The Art of Community

Connect and be Connected, Love and be Loved, Know and be Known.

Story by Jason Demeo • Photography by Penny & Finn

My wife, Hillary, and I have lived in Lakelandfor nearly 10 years. With the love bugs hassling us and the July heat threatening to melt the tires off our car, in the beginning we thought we might end up in another city. Atlanta, Nashville, and Austin were vying for our attention, but a decade in Lakeland was unlikely. Much to our surprise, however, we have fallen in love with this charming city, and 10 years later we’re still here. And, it’s all because of community.

WHEN IT COMES TO LOVING WHERE YOU LIVE, HALF THE BATTLE IS CLAIMING YOUR CITY AS YOUR OWN AND INVESTING YOUR HEART IN IT.

Enjoying a healthy community has not always been an easy concept for me. As an introvert, I enjoy spending time by myself, thinking, reading, or creating. Hillary, on the other hand, is an extrovert. She likes to say that she likes people, and I like books about people. Truly, Hillary has helped me grow in my understanding, appreciation, and love for community. Fortunately for me, years ago, Hillary convinced me to become part of a small group of Lakelanders, to build a support network and get to know people beyond a surface, smalltalk level. We chose to do this by joining a “LifeGroup” at our church. This experience allowed me to get to know a bunch of caring and passionate people who wanted to share in my joys and struggles, to help me become the best “me” I could be. While at times it was a stretch, I grew to love and appreciate the people in my group and found them to be great allies in my life. Making the effort to join with a small group of people to “do life” together was one of the best decisions I have made. Out of that group came some of my best friends and the job I currently have, where I help to oversee all of the LifeGroups at our church and help people share in community with one another. Talk about full circle for this introvert!

HERE ARE SOME TIPS FOR GROWING YOUR COMMUNITY IN LAKELAND

  • Write a letter to someone who has impacted your life. Tell them how much they mean to you.
  • Invite a friend to take in an art exhibit at the Polk Museum of Art. Discuss it.
  • Convince a friend to join the YMCA with you.
  • Take a friend out for coffee. Ask them about their passions.
  • Take a group of people swimming at Kelly Recreation Center.
  • Get involved with a local church.
  • Set aside a time each week to connect with a friend, either on the phone or face-to-face.
  • Wak Lake Hollingsworth with a friend.
  • Read The Lakelander to stay up-to-date on what’s going in Lakeland!
  • Host a neighborhood cookout.
  • Invite a neighbor over for dinner.
  • Go to first friday or last friday.
  • Take a camping trip with your family or “framily”.
  • Shop locally owned businesses to support your community.
  • Get involved with local politics. Vote.
  • Start a book-discussion group. Meet regulary.
  • Eat dinner in a home. At a table, with people you love on a regular basis.
  • Invite new friends over for a game night.
  • Find an organization doing work that you are passionate about. Volunteer with them.
  • Join a sports league.

Lakeland inspires in me the very definition of community: “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” (Oxford Dictionary.) When I play tennis at Edgewood Park or stop by the Polk Museum of Art, I feel community. When I watch the fireworks at Lake Mirror, or when I run Lake Hollingsworth, I become part of this city. When I am at Catapult with like-minded entrepreneurs, or when I walk my dog, Maggie Roo, downtown during First Friday, Lakeland is my city. When I go to a Lakeland High School football game, step on campus at Southeastern University or Florida Southern College, when I spend time at Oasis Community Church with people who have become my “framily” (friends who have become family), the community that is Lakeland permeates throughout.
I’ve thought long and hard about what makes Lakeland so special and have arrived at several conclusions. Our motto, “Close to everything…away from it all,” nails it. We have the sense of a small-town life and access to big-city amenities. In Lakeland, it’s tough to go somewhere and not run into someone you know.
Lakeland is home to many people who have invested fully in building community, including Mr. George Jenkins. His impact is everywhere. His spirit and legacy abound in all corners of Lakeland. Mr. George’s philosophy led him to create a culture at his company where employees were too valuable to be called just employees; they were always associates. His values of “Investing in Others” and “Respecting the Dignity of the Individual” were guiding principles that turned the workplace into a vibrant community.
The George Effect, Mr. George’s lasting legacy of appreciation and care for others, has in many ways shaped the Lakeland we know and love today. He invested fully in his company, his family, friends, and surrounding community. Lakelanders feel the effects of his legacy while shopping at Publix, spending time at Barnett Park, or enjoying many of the buildings and amenities at Florida Southern College.

INVEST IN THE RELATIONSHIPS AROUND YOU, AND YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF HAPPIER AND MORE DRAWN TO THE PLACE WHERE YOU LIVE.

I love our downtown Lakeland motto, “Rich Traditions, Artful Energy,” and I would include our community as one of the greatest pieces of art Lakeland has to offer. While Lakeland, like all cities, certainly has its struggles, we have refined the art of community. Lakelanders know how to share life together, to support each other, and how to come together as a community for the common good. Lakeland isn’t the perfect city, but it is our city. When it comes to loving where you live, half the battle is claiming your city as your own and investing your heart in it. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of community goes on to say that it is, “joint ownership or liability,” which means it’s a two-way street. I have heard it said that if you want to be interesting, be interested. And while that is a great maxim for relationships, it also applies to the place you call home. If you begin to get interested in the community that is available in Lakeland, Lakeland in turn will become an exciting and interesting place for you to live.

According to a 2010 study that tracked more than 300,000 people for an average of 7.5 years, “Individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships.” Social relationships were found to be just as important to longevity as quitting smoking. Social relationships have a more intense effect on health than avoiding obesity. Although we live in a hyper-connected society, our connectivity doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a part of a life-giving community. Researchers suggest that, “despite increases in technology and globalization that would presumably foster social connections, people are becoming increasingly more socially isolated.” Even though the quantity of our social “connections” may be increasing, the quality of them, unfortunately, seems to be decreasing. People, for the most part, take risk factors such as smoking, diet, and exercise seriously. It’s time we added community and social relationship factors to that list. If we want to have good relationships, we need to foster a positive attitude. One thing that has been found to increase mood, outlook, and mental health is sunshine. With Lakeland coming in well above the national average for days of sunlight each year, you have another factor working in your favor! In Lakeland, there’s no reason to be isolated; it’s full of opportunities for community. Invest in the relationships around you, and you will find yourself happier and more drawn to the place where you live. And, as a bonus, you just might add a few years to your life.