerful reflection, I pursued a seat on city council to represent my ward. And my years of building relationships with neighbors and investing in the neighborhood was evident when I was voted in. I never aspired to engage in politics in this way, but I credit a lot of it to growing up in, and working to build, a connected neighborhood.
You continue to be an engaged Westcore neighbor. What's a favorite neighboring story? And what would you say to someone wanting to get started.
My favorite thing started in 2020. I love decorating my home with Christmas lights, and we needed something to do outside during the pandemic. So, the idea of these hot cocoa nights came up, and we've been doing them every winter since. These informal gatherings last a couple of hours. Neighbors are able to enjoy our light show, share a cup of hot cocoa together. For some, this is their first time meeting their neighbors, and they've gone on to make good friends.
My advice to others is to do something on purpose. Neighboring doesn't happen by accident, it takes intentionality. But it can be simple. For example, go outside and do things in your front yard where you can bump into your neighbors and live life together. Bring your grill out front instead of in your fenced in yard and offer a hot dog to those walking by. It sets a different tone. I've even trained my kids to knock on the door of a new neighbor with me, and to ask neighbors for an egg to finish our recipe. Simple stuff.
Thank you, Raul, for sharing your story! We wish you all the best in your future endeavors!