Stephanie Teleen is leading an undertaking that would make Mr. Rogers proud.
The Essex Jct. resident hopes to mark the first Saturday in June as Neighbor’s Day, a celebration encouraging a sense of belonging in communities throughout the village. Last month, she ran the idea by the board of trustees, who tasked community relations assistant Darby Mayville to help Teleen market the event.
“There’s nobody closer to your central happiness than your neighbors because you see them all the time,” Teleen said.
She’s experienced the flipside of the equation after moving to France six years ago. Feeling socially isolated by the language barrier, Teleen’s interest was piqued by a flier in her mailbox about an upcoming celebration.
She walked outside when the day arrived and finally met her many neighbors, conversation flowing like the nearby Seine.
“It was such a pivotal moment for me,” she said.
Little did she know the gathering would stick with her for years to come.
She later learned she’d stumbled upon France’s annual neighborly celebration that began in 1999 after the mayor of a Paris arrondissement, or municipal district, learned one of his elderly residents died in her home without anyone noticing for months.
The celebration quickly spread, hitting 30 countries on five continents over the next six years. As of 2015, an estimated 30 million people have participated in the events, Teleen said.
After a year dominated by one of America’s most divisive elections, Teleen believes the same can happen in the U.S., with Vermont serving as the epicenter.
“It’s a small state with a huge heart,” she said. “One where people want to know each other and want to be welcoming and engage people to make them feel like they landed in a good place.”
Returning to Essex Jct. in 2013, Teleen sensed something had changed since she left nearly two years before.
“Things started to gel,” she said. “People really started to want to have conversations about what we want out our village to be.”
She credits the Heart and Soul process for this growth and said the village has many cohesive neighborhoods already, pointing to her own neighborhood in the Summit-Fleming area as proof.
For example, texts bounce between houses on snow days to check in on childcare, while the two lone snowplow owners migrate between houses to clear the way. And an upcoming bake-off will pit some of the neighborhood’s best bakers against one other.
In the same vein, a good celebration can be anything from potlucks to wiffleball — whatever makes sense for the neighborhood, she said.
“The goal is that it’s not going to put anybody out,” she said.
Teleen said there are still many neighbors she doesn’t know, a fact she hopes the event can change.
“It seems a little bit of a throwback to the way things used to be and the kind of closeness you would expect from your neighbors in the past,” she said.
“We can all benefit from knowing more people or having more people to rely on in a crisis,” she added.