Wreckage from the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. (Photo: U.S. Army/Mark Haviland)

OPINION |

When a disaster strikes, who are you going to call? Several residents in rural Highlandville recently answered that question with action when they reached out to their neighbors and came to help when a neighbor’s home caught on fire.

It all began with an effort by Echo Alexzander to meet her new rural neighbors. That turned out to be an essential step for an emergency response just a few weeks later.

“After attending a Neighboring 101 class offered by MU Extension, I decided to host a cookout with my new neighbors,” said Alexzander. “We made up flyers and delivered them to homes and worked to build relationships with everyone in a two-mile radius.”

Thirty-two neighbors ended up attending the cookout; many of them had never met each other in “real life.” Alexzander said efforts like this matter, especially in rural areas.

“We were able to create a contact list for neighbors immediately. Then within a few weeks, there was a house fire, and we could call neighbors to start helping the firefighters, catch the family’s dogs, and help in other ways. There was an immediate need to serve our neighbors in a way we would have had no way to do if we had not connected socially. You never know when that type of connection might be important or your neighbors,” said Alexzander.

Being a good neighbor gives individuals other ways to help when needed.

Having so much fun

Most people would agree that James and Sheila Boutwell have big hearts. They have made a practice of opening their homes to individuals needing help. But what many may not know is their hospitality began with prayer.

“Sheila and I got married 16 years ago, with a family, and we were looking at a house … but at the onset, we said, ‘Lord, this is your house. Do with it as you want to have done.’ That was our full intention upfront,” said James.

From the beginning, hospitality was their intention. And while James admits he is a collector of things, he did not fully realize that Sheila is a collector of people.

With big arms, a big house, and big hearts, the couple began to invite people they met who needed a little help.

The biggest event happened in January of 2007, during the Springfield ice storm, six months after they married. The whole city was without power, but the Boutwells had three gas fireplaces, a gas stove, and plenty of room.

“People came over to get warm and ended up staying. They would bring everything from their refrigerator … and we set it in coolers on the back patio, and we all just shared food,” said Sheila.

Eventually, 50 people were living in their home, eating together, and sleeping anywhere there was a piece of furniture or floor.

In the evenings, they would do a Bible study. At one point, someone’s phone rang.

“At the very back of the room, one of the ladies’ phone rings, and she picks it up and she says, “Oh, hi, mom. Oh, no, mom, I’m fine. I’m guessing I probably have power, but where I’m staying is so much fun. I’m not about to go check,” laughed Sheila.

That event gave the Boutwells a reputation in the whole neighborhood

“Our neighborhood knows that if we have cars, someone is visiting or someone new is living with us,” said Sheila.

Sheila and James say that every situation has been something God has laid before them. In some ways, it has been a ministry of being available.

“Our neighborhood is not just our neighborhood. We know our neighbors, we look for opportunities, or opportunities seek us, I’m not sure which,” said James. 

The Boutwells say they have no regrets. They get excited by the idea of helping, believing that everyone has a gift to share and should be sharing it.

“There’s so much that we have, and I think everybody can share something. I think that’s what being a good neighbor is. It’s not just sharing your time. It’s not just sharing yourself, and it’s sharing what you have got,” said Sheila.

Surviving a tornado

Melanie Reason of Paducah, Kentucky, participates monthly in the Neighboring 101 class offered by University of Missouri Extension. Something she learned from the class is that neighboring is an action, and one of the first steps is to know your neighbor’s names.

“I temporarily moved back into my old neighborhood … and knowing that I wanted to practice neighboring, I made an effort to know the people living around me,” said Reason.

Then in December of 2021, her entire street was demolished by a tornado.

“Knowing my neighbors saved lives. My neighbor across the street was the first to find out if I was okay and the first to help dig through the rubble to find survivors. As an engaged neighbor, I could help identify how many people lived in the houses on my street. I knew about pets to look for, where family might be contacted, and if they needed assistance.”

If you do not know the names of the people living behind the eight closest doors to your home begin there. And once you know the names find ways to use the names on a regular basis. 

“Just knowing the names opens doors and, in my case, it saved lives too,” said Reason.

David Burton

David Burton has served as a County Engagement Specialist with University of Missouri Extension for over 20 years. To learn more about his “Engaged Neighbor” program, go online to https://extension.missouri.edu or contact him by email burtond@missouri.edu or telephone at (417) 881-8909. More by David Burton