• Penny Neef

Our Socially Distant Social Committee

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Penny Neef.



I love all of Hampton Roads from the beaches to the museums, from Ghent to Ft. Monroe. These days, I’m feeling very happy that I live in northern Suffolk, in a neighborhood where there are miles to walk and bike with social distant ease, where I have a backyard to grow flowers and tomatoes, and where there are wide open common areas to come together, while staying apart.


Somehow this introvert, who prefers the company of children and dogs to adult people, and could happily sit alone with a book all day, ended up as co-chair of our neighborhood Social Committee. It’s a big neighborhood, with over 1,500 homes, big and small, and families of all kinds and colors. I love it. Luckily, my co-chair, Fran, is an extrovert. She loves talking to everyone and getting to know them.


Fran and I had the neighborhood social calendar planned for all of 2020. We even had magnets made, printed up with the dates for concerts in the park, an environmental awareness speaker, a recycling event/food drive, a movie night, and more. We put the social calendar magnets on each and every mailbox on March 3. Bands booked, speakers ready, catering all set. We were ready.


Or so we thought- then came the pandemic. The neighborhood and the world, sheltered in place. We cancelled the first concert, then the first speaker from the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, then our recycling event. You get the picture. Just like everyone else, we had to pivot, get creative, and think of new ways to unite our neighborhood while staying safe.


Here are some things we have done, are currently doing, and have planned for the next few months. Some of the ideas came from our neighbors, some from other neighborhoods, and some from Fran and I just talking as we walk the neighborhood together (with our masks on and six feet apart).


We are lucky here. We have an active homeowner’s association that sends out email blasts to all the residents, maintains a Facebook page and a website. The Social Committee also has a budget, but most of the ideas can be done on the cheap.

Penny with a sign directing people to the book and puzzle exchange.

Book and Puzzle Exchange The libraries have been shut done and it is impossible to find a jigsaw puzzle in stock on the Internet. We have four waterproof plastic bins set up under a gazebo at our neighborhood park. There is a bin for children’s books, one for adult books, one for puzzles, and one for activity books. It’s totally on the honor system – “take a book/puzzle, leave a book/puzzle”. The bins have been there for weeks now, with a great response and turnover. No vandalism and our neighbors have asked us to keep it up indefinitely.

A tree with messages hanging from it and a rainbow sign designating that it is the happiness tree

Happiness Tree I took this idea from the tree in West Ghent, where people leave messages to each other or just to the universe at large. There is a large pine tree right next to the gazebo in our park. I ordered a big banner with a rainbow on it, but it could be something homemade. We invited neighbors to leave messages of gratitude, love, and hope. Since so many people are out walking and biking, the Happiness Tree has filled up fast. We’re thinking we will change it up for 4th of July and turn it into something more patriotic.

A child's incomprehensible handwriting, with a mom's translation "Happy Last Day of School friends, we love you)

Food Drive One of our neighbors took it upon herself to organize a food drive for Oasis Social Ministry in Portsmouth. She put out the call on Facebook and Next Door for nonperishable food items to be placed at the end of driveways for a few hours on a Saturday. Then she and her helpers drove around, picked up the food and delivered it to Oasis.

A house with red white and blue lights and flags.

The winning house.

Memorial Day Decorating Contest Like all of Hampton Roads, many members and former members of the military live in our neighborhood. We put out a call through social media to decorate some part of the outside of your home for Memorial Day. We asked that our neighbors “use what you have on hand or make your own decorations.” Each homeowner snapped their own photo and sent it to a common email. I forwarded the emails to my panel of judges and tallied up the votes. We gave away three grand prizes and a small prize for each entry. We sent the prizes via snail mail. No contact at all.

A dad helps his daughter with sidewalk art. Their chalk reads Tough: love, times, convos.

Sidewalk Chalk Art Contest This past weekend, we invited household who were isolating together to come over to the park and decorate one sidewalk square with chalk. Fran and I marked off the sidewalk squares more than 6 feet apart, and provided a bucket of chalk for each family. We sanitized the buckets each time they were used. It was a beautiful weekend and we had a great turn out. Families worked together. Everyone respected the distance. We had a lovely lady who walked over from the nearby condos, sat down on her walker, and worked on a square on her own. We had families with four children, mom and dad complete a square together. Again, they snapped a photo of their completed square and emailed it. We judged the three winners by those emailed photos and will send the prizes via snail mail. Our prizes are gift cards to locally owned small businesses, a cupcake shop owned by one of our neighbors, the local restaurant, a snow cone stand that everyone loves in the neighborhood. We keep it local.

A sidewalk artist draws an eye

Find a Rock Fran and I both enjoy painting rocks as a hobby. I specialize in painting children’s book characters; Fran loves the beach. Some weekend coming up in July, Fran and I are going to hide 50 – 60 of these rocks all over our very large neighborhood, in the common areas. We will provide some clues to the hiding spots on our FB page. We hope that families and households will come out together to join the hunt. There will be three “special” Willy Wonka, golden ticket rocks. Those will be the grand prize-winning rocks with a special prize attached.

Penny's painted rocks with a variety of children's book characters.

Movie Night We are hoping to do an outdoor movie night in the fall, when the weather cools down. We’ll rent a blow-up big screen, have it set up in our large park, show a family movie and ask households to sit together and apart from other households. We’ll encourage everyone to bring their own picnic and seating for the lawn.


We’re still hoping we can do an outdoor concert in the fall. We’ll ask households to stay together. My daughter, the doctor, thinks it will be alright as long as things don’t change for the worse. You can read Dr. Neef’s thoughts about it here.


We’re thinking about hiring a DJ and having an outdoor dance party. We have the room to mark off areas for households to dance together. We’re still wondering about our annual holiday party in December. We’ve done it outside in the past, but face painting and elves making balloon art is probably out.


All of these activities were easy to plan and not expensive to do. Our neighbors have been so appreciative. It has helped maintain the sense of community that we all love about this neighborhood. I’d be happy to hear your ideas for more socially distant social activities. There can be some good that comes out of all this craziness.

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