This is a guest blog post by Darcy Kitching of Walk2Connect, lead organization for January’s monthly theme. Darcy serves as Collaborative Storyteller and Program Coordinator for the Walk2Connect Cooperative. She creates walking invitations for people in her own neighborhood and beyond, collects walking stories, and collaborates with the City of Boulder, Colorado.

Every Tuesday morning for five years, Janet Meredith has woken up before sunrise to walk for an hour around her Park Hill neighborhood in Denver. She doesn’t do it alone – Janet is part of the longest-running weekly walk organized by the Walk2Connect Cooperative. Participants meet at a local coffee shop, check in with each other, and walk about 2.5 miles together around the neighborhood, all year round.

“For years, the Park Hill Sunrise walk has been one of the cornerstones of my exercise routine,” Janet says. “I hate gyms! But I love this kind of thing – it doesn’t feel like you’re going to exercise.”

Janet Meredith and her Park Hill Sunrise group walk for friendship and fitness as the day dawns.

Besides being a healthy way to start the morning, the sunrise walk has become a source of local friendship and support for Janet and her fellow walkers. Neighbors who walk together have exchanged phone numbers and invited each other out to parties, book exchanges and movies. They even reach out and care for each other when health or family issues arise.

“I’m a pretty extroverted community member to begin with,” says Janet, “but I’ve met others I might not have otherwise. It has broadened and deepened my network of neighbor friends. It’s an incredible group of people, and it’s just a joy!”

Connect with an Invitation

Organized neighborhood-based walks invite residents to discover the bounty in every block. The walks connect new friends and fellow walking enthusiasts, and they can reveal opportunities for local leadership and positive change. It all starts with a simple invitation: a flyer, an online calendar posting, a social media notice, a personal text message, or a knock on the door.

Sometimes, walk leader Pam Jiner even makes walking invitations from the driver’s seat of her car.

Pam Jiner walks with one of her Montbello Manor Senior Steppers, sporting the bright blue Montbello Walks t-shirt Pam hands out to neighbors.

A long-time resident of Northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, Pam collaborated with Walk2Connect, Girl Trek and a host of local partners to create the Montbello Walks program. The program offers weekly walks for residents of the Montbello Manor senior apartments, among other outings. Pam carries a box of Montbello Walks t-shirts, smoothie shakers and safari hats in the back seat of her car, and if she happens to see someone out walking in the neighborhood while she’s driving, she pulls over and gifts the walker with giveaways.

“The more people start wearing these shirts, the more we’ll see each other out walking for health and connection,” says Pam.

That’s especially important in Montbello, a diverse and rapidly changing area of Northeast Denver that was developed without adequate sidewalks in the 1960s.

Pam explains, “It’s hard: everybody’s tired, everybody’s overworked in our community. Our streets are not safe for our kids. That is a weight on people. Nobody wants to move when they’re carrying that weight.” So, Pam has taken on the role of community connector with vigor, not only outfitting her neighbors in bright blue t-shirts, but also leading walk audits and advocating for new pedestrian facilities.

Pam’s neighborhood has become a multi-cultural and multi-lingual melting pot, where people don’t always know how to approach each other. That presents a marvelous opportunity, she says: “It’s magic to connect, to communicate, to break down barriers and cross the lines of race and culture and language. Lack of communication is not really a barrier. Once we start walking together, you should see the love!”

Overcome Isolation

Maria Mercado receives support from fellow walkers after walking more than three miles after knee surgery.

Even when the love of walking is there, some neighbors need a heartfelt personal invitation to overcome the barriers they face. That was the case with Maria Mercado. A resident of Denver’s Swansea neighborhood, Maria had just had knee surgery when she started getting calls and texts from Walk2Connect leaders about a new four-week walking series starting in her neighborhood last fall. She desperately wanted to get out and walk, and those calls were just what she needed to take the first step.

The first walk after her surgery was a painful and challenging experience. Gradually, throughout the series, Maria grew stronger and more confident, receiving encouragement from fellow walkers along the way. As she went caroling with new walking friends through her neighborhood last December, Maria said, “I come on these walks because I love this group.” Personal connections, starting with direct invitations from the walk leaders, transformed Maria’s experience of recovery from isolation to inspiration.

Cathryn “Cat” Paradise on the trail near her neighborhood in Denver.

For Cathryn Paradise, the personal invitation to walk with fellow patients of Denver’s Clínica Tepeyac, through a partnership between Walk2Connect and Northeast Transportation Connections, inspired her to start moving. Cathryn, an Army veteran who was formerly homeless, suffered from respiratory issues and depression, and she found it difficult to walk even a block without resting. Over the course of six months, she worked up to walking 3.5 miles without stopping and felt more connected to the people and places around her.

“I have learned a lot about the neighborhood through walking,” says Cathryn. “I see the needs of the neighborhood, and I’m able to advocate for changes people need. I’ve lived here for so long, and I’ve fallen in love with the neighborhood!”

Spread the Joy

Ana Luisa Gallardo, a Walk2Connect leader with the SHARE Network Neighbors Together program in Denver’s Cole neighborhood, loves the way walking has helped her rediscover her neighborhood, too.

Ana Luisa Gallardo and friends enjoy walking to discover hidden treasures in their neighborhood.

“Walking changed my mind,” she says. “At the beginning, I knew I was going to get to know my neighbors, but I really didn’t know what businesses were around me or behind me. I never talked to people! When I started to walk, I started to build relationships with my neighbors.”

The joy of discovering the bounty in a block – new friends, new resources, hidden assets, and waiting opportunities – makes walking one’s own neighborhood so rewarding. What invitation could you extend to a neighbor today? Decide to greet the sun together like Janet and her friends in Park Hill, or set a weekly walking date with residents of a nearby retirement community or apartment complex, like Pam in Montbello. Reach out and walk with someone near you who might feel isolated by illness or depression, or just spread the love with a smile as you start to see your neighborhood differently.