By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Greg Brown put bacon-wrapped venison steaks on the grill while his wife Amber and youngest son Conner tossed beanbags in the front yard.
Across the street, neighbors Nate and Lynette Hepner and their children Tyler and Hannah were also enjoying the 80-degree weather with a barbecue.
Kids were playing. People were smiling. And a flock of sandhill cranes flying overhead provided an apt soundtrack for a perfect spring day in Kearney, Nebraska.
For a couple hours Tuesday evening, life seemed to return to normal for this 14th Avenue neighborhood.
Brown, an exercise science professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, came up with the idea for this “front porch celebration” a few days ago. He was looking for a way to reconnect with friends and neighbors while following safety guidelines implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Because many of us can’t go to work, we can’t go to church and our kids can’t go to school, our normal social connections with people have been broken,” Brown said. “A lot of people have the feeling that they’re isolated.”
His solution allows people to be social as they practice social distancing. On designated evenings, from 6-8 p.m., neighborhoods are encouraged to head outside, where everyone can see each other and communicate – even if it means shouting from the sidewalk.
“I just think this is something a lot of people in the community need; to be able to be outside their home and see their neighbors doing normal things. That’s so important for our social and psychological health,” said Brown, who teamed up with Tami Moore, a UNK professor and director of the family studies program, to promote the front porch celebration concept.
Using social media and emails, they invited people to join in by barbecuing in their front yard or driveway, playing games or ordering takeout from a local restaurant to eat picnic-style.
On 14th Avenue, Nate Hepner was taking in the scenery while preparing grilled chicken breasts he served at a table set up in front of his home. Hepner, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, called the event an “awesome” idea.
“We’ve all gotten to be such good friends, but we don’t get to see each other as much anymore,” he said. “It’s nice to get everybody outside again.”
“I think this is something we need to do every Tuesday,” Hepner added.
Moore, whose southwest Kearney neighborhood was buzzing with activity Tuesday evening, hopes this type of organized event shows people you can have fun and interact with others while maintaining at least 6 feet of separation and following the state mandate that limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer during the coronavirus outbreak.
“As a city official, I’m a little bit on the cautious side, but I’m also a family scientist and I know how important things like this are during this time,” said Moore, a Kearney City Council member.
She envisions the neighborhood events as a way to celebrate high school and college graduates, birthdays and anniversaries or health care workers who are protecting the public during the ongoing health crisis.
Moving forward, Moore and Brown want to see more people get involved by organizing front porch events in their neighborhoods. Their ultimate goal is to have dates when the entire city and other area communities participate at the same time.
“I would love to see this go beyond just my idea,” Brown said.