by MP Mueller
Photographs by Nicole Mlakar
Say you want to meet your neighbors. You might bake some cookies or a pie, or pick up a bottle of wine and ring a doorbell. One Northwest Hills resident tried another tactic, and in doing so whipped up a movement. Kristin Schell’s Front Yard People initiative has created an ants-to-a-picnic basket community and excitement… and it all started with a turquoise patio table.
Kristin Schell lives in Northwest Hills with her husband Tony and their four young children. She’s an outgoing woman who, a couple of years ago, knew some of the people in her neighborhood. Yes, there were friendly waves as they passed in their cars on the way to school or sports games, but she was longing for something more. “I got tired of watching garage doors go up and go down, and neighbors disappearing into their houses,” Kristin shared. “No one seems to have time anymore… we are losing the art of communication and are always in a rush.” The real estate website Trulia cites that 50 percent of Americans do not know their neighbors. To Kristin, that stat seemed all kinds of wrong. And she was looking to seriously mess with it.
“What I’ve learned is there is a huge difference between entertainment and hospitality,” Kristin explained. “I realized it was just bringing people together that is important.”
Serendipity interceded. Kristin was planning an outdoor party and ordered an inexpensive picnic table from Lowe’s. The delivery guy unloaded it on her front lawn and asked her where she wanted it in the backyard. “I was looking at the table, and almost on a personal dare I thought, ‘What if we took all of our backyard activities and put them in the front yard?’” So there it sat in the front yard. Kristen bought a can of turquoise paint, slapped it on and soon was meeting many more of her neighbors. “One neighbor sat around it, then another and pretty soon it was going viral. People are always curious and ask me, ‘Why do you have a turquoise table in your front yard?’ I tell them, ‘To meet people like you…’ And they just open up and sit down.”
In her Northwest Hills neighborhood, Kristin and her neighbors have Front Yard Fridays in the spring to fall months — happy hours for the whole family. On any given Friday there are probably 30 people or so gathered at the turquoise tables. Special gatherings, like their annual Christmas caroling or Egg Dye Eggstravaganza, colonize upward of 75 people around the turquoise touchstone.
These tables are now like mushrooms after a rainstorm — popping up on front lawns around town and beyond. By her latest count, there are now 1,000 turquoise tables on lawns across the United States, and more in Canada, Australia, Uganda and France.
These tables are now like mushrooms after a rainstorm-popping up on front lawns around town and beyond.
Part of the turquoise table’s appeal is that it’s simple and easy to do. A self-professed perfectionist, Kristin learned to let go of hosting Pinterest-worthy gatherings once or twice a year in exchange for get-togethers that were stress free and more frequent. “What I’ve learned is there is a huge difference between entertainment and hospitality,” Kristin explained. “I realized it was just bringing people together that is important. [It’s] giving women and their families the freedom and permission to just be; it’s not something we allow ourselves in our busy lives.” At the turquoise table, she and her neighbors have a routine they call “holding the bucket.” “We go around the table and everyone takes a turn spewing and processing. Knowing you’re not alone… having someone to listen and support you — that’s often all you need.”
Kristin receives stories almost daily from people who are now Front Yard People fans, hearing how different tables have become community watering holes. There’s the family who used their table to stage a bake sale and jewelry show, raising money for another neighbor’s adoption. A local workout group, iGnite, offers free ongoing workouts at turquoise tables around Austin. Book exchanges, a come-and-take-it herb garden and neighbors sharing cold water and treats to runners also use these tables as platforms. An area realtor loves the idea of the tables so much he gives them to his clients. Ad agency GSD&M, the Ronald McDonald House and nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes are just a few organizations who have added a turquoise table as a spot for their employees and volunteers to gather.
It’s a throwback to another time of front porch sitting and conversations with people passing. In a time where we are often heads-down, in a one-on-one with our smartphones, are building relationships through live conversations making a comeback? Kristin thinks so, and the popularity of the tables seem to underscore her theory. “There’s something magical that happens when we take time to sit down face-to-face over a cup of coffee for conversation,” she said. “We all long for a place to belong, to connect in authentic and meaningful ways with one another.”
Austin mom Julie Willeford has had a turquoise table in her front yard for two years. She credits it with shifting her family’s direction, starting new friendships and fostering seeds of change.
Sit a spell: Want your own turquoise table? Kristin has teamed with ReWork Project in Austin, a non-profit that employs people struggling with homelessness and teaches them work and life skills like carpentry. For $265 they will build a sturdy, classic A-frame picnic table ready for your front yard – and painted turquoise, of course. reworkproject.org
“I use my table a little differently,” she explained. “I have four kids under the age of 11, so doing stuff in the front yard happens more often. I love using my table for Party with a Purpose, an idea that blossomed from my very first conversation with Kristin at her table. Neighbors and friends meet at our turquoise table to do some kind of community service. We once did a backpack drive for refugee families in our neighborhood with kids at Doss Elementary. There is a very high need, but as a side note we wanted people to see these kids, understand who they are and why they are here. After the drive a mom came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much, because I’ve been angry about these refugees. Three were dropped into my kid’s class, and [I felt that] it was taking the teacher’s time and resources away from our children. Today changed all that. I understand from the kids’ perspectives now.’ It changed her heart to be a part of that morning.”
Willeford went on, “A seed was also planted in my 11-year-old son’s heart. Now, every Friday after school Jake and others play with the refugee children: soccer, Twister and introductions to charades and other American games. A lot of them don’t speak the language well, but through play they learn to understand our culture. Jake’s teacher encouraged him to apply for, and he was accepted into, an international village program in Amsterdam. Four kids from each country live in a village for 28 days to learn about culture and sustainable development. All these things happened because we opened our home to this turquoise table. You never know how far these seeds will go…”
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2016