How an 11 year-old helped connect neighbours through the pandemic

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic meant more time at home, and fewer social outlets. But in one Victoria apartment building, 11 year-old Hana was busier than ever.

A woman smiles and sits at a table in her apartment in front of her laptop, as she chats with neighbours on a video call. On top of the photo, there are three icons representing people, connected to the computer screen with dotted lines, to show how people stay connected remotely
A Community Connector at Collingwood Village chats with neighbours virtually during the “speed neighbouring” event. (Uytae Lee / Happy Cities)

Nov. 30, 2022

By Emma Avery

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic meant more time at home, and fewer social outlets. But in one Victoria apartment building, 11 year-old Hana was busier than ever: with the help of her mom, Hana set up activities in the building’s lobby and lounge, including puzzles, candy giveaways, and message boards—all meant to encourage neighbours to interact in a safe way.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Hana. “Everyone felt more connected even when we weren’t seeing each other so much.”

Hana’s efforts were enabled by a program called Community Connectors, through which Concert Properties offered resident volunteers support and a modest stipend to organize social activities for their building. These “Community Connectors” ranged from ages 11 to 59*, and planned a variety of imaginative events over the past three years—from virtual Zoom bingo, to Easter egg hunts, to neighbourhood walks and more.

In contrast to some claims that apartment living is lonely or isolating, the Community Connectors program shows that multi-unit buildings offer a wealth of social support at one’s fingertips. Social activities can help catalyze relationships between neighbours, setting the foundation for greater health, belonging, and resilience.

Socializing with neighbours during COVID-19

Unintentionally, Concert Properties launched its Community Connectors program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many people found themselves leaving home less and missing close contact with friends and family, Community Connectors activities filled a social need within people’s apartment communities in a way that few other things could.

“Personally, I experienced a big mindset shift in terms of how I see my neighbours,” said one resident, of their experience since becoming a Community Connector. “It was encouraging to realize that there are a lot of interesting people around [who are] eager to connect with others. Basically, [many neighbours are just] awaiting an opportunity.”

Although the pandemic posed challenges for the program, it also led to new ways of gathering. To meet physical distancing requirements, residents came up with a range of creative solutions, including virtual events, outdoor meetups, and message boards where neighbours could share recipes or art.

Photo of 6 people standing/squatting side by side and colouring in a large horizontal mural on a wall. The mural says "Westridge" in large block letters, and includes illustrations of people, buildings, flowers, bikes and more.
Community Connectors at The Westridge organized a paint-by-numbers mural. Having the opportunity to shape common spaces boosts people’s sense of belonging and social connectedness. (Westridge Connectors)

Despite the pandemic, residents and building managers were surprised by how many people wanted to participate in social activities and get to know their neighbours better.

“I absolutely loved volunteering at the mural colouring event,” said another Community Connector. “I got a chance to meet a lot of people and realized that an outdoor activity with minor participation requirements actually attracts people!”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, residents who chose to participate in the Community Connectors program were more likely to feel negatively affected by COVID-19, according to our team’s survey of residents who participated in social activities. In this way, the program succeeded in providing a social outlet for people who experienced heightened loneliness or social isolation during the pandemic.

Supporting wellbeing in rental housing

When people feel connected to others, they are more likely to be healthy, develop a sense of belonging and self-worth, and participate in or help their community.

Programs like Community Connectors can play an essential role in supporting the health and happiness of rental housing tenants: recent research from Simon Fraser University suggests that people in market rental buildings are particularly vulnerable to social isolation during the pandemic, with this group reporting a greater drop in wellbeing than both homeowners and people who live in community housing.

Social activities within a multi-unit building offer an opportunity for people to not only meet new neighbours, but to form deeper relationships. In other words, doing things together helps people to make the jump from acquaintances who might say “hi” in the hallway, to neighbours who feel comfortable asking one another for a favour, sharing a meal, or doing an activity together.

In our research, people who participated in the Community Connectors initiative were five times more likely to want to get to know their neighbours better. In turn, those who joined in a social activity or event expressed a positive experience and a high likelihood of participating in the program in the future.

Diagram titled "Understanding the spectrum of social connections", which includes cartoon people along a horizontal axis to illustrate the spectrum of social connections. The five steps along the spectrum are: 1) Building design, 2) Repeated encounters, 3) Doing things together, 4) Forming friendships, and 5) Mutual support. At stage 1, building design can encourage residents to bump into each other and linger in shared spaces. At stage 3, programming starts to play a role, along with design, by helping people make the jump from casual encounters to meaningful relationships.

Building resilience through social activities

As the pandemic has highlighted, social connections are the building blocks for community resilience. In the face of personal and collective crises—including COVID-19—socially connected neighbours can lean on each other for support, such as by checking in regularly, offering to run errands, or delivering meals when people are sick. And when people feel supported, they tend to be healthier and happier, too: for example, one 2021 study found that neighbours who trust and rely on each other reported better mental health outcomes during the pandemic.

By bringing neighbours together, resident-led social programming has immense potential to support this kind of community resilience. When surveyed, the majority of Community Connectors felt that social activities deepened existing connections between neighbours, and increased the likelihood of neighbours helping each other out in the future.

“[The Community Connectors program] is about bringing neighbours together,” said one building manager. “It’s about making each [resident] feel a sense of belonging, and that they are welcome and safe.”

Whether you’re 11, or 91, simple social activities can set the foundation for long-term community building—while encouraging a healthy dose of playfulness and fun. Just ask Hana.

This article is based on a Practice Guide created collaboratively by Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective, titled, Learning from the Community Connectors.

The Practice Guide synthesizes research findings from Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective’s separate studies of Concert Properties’ Community Connectors program. Happy Cities received funding through the CMHC National Housing Strategy (NHS) Demonstrations Initiative to complete this research.

*This age range is based on the 13 Community Connectors who completed a survey. There are five additional Connectors whose ages are not accounted for.

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