Neighbors celebrate National Night Out
Jamar Austin and Jamarion Griffin, both 7, pulled up the green mesh sacks around their waists, preparing to take off.
“I know who’s going to win,” one of their young friends exclaimed. “Jamar’s going to win.”
The competitors dashed away. After reaching the end of the course, they turned back toward the finish. Jamarion trips up and, as the kid with the clairvoyant tendencies predicted, Jamar won.
“I knew I was going to trip,” Jamarion explained.
So kicked off the fun and games at the National Night Out taking place at Walter H. McNeil Jr. Park in downtown Sanford, one of the 35 events in the city and 48 total throughout Lee County Tuesday night celebrating the national event.
But this event had a special touch. Near the grill where Mike Taylor cooks hot dogs and burgers every year during National Night Out was a table with a memorial for Walter H. McNeil Jr., the namesake of the park and 33-year city councilman who died in March. McNeil was responsible for bringing the event to Sanford back in 1996. Balloons were released around 6:30 p.m. at the park in his memory.
Ricky Tysor, who has organized the event at the park for the last six years, was quick to bring up that this was the first year of the event without its main figure and it was a little different.
“I know we’re going to be missing him because this is going to be the first year without him and the chief of police riding up,” Tysor said. “We miss him over here because he was making it better for us.”
But don’t think that was slowing the party down. Tysor said he expected around 300 people to make an appearance at the park Tuesday night for food, music, games and more. Early in the night, City of Sanford police officer Doug Womack brought his mobile precinct to show the kids and handed out stickers of police badges, prompting one kid to say, “I’m gonna go protect the jail.”
“The goal of National Night Out is to strengthen neighborhoods, strengthen relationships between the people who will respond to them first in the event of an emergency,” said Kelly Miller, the National Night Out City Coordinator for Sanford. “We help coordinate with the fire department and police departments, who will interact, get to know, play with the kids, talk about safety.”
Along with strengthening the relationships between law enforcement and communities, Miller hopes the events build bonds between neighbors, and Tysor said that’s the whole goal.
“Everybody can come out and get to know everybody,” he said. “We’ll have a good time, enjoy ourselves, listen to some good music, dance, get the kids to have a dance contest. We try to get everybody involved.”
The National Night Out event at Center United Methodist Church on Plank Road was equally as good a time. The Northwest Pocket Fire Department brought by a fire truck, and sheriff’s deputies were on hand for one of the 13 county events. Children climbed up in the truck and took pictures in the front seat of the sheriff deputy’s car.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Department works with community watch groups to host these county events, even going so far as to provide the hot dogs, sodas and potato chips served at each one. Sgt. Dana Elliott, the sheriff’s office organizer, said he wants to change the perception the department has in the community.
“A lot of times you’ll see parents in stores and they’ll see us and they’ll say to their kids, ‘He’ll lock you up.’ I hate that,” he said. “We’re just trying to show the kids that we’re there to help. It shows (the community) that we’re a phone call away, willing to help anyway we can. We want to portray that to the people, that we are out there, we do work for the citizens of Lee County.”
Robert Jones, the coordinator for the community watch in the area surrounding the church, emphasized the connection between National Night Out and the community watch and how valuable an event it was, to encourage those living in the area to look out for trouble.
“It’s all together and it’s all for the same purpose,” he said. “If we get everybody’s eyes working up here, maybe somebody hesitates about coming around because somebody’s going to see and somebody’s going to call. That’s what we’re really after. That’s really what the National Night Out is.”
But he didn’t ignore the valuable aspect of getting those neighbors to know one another, a vital part of the National Night Out’s strategy.
“It’s kind of like a fellowship,” Jones said. “If you know your neighbors, you cooperate with them. If they go on vacation, you let somebody know, they keep an eye on the house. If they realize that, it’s pretty cheap security that you can’t beat. The better they know somebody, the better off they are.”
The purpose of National Night Out nationwide is to get communities together and acquainted with one another. Safe to say Sanford and Lee County are attempting to do just that.