Kitchener-Waterloo

Kitchener's Festival of Neighbourhoods helps people stay connected during pandemic

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kitchener’s Festival of Neighbourhoods had to find creative ways for people to connect with each other without violating public health guidelines.

Online event will be held on Sunday, Nov. 15 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

In lieu of their annual celebration at city hall, Festival of Neighbourhoods organizers will this year host an online event themed: A Mosaic of Neighbourhoods. (Submitted by John MacDonald)

Kitchener's Festival of Neighbourhoods has always been about encouraging people to connect with one another, in different ways, throughout the year. 

When John MacDonald, and three others, started the initiative more than 27 years ago, it was about discovering common ground and relating to people who would otherwise be strangers. 

"There are no kinds of real initiatives and festivals that address meeting people who are not like ourselves and it's really of fundamental importance to us to do that," MacDonald told CBC News.

"[The] neighbourhood is the building block of these kinds of relationships between people who are not alike and it's really important to cultivate those relationships and cultivate that understanding."

That's taken on a different meaning and new importance in 2020, as people have been told to largely stay apart and cloistered in their homes in the name of public health. So, MacDonald said they had to find new and innovative ways for people to connect with each other — without violating the rules.

John MacDonald is a co-founder of Festival of Neighbourhoods, which has been in operation for more than 27 years. (Submitted by John MacDonald)

"They might be gathering sequentially by doing scavenger hunts in their neighbourhoods, where not everybody is together at the same time, or people have been moving to kind of online things and trying to overcome their isolation in those ways."

At the end of the year, participants typically gather at city hall for an annual celebration — an opportunity to exchange ideas, meet one another and show the diversity of neighbourhoods in the community of Kitchener. That, too, has changed.

Annual celebration moves online

This year, organizers will host an online event themed: A Mosaic of Neighbourhoods, on Sunday, Nov. 15 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

"We're going to have a great time and once again we're going to have neighbours sharing stories and sharing ideas about what to do in these new times to come together," MacDonald said.

"We're going to have some [virtual] breakout rooms where we kind of consider, as groups, what sort of things would help neighbours come together, what sort of infrastructure and ideas help in these COVID times to overcome isolation and to help people meet one another."

Allison Brown, one of the organizers, said another activity planned for Sunday is story writing.

"We're going to write a story together about neighbourhoods as a fun, creative activity," Brown told CBC News. "We're also going to draw some door prizes."

Activities like skating parties were hosted by Festival of Neighbourhoods prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by John MacDonald)

MacDonald said they will also share an update on a new program called the neighbourhood exchange, in which people volunteer to go to another neighbourhood to meet a neighbour there. 

"[They] go for a little tour of that neighbourhood and then sort of do the vice versa in a kind of neighbourhood exchange," he said. 

MacDonald said when they started the festival, it was because he and others realized that when people live in healthy neighbourhoods and make these kinds of connections they develop important life skills, or what he calls "capacity."

"That is a capacity that is there for us when we need it," he said. "And in these times, in COVID times, we need it."

MacDonald said the event is open to everyone but registration is required and space is limited.

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