What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

When Andrew Hoffman met Jean, he realized there was something missing in Fort Wayne’s neighborhoods.

Jean lived on the north side of town with her son, and they kept their house nice for years.

Then, in the mid-2000s, she developed health issues, and her son needed a liver transplant, so they spent two years going back and forth from doctors’ appointments, spending all of their resources just trying to survive.

As a result, their home fell into disrepair, and their neighbors called the city’s Code Enforcement on them.

That’s when Jean called NeighborLink for help.

Designed to be a resource for homeowners, NeighborLink essentially connects people who need help on home improvement projects to volunteers who want to help them.

Hoffman was volunteering for the organization at the time and was assigned to Jean's project. But while he was working, he kept wondering: Why did her neighbors call Code Enforcement on her in the first place?

“I thought: This is a perfectly good neighborhood,” Hoffman says. “Everybody else’s yards are mowed. Everybody else’s houses are painted. What’s going on here?”

Andrew Hoffman is Executive Director of NeighborLink.

Assuming people were simply hard-hearted, Hoffman started driving across town every week to mow Jean's lawn himself.

Then, after a few weeks, he saw something he didn’t expect. Jean’s neighbors started mowing her lawn, too, and he realized he was wrong about them after all.

“It’s not so much that people don’t want to help; it’s that they don’t know how to help, or don’t know it’s needed,” Hoffman says. “From the outside looking in, it looked like Jean and her son had just stopped caring, but on the inside, there was a greater issue. What we saw was that once the neighborhood knew the issue, they stepped in, and they helped.”

After working with NeighborLink for the past 10 years and becoming its Executive Director, Hoffman has seen this situation play out time and time again. He calls it the "disconnection issue" in Fort Wayne's neighborhoods.

Problems arise in communities, and instead of talking with each other, neighbors often make assumptions and jump to conclusions that lead to misunderstandings.

Now, NeighborLink is helping them reconnect and better understand the issues in each other’s lives with two projects this summer: the second annual Be a Good Neighbor Week and a new video series.

It all revolves around one critical question: What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

***

To Hoffman, the term “neighbor” harkens back to the Biblical concept of the Good Samaritan.

It’s not about where you live, or where you come from. It’s a decision to be considerate and care for the people around you wherever you are—at home or at school, standing in the line at the grocery store, or waiting for the elevator at work.

It’s about looking and listening for where you can help, filling the gaps where people fall through the cracks of society and social norms.

After all, that’s how NeighborLink started out.

NeighborLink teams do all kinds of home improvement projects.

The organization began in the mid-90s when members of Blackhawk Ministries church started doing service projects around town to fill the gaps left by the city’s social services.

Since then, it has evolved into an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit, building partnerships between neighbors who need help and neighbors who want to provide it with the ultimate goal of creating a self-sustaining network of neighbors who support each other.

Hoffman says that while the organization is faith-based and motivated by Christian principles, people of any or no religious affiliation are welcome to apply for NeighborLink projects or volunteer for them.

In 2017, only about 40 of NeighborLink’s 120 volunteer groups were church-affiliated; the rest were businesses or civic entities.

“We don’t discriminate on any realm,” he says.

In fact, part of NeighborLink’s mission is to challenge the way churches and other service organizations traditionally do projects in the first place.

NeighborLink volunteers unload materials at a project site.

While Fort Wayne is often called the City of Churches, Hoffman says many churches do service projects by planning one day or weeklong mission trip across the country or around the world instead of regularly serving their own community.

“What we’re trying to do with Be A Good Neighbor Week is ask people: Why are we not doing more domestic mission trips?” Hoffman says. “You don’t just fix a community overnight.” A simple act of kindness like mowing someone else's lawn can make a big difference.

So from July 9-14, NeighborLink is giving local churches and groups of all types a way to reorient the way they think about community service by participating in any number of local projects throughout the week. 

It’s not a weeklong service event. It’s a chance for residents to experience a new way of life on a weekly basis, regularly serving the people around them, and it doesn’t have to be hard, Hoffman says.

Actually, sometimes the most powerful changes are the ones people can fit into their regular routines.

“NeighborLink is a conduit to get people to think back in terms of lifestyle,” Hoffman explains.

As such, he encourages residents walking or driving around town to ask themselves: What do you see that is broken?

“There’s always something,” Hoffman says. “There’s trash alongside the road or a vacant lot that needs mowing. I’m trying to get people to think about that one thing, and we’d all know it if we changed our perspectives.”

***

Last February, Mazell (Mae) Robinson called NeighborLink at the recommendation of her caseworker at Humana Health Insurance.

She needed someone to help her with plumbing work at her home on Wayne Street just east of downtown near Indiana Tech. She also needed updates to her kitchen faucet and countertop.

“The wood had rotted completely through,” Robinson says.

On top of that, she had a project on her mind that was closer to her heart. She wanted to convert a closet in her bedroom into a space for prayer and meditation, so she needed vents in the floors.

NeighborLink provided the labor and expertise for her projects. In exchange, they asked Robinson to pay for the materials.

“I think the most I had to pay was $100 for the floors,” Robinson says. “That was very expensive for me. But the price was right, and the people who came to do the work were people of integrity.”

That’s usually how the process works, Hoffman says.

Residents who have projects they want to accomplish and financial or physical challenges that keep them from doing so can contact NeighborLink. Then NeighborLink works with them to see what they can contribute to their goals, and asks its volunteers the same.

“What we’ve been shifting really the past eight to nine years has been, rather than this across-the-table dynamic of service projects, how do we sit on the same side of the table?” Hoffman says. “We tell people: ‘This is your project; you invited us into this. Now how can we help you solve this?’”

Once all of the resources on hand are identified, the organization helps team members fundraise to cover the remaining costs.

“It’s more of a collaborative, slower approach,” Hoffman says.

But the slower approach is paying off, encouraging NeighborLink’s volunteers and recipients alike to be resourceful.

“Poverty is typically stereotyped because it lacks any relational connectivity, but we can say, ‘No, this person solved their own problem,’” Hoffman says. “We just came alongside them. That happens all the time. By and large, people do want to help themselves.”

NeighborLink volunteers build bonds with the residents they serve.

Being collaborative also helps build longer, stronger relationships among residents of all types in the city that go beyond housework.

In April, Robinson’s world was turned upside down when her son, Malcolm, was killed in a drive-by shooting one day after his 40th birthday.

Malcolm was a landscaper, and he helped Robinson with her yard work and household chores, so on top of the unspeakable grief of losing a son, she also lost a helping hand at her home.

Today, NeighborLink continues to help her with projects, and some of its members even attended her son’s funeral.

“The people at NeighborLink are great and outstanding,” Robinson says. “I trust them. It’s needed.”

Hoffman hopes that by sharing stories like Robinson’s, people of all backgrounds in Fort Wayne will start seeing life from different perspectives.

“You can’t help those you don’t know,” Hoffman says.

It’s a lesson he’s learned himself in the last decade of NeighborLink experience.

***

Hoffman spent most of his childhood growing up in Huntington, and he graduated from Huntington University, a small Christian liberal arts college about 35 minutes southwest of Fort Wayne.

Coming out of school, he knew he wanted to serve others in some way, but wasn’t sure what that way would be, so he started volunteering for NeighborLink projects through his church, Fellowship Missionary Church at 2536 E. Tillman Rd.

“I just started showing up and helping out,” Hoffman says. “Then I started leading a few projects, and over the course of three years, I became the leader of it all.”

During his time working on project sites, Hoffman developed deep relationships with people of different races, ages, income levels, and physical abilities.

It made him acutely aware of the privileges he grew up with that he didn’t even see in his own life before then.

It also made him question why he had it so good, and how he could make life better for other people. But more than anything, it taught him the importance of hearing other people’s stories and building relationships with them.

“You would get to know them, and their stories would blow you away,” Hoffman says. “I’m a far better person in 2018 than I was in 2008 because I’ve been working in NeighborLink. It’s been helping me have more diverse relationships and understand that I have it pretty well. I’m not sure why. But that’s an important question to have.”

Volunteers of all sizes work with NeighborLink.

Now, he wants to encourage more people in Fort Wayne to question themselves by sharing what it means to be a good neighbor in narrative form.

This summer, NeighborLink is launching an online video series with PUNCH Films, interviewing local people who demonstrate neighborly character.

When the series is complete, it will showcase the stories of 12 people in videos, podcasts, and blogs.

One of the first neighbors featured in the series is Ed Fenstermacher.

***

If you ask Ed Fenstermacher what he did this morning, he’ll tell you he went on a walk to pick up trash.

He calls it a quirk—a habit he developed a few years ago while walking the family dog.

He’d go out to walk once or twice a day, and bring an extra plastic bag for any litter he saw along the streets of Williams Woodland Park, just south of downtown Fort Wayne.

Then, when his dog died, Fenstermacher kept walking and picking up trash because he found that it was a good way to connect with his neighbors.

“I like helping out the neighborhood in any way I can, and it’s a simple way,” he says.

Today, he works from home for the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church out of Indianapolis, and he still takes his daily walks to clean the streets.

One of the reasons he and his wife chose to raise their family in Williams Woodland Park was the neighborhood’s walkable streets and front porches.

“Initially, it was the old trees and beautiful old homes, and the rich diversity,” Fenstermacher says. “But to be honest, the number one aspect that I appreciate about this neighborhood is the people. Our lives sort of spill into each other’s lives whether we like it or not because we are in close proximity with one another.”

Over the years, Fenstermacher has heard many stories on his walks. He’s talked with a neighborhood crossing guard whose wife was dying of cancer, a neighbor having heart surgery, and a neighbor dealing with difficult renters.

Although he’s never had any formal affiliation with NeighborLink, it’s his neighborly lifestyle that makes him an ideal candidate for the organization’s video series.

But when it comes to being a good neighbor, Fenstermacher admits that he’s still improving every day.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s easy for me to view my neighbor as just a neighbor,” he says.

NeighborLink builds many ramps to make homes wheelchair accessible.

A few weeks ago, he and his wife were awakened at 3 a.m. by a disturbance down the street. Someone was yelling, and cars tore off down the street. A few minutes later, the cars were back, and there was yelling again.

“You wake up, and you’re like, ‘Oh my word,’” Fenstermacher says.

He remembers thinking that he had a few options of ways to deal with the disruption. He could call the police and report his neighbors for a disturbance or wait until the next day and confront them himself.

But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he didn’t even know who his noisy neighbor was.

“He was new, and he just moved into our neighborhood a couple of weeks ago,” Fenstermacher says. “I realized, maybe I just need to get to know him.”

So the next day, instead of calling the police or getting mad, he walked down the street and introduced himself.

“He’s such a nice guy,” Fenstermacher says. “I don’t know what the circumstances were that night, but what’s happened is instead of him being just an unknown neighbor down the street, he now has a name, and he knows my name, and he’s a person. I’m seeing him as a person, and I think really that is at the heart of being a neighbor.”


Watch the video series

Check back for a link in this article later this month.

Volunteer at Be a Good Neighbor Week

From July 9th - 13th, NeighborLink Fort Wayne will be hosting its second annual Neighbor Week. Over the course of this week, they will have organized projects available for individuals or groups to join at any point in the week for a few hours, an entire day, or even the entire week. To learn more visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/188778431939289/

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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