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How Do You Create Community?

                                   SH Tapping Vine.jpg

Ever feel isolated, alone, even disconnected…yet yearn to gather in common with others?

I recently experienced community first-hand.  Emerging from my Tampa Bay flash mobbers group after a holiday prep class last week, a few of us lingered outside the resort in which we practice. Some were planning to get a bite to eat and, somewhere, I heard reference to the name Laura Kepner. I was in – even without a formal invitation.

Why did the name Laura Kepner hit me? I had previously spoken with Laura by phone was drawn to her collaborative spirit. Bonnie Walters, publisher of Destinations magazine, referred Laura to me as a positive force, a community-minded personality, and contributor to the Tampa Bay publication.

A few months ago, I’d invited Laura to guest on one of our State of Happiness radio shows where she happily stood in proxy for other community leaders, promoting the grand opening of a new arts and music center. I also invited Laura to share with our listening audience her passion for writing and how it evolved into local writing workshops and open mic nights.

When I realized it was Laura’s monthly open mic night,  I wanted to check it out. So, along with a flash mobber friend, I found myself at Tapping the Vine, a wine bar and fresh food bistro that shared business space in what was a former Main Street funeral home.  Within minutes, Laura joined us, hurried from a busy day yet ready with smiles and hugs for all.

A handsomely decorated room quickly filled with over twenty eclectic attendees. As food and drinks were served, we were treated to news: an upcoming holiday Open House at the township of Safety Harbor’s new Arts & Music Center (winner of a $50,000 Pepsi Challenge grant) and scheduling for a featured guest from Nickelodeon studios who would be conducting a creative workshop at the site in early January.

Laura shared an update about the group’s creative quotes being lacquered to the downtown park benches. Finally, we were invited to attend and/or contribute to the local installment ceremony of the Bluebird Books project, a literal outdoor box in which members of the community could lend and exchange books on the honor system.

In addition to welcoming returning guests, Laura took time to introduce me to the group. The public welcome was unexpected, since I arrived in my workout clothes and planned to play spectator rather than rotating speaker at the evening’s gathering.

A line-up of speakers was developed, pens and small sheets of paper set out for positive feedback, and the more formal events began. First, we were treated to Eddie who read his hilarious tall tale about a lifetime mission, unbroken since 1964, to collect, catalogue and honor all kinds of bottle caps.  A regular to this group, Eddie is also promoter of another community event held monthly at a nearby Italian restaurant. Poets, writers, comedians and more are  welcome to show off their talents to a ready and well-fed audience.

Next, we heard from Melissa, whose writing chronicled the slow and painful loss of her beloved step-dad. Bobby, a New York transplant, delivered Nostalgia on Steroids and revived my childhood memories of buying peppermint flavored cigarettes and bubble gum cigars from our local candy store.

Romeo, the group’s elder statesman, a Frenchman in his 80s who’d published two books during his earlier years, chimed in with his own on-the-spot short story.  Combining elements from the evening’s previous speakers, he’d crafted a clever tale that caused the room to break up in laughter.

There was more. Barbara read a poem covering the aftermath of Sandy on New York’s Long Island coast. Melissa returned with a focus on the comical: stories of her family’s Christmas Catastrophes.

Inspired by the collegial atmosphere – as well as the library board member and novelist who read from his own smart phone – I was emboldened to offer up a read of my blog, What’s in a Name, straight off my own iPhone!

When the evening was nearly over, I was sufficiently inspired to pen my next happiness-minded blog: How do you create community?  I asked those in attendance if they would assemble for a group photo and recruited the venue’s owner to take a few pictures of us, smiling en masse, before the evening events came to a close.

This, truly, was community. All were welcome. All were honored. All were invited to introduce and overlap their own interests with those of the group’s leader, Laura Kepner.

Before departing, I asked Laura, “How did you create this community?” Though a ready facilitator, she was caught off-guard, apparently more comfortable playing contributor and group participant than standing in the spotlight by herself.

“I came here and looked for like-minded people. When I realized there was no community, I decided to create one myself.”

The simple, yet profound, response came from a woman who carries hope and good expectations, even when both appear lacking.

Laura is relatively new to Florida, a transplant who’d arrived with her husband from Washington State and found herself unable to find a job during the economic downturn. With traditional employment opportunities scarce and/or absent, Laura decided to create her own opportunities, connections and friendships.

Within the past few years, she has served as catalyst and compatriot to Safety Harbor’s creative writers, a community that ranges in age from 19 to nearly 90. Her present writers’ group – to which she credits not only friendship and collective skill-building but from which she derives inspiration – has now maxed out at 22. Laura’s offered to open a second group on an alternate day of the week.

Laura Kepner can be seen promoting area events at local festivals. Her writings appear in area publications and her own novel is currently under consideration at a national publishing house in New York City.

Oddly, Laura’s ability to create community has exceeded the traditional bounds of writing. One of the evening’s attendees had nothing to do with writing but everything to do with community. Steve, a software engineer and self-described nerd, is a part time member of Team Justice, Superheroes for a Better World.  This nationwide group of nearly 500 volunteers dress up in their alter-ego costumes to raise funds for kids, animals and others in need. Doing good things themselves, they inspire others to good also.

So . . . how do you create community like the one I just described? You take a bit of advice and inspiration from Laura Kepner – the woman who had no history in her new Florida community and yet created one for herself. “You take what you like and find like-minded people to join you.”

Yes, that’s how it’s done. Though Laura wouldn’t realize it herself, I’ll add my own suggestion:

“You take what you like, find like-minded people to join you, and then find ways to promote, support and honor members of that same community…. without claiming them – or the community – for yourself.”

If community has to do with what’s common and shared rather than preferred and exclusive, Laura Kepner is my idea of a community leader. She’s developing her own happy world while gaining inspiration from her neighbors.

Maura is an International Speaker on Self Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

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