Every day, neighbors across America are taking steps to help foster a stronger sense of community in their neighborhoods, whether that’s planning a block party, leading a neighborhood-wide clean-up, or even heading online to build community on their neighborhood’s Nextdoor website.
In our new Neighborhood Leaders series, we’re sitting down with the folks across the country who are making a difference. Today, we’re chatting with George Poppenwimer, Lead of Nextdoor Solivita in Kissimmee, FL.
It’s a peculiar thing: when neighbors drive through the front gates of the Solivita neighborhood, the outside world seems to fall away. It’s a sensation that George Poppenwimer, a resident of the neighborhood for the past seven years, describes as “extraordinarily peaceful.”
Nestled between swaths of conservation land, marshes, and two pristine golf courses, the Solivita neighborhood lies roughly an hour south of Orlando. The planned retirement community is large, with over 3,000 households, and will likely grow to exceed 5,000 over the next several years.
For George, he was drawn to Solivita shortly before he retired. He was living in Georgia at the time, and was the manager of the sales organization for a construction equipment company based in the UK. He happened upon Solivita on a trip down to the Daytona Speedway with his wife, and decided on a whim to explore the neighborhood. One trip led to several, and he and his wife quickly fell in love with the community.
“At that point, it was just getting off the ground,” George says. “We weren’t planning on living in Florida, but it was so nice that we decided to go ahead and buy the home, even though I was a good seven or eight years away from retiring.”
As luck would have it, George ended up changing jobs not long after, which allowed them to move to Solivita earlier than planned. He’s never looked back.
Nextdoor Solivita launched in January 2014, before George had moved into the community, and grew slowly for the first several months. Once a resident, George read about Nextdoor in a local newspaper and decided to see if his neighborhood had a Nextdoor website of their own. He joined Nextdoor Solivita and found only fifty neighbors online; the community was fragmented between Nextdoor and a moderated Yahoo! Group. George set out to get more members on Nextdoor, starting by contacting neighbors through the HOA’s directory, passing out flyers, and attending club meetings to spread the word.
“I keep a stack of Nextdoor cards on me at all times,” George notes. “I hand them out to whomever I meet in the neighborhood if they haven’t heard of Nextdoor. Eventually, it takes on a life of its own and word spreads.”
George personally invited more than 700 neighbors to Nextdoor Solivita. Now, the website is humming with the activity of thousands of residents, and George says they’ve maintained an average of 100 new members a month since they first started the website.
And the neighborhood has plenty to talk about. Solivita has hundreds of clubs, and many of them have started Groups on Nextdoor to discuss topics of interest, plan events, and keep in touch. George estimates there are nearly 250 clubs in the neighborhood, with topics ranging from everything from travel, religion, play readers, retired nurses, writing, to even kite-flying and playing ukuleles. George himself is an active member of Solivita’s running group. An avid runner, he recently completed two half marathons.
“I always thought retirement communities were for people to sit around and not do much,” George laughs. “That’s just not the case here.”
Some of the groups have a handful of members, while others have nearly a thousand. Many of them organize on Nextdoor, planning community outreach and fundraising. Some clubs have supported local schools and funded scholarships for college-bound students, while others have fundraised and installed AED devices in community spaces across the neighborhood.
George notes that while the neighborhood was already a social place thanks to the number of clubs and groups, Nextdoor has helped neighbors connect outside of the niche groups based on a shared interest.
“It’s a level of awareness and sense of community on a broader scale. We know other people in our clubs, but sometimes no one else – and Nextdoor is changing that,” he says. “It’s been solid gold for a community like ours. Most of us, we’ve moved here from somewhere else, so you’re instant strangers in your new neighborhood. Now, you can join Nextdoor and it will give you an immediate sense of community. It changes the dynamics from what you may have had in a retirement community in the past.”
Beyond that, Nextdoor has helped connect the community with local public agencies. George personally reached out to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Polk County Fire and Rescue to encourage them to join Nextdoor for Public Agencies. The relationships proved valuable when the neighborhood was hit with a rash of car break-ins over the holidays. Thanks to Nextdoor, the Sheriff’s Office was able to put out a notice to all Nextdoor members in Solivita warning them of the uptick in crime and sharing tips on how to stay safe. The burglars were eventually caught.
For George personally, acting as a Lead on Nextdoor has been a way for him to give back to his community. His first piece of advice for other Leads? Invite another neighbor or two to become a Lead early on in your neighborhood’s time on Nextdoor to help out.
“It’s a type of volunteerism, I suppose,” he says. “It gives me a sense that I’m contributing to the community as a whole. When I meet people in person now, they recognize me instantly and thank me for what I’ve done on Nextdoor. I can say now that, at least by name, I know almost 4,000 people out of 7,000. That’s incredible. Nextdoor just expands your horizons.”
Join your neighborhood on Nextdoor here.