Staff Chats: JC Ward, Neighborhood Services

Hear from City staff about their COVID-19 work, how they're staying connected and what they hope to learn from community members like you.

What COVID-19 work – from your office or that you’ve worked on personally – are you most proud of?

JC: I am most proud of the magic the City has been able to create under incredibly difficult circumstances at a time where someone’s safety, family, and health may depend on how quickly they get assistance. Adopt A Neighbor is an existing program that was repurposed in 48 hours by Volunteer Services, Natural Areas, and Neighborhood Services to match neighbors in need with volunteers who could help. Many residents who are in COVID-19 “high risk” categories are not necessarily the same neighbors who needed help from the old version of Adopt A Neighbor, which mostly helped lower income senior citizens with snow shoveling. Fort Collins had college students, nurses, new moms, and world travelers self-quarantining and for the first time, many of them had to rely on neighbors and friends to meet basic needs. Adopt A Neighbor was flexible enough to put a support network of background-checked volunteers in place for anyone asking for help. My philosophy in life and work is: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” (-Arthur Ashe) The Adopt A Neighbor expansion and the outstanding City departments involved did just that.

With more people staying at home, have you seen any silver linings in your field of work?

JC: Most of my work is public engagement and community organizing. COVID-19 restrictions took away many of the tools I typically rely on to get community members together and improve livability in Fort Collins. The silver lining is that everyone’s expectations changed and this uncharted territory is full of adventure. Necessity meant we could not be in a physical space together, so we have to think about other kinds of spaces to connect people. Virtual meetings and remote participation were seen as a “stretch goal” for the distant sci-fi future and now my Nana is on Zoom meetings every day. We are having a collective ‘make it work’ moment that calls for creativity and optimism because no one knows what this is supposed to look like now and that opens up opportunities to try new things.

How are neighbors helping each other during this difficult time?

JC: I always say that in times of emergency, your neighbor will be your first responder. Fort Collins has seen this during fires, floods, and now during a global pandemic. The City’s Adopt A Neighbor program was expanded to match volunteers with neighbors in need during the COVID-19 recovery and the response was amazing! More than 300 neighbors signed up to help with grocery shopping, medication pick up, outdoor pet care, and other errands. These volunteers are also regularly communicating with their “adopted” neighbor, providing safe social interaction for folks who are high risk and staying home.

I have asthma, so I have been in Safer-at-Home mode for almost 15 weeks. I did not anticipate how much of an emotional toll my “new normal” would take and how much I would miss the random drop-in office conversations or small talk with neighbors at the mailbox. My neighbors started a painted rock scavenger hunt with encouraging words waiting to be discovered around the neighborhood. Other neighborhoods are sidewalk chalking messages of hope, love, and connectedness as a happy surprise to come across while you are walking the dog. Some neighborhood Little Free Libraries are being used as small food pantries and craft supply swaps. Fort Collins has also had driveway Zumba fitness classes, parking lot dance parties, and front porch concerts. Neighbors have been innovative with hundreds of new ways to say, “I hear you. I see you. I am with you.” during the past few months.

What are some of your favorite neighborhood events?

JC: My favorite neighborhood events are always those that neighbors create and lead. With more than 185 neighborhoods in Fort Collins each is unique and special. Neighborhood Services Staff provides a big picture idea for an event and supports neighbors in bringing their own vision to life. Neighborhood Night Out is a huge citywide event with more than 100 block parties on a single night. No two Neighborhood Night Out parties look the same. Some are giant pool parties for 200+ kids and some are a handful of long-time residents meeting up for homemade ice cream in someone’s driveway. One size does not fit all for neighborhoods and I love to see neighbors how run with an idea!

Some neighbor-led events grow out of programs like Sustainable Neighborhoods or Neighborhood Connections, where neighbors attend leadership training, develop a communication network, and use their new skills to bring something exciting to the neighborhood. One Neighborhood Connections graduate started a Happy Hour where the neighborhood flag gets passed around each week and when neighbors see the flag out, they bring their own drinks and snacks over to share. It is so difficult as an adult to knock on someone’s front door and tell them you want to be friends. The Happy Hour neighborhood flag is an open invitation to all neighbors that gives people a reason and space to connect.

What’s been the most welcome change to your daily routine?

JC: The most welcome change in my daily routine has been getting outside more. The dogs are very stoked that my commute time has been converted into dog walk time. It is not dark when I come home and I have the flexibility to take breaks outside throughout the day. The natural light coming in through the windows is also a huge upgrade from the office fluorescents.

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