When Lynn Willhite was growing up in small town Palestine, Texas, it was a simpler time, where people sat on their front porches and kids played together on the street.
"Today, most of us do not know our neighbors, and as a result, isolation, mistrust and crime increase," she says.
A retired Methodist minister, Rev. Willhite takes to heart the commandment of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But is he really talking about that new family across the street with all those young children or the dour elderly man on the corner? Absolutely, she says.
Positive, caring relationships are the most important foundational unit of every healthy community. That’s why Willhite has begun a movement to strengthen those ties to transform her hometown of Palestine.
Willhite is the force behind WE CARE Palestine, a community renewal effort that calls for neighbors to get to know – and care for – each other. WE CARE facilitates residents coming together to turn their neighborhoods into safe havens of friendship.
"Our vision is to help our city truly be a place where every child can grow up feeling safe and loved, where youth have strong mentors and the elderly are not living isolated and alone," she says.
The WE CARE initiative is based on Community Renewal, Intl. (CRI), which began in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1994. Over the past 20 years, Shreveport has seen major crime drop up to 45 percent in the targeted areas where CRI has been at work.
Willhite first read about CRI when she was pastor at First United Methodist Church in Elkhart.
"The ministry captured me because it was making a real difference in the community, not just putting Band-Aids on problems. By helping people build relationships with their neighbors, they were fundamentally changing the culture of the community."
At the heart of WE CARE are three major initiatives. Everyone can become part of the WE CARE Renewal Team simply by committing to do one act of kindness in the community.
"That’s all it takes to be part of the WE CARE movement," Willhite says.
The Block Leader initiative takes that commitment a step further, with volunteers agreeing to reach out to the people on their block to forge relationships that are more than a passing wave or neighborly hello.
"These citizens, called block leaders, receive training and support to build friendships on their block. They join with other block leaders on a regular basis to develop relationships with neighbors from across the city," Willhite explains.
WE CARE Block Leaders were responsible for hosting eight neighborhood parties on National Night Out, October 1, with more than 150 neighbors getting to know one another.
Finally, the long-term goal of WE CARE is to build Friendship Houses in at-risk neighborhoods. The Friendship House serves as a community center for after-school programs for children and youth, life-skills training, family night gatherings and other activities, which offer residents a better quality of life. Today, WE CARE has identified an area and is working to raise funds to build and staff its first Friendship House.
"Community coordinators and their families live in the Friendship House and become catalysts for rebuilding a safe, caring neighborhood where children are nurtured and can feel safe," Willhite says.
"We want every citizen to be part of this movement to connect neighbors across the city through friendship and caring to radically change the future of Palestine," she adds.