Volunteers lend a hand for “Be My Neighbor Day” and beyond

In tough times, you’ll always see the good where people are turning to help one another.

In that spirit, the first “Be My Neighbor Day” was launched in Midland in mid-May. The event was the direct result of the spark of an idea for spreading a little bit of cheer and hope in the Midland community after the cancellation of Midland Blooms for 2020.

“Shortly after it was announced that Midland Blooms was going to be cancelled this year, I found myself hitting a bit of a wall – everything was being cancelled, life seemed to be getting darker and more distant, a shell of what it once was,” says Jenni Bush, senior vice president at SPACE, Inc and active local community volunteer.  “I knew something needed to be done to brighten people’s sprits and I knew I wanted to help. I’m a believer in taking action. Planning is very important, but making an actual difference requires action. I knew something could be put together on a smaller scale.”

It was then, Bush recalled her days at Central Michigan University working in the campus volunteer center, where they hosted an annual event called ‘Be My Neighbor Day’ where students went out and cleaned up yards for Mt. Pleasant residents. Jenni Bush (front), Claire Wardin (left) Emily Schafer (center) and Tim Erskine (right) during planting.

“It seemed like the perfect way to help now,” she says.  

Taking the general concept of finding local citizens who could use a little help cleaning up their yard, combining that with the flower planting aspect of Midland Blooms, and the help of several volunteers, a new effort was born. 

The initial group of 11 volunteers covered seven houses, one condo association that is home to several residents with disabilities and one assisted living apartment. The event was self-funded with volunteers each purchasing flowers on their own in hopes of bringing a bit of cheer and glimpses of light into the community.

For the effort, Bush enlisted the help of Senior Services in Midland to see if they could connect the group to local community members who would like some flowers planted in their yard and a majority of the recipients were identified.

All the flowers were sourced locally as well, with much of the plantings coming from Kutchey’s Greenhouse, who helped get the flowers and materials around for the effort and delivered.

The initial effort came together quickly, so Bush decided to reach out to Wally Mayton and Mike DeRuyter, pastors at Memorial Presbyterian Church and Midland Reformed respectively, to see if each congregation would be interested in taking the concept even further throughout the community. Each carried on with their own ‘Be My Neighbor’ efforts.

Volunteers gathered at Memorial Presbyterian in Midland before going out to plant.

In the days following, Midland Evangelical Free Church planned to join in later in May, but the congregation has now shifted their current focus to flood relief efforts. Bush hopes that more churches in the community will join in the future.  

“One of the great things about the idea is that it’s completely scalable and meant to be something an organization could do on their own.  Whether there are five people or 100 – Be My Neighbor Day is really easy to apply and run with,” says Bush.

The effort made sure to prioritize safety, with volunteers maintaining physical distance and wearing masks.

Kevin LaDuke and Kalya Susko with the Midland residents they planted for.

The response to the effort was wonderful, with each of the volunteers bringing back stories on how they connected with the residents they planted for.

Tim Erskine, toxicology study director at Dow and local community volunteer, participated in Midland Blooms last year and wanted to chip in to help this year as well.

“We went to two different houses that were across the street from each other. You could tell the people were really thankful for our efforts, one of them was kind enough to buy us lunch,” says Erksine. “It was nice putting the effort in for someone else, it’s just a couple of hours but it makes a big difference. It’s more than just helping, you’re putting a smile on someone’s face too.”

Kayla Susko, a planting volunteer, bonded with her Be My Neighbor recipient over their shared love of rhubarb and the resident gave Susko several stalks as a thank you, to which she promised to return with a rhubarb pie.

Kayla Susko in the yard where she planted.

With the trials that the greater Midland community is currently experiencing, you don’t have to look far these days to find neighbors helping one another. While the Midland Neighboring Project has been an effort for some time, the need has probably never been greater.

For Wally Mayton, Associate Pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church and lead of the Midland Neighboring Project, outreach has never been more evident than during the community’s recovery from this flooding crisis.

Mayton says faith communities and churches have mobilized with groups of volunteers and financial resources to assist.

“The Faith Community Flood Recovery Coalition is coordinating the efforts with the community’s existing long-term recovery network already in place and active in response. The flood-response coalition among our faith communities serves as a voice to motivate the practice of neighboring during this time,” says Mayton.  “Our faith communities are strongly committed to the safety, health, and well-being of neighbors in our region. Our shared hope is that community transformation is built upon the foundation of caring, neighboring relationships.”

For more information on Midland Neighboring Project, visit them on Facebook.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.