IF WE CHOOSE our friends, but not our families, neighbors fall somewhere in between.

Most of us live where we do based on what’s available and affordable, commute times, quality of schools and a host of other factors. We might be drawn to neighborhoods by the nightlife or walkability or open spaces, but we usually don’t meet the folks next door until after the lease is signed or the closing costs paid.

Some people just want their neighbors to leave them alone. For others, the neighborhood is a source of lifelong friendships.

A 2018 Pew Research survey found the majority of Americans know some of their neighbors, but fewer than a third know all or most of them. About 40% say they get together socially with neighbors — a percentage that was surprisingly consistent across rural, urban and suburban communities. And nearly 6 in 10 have a neighbor they would trust with a set of keys to their home for emergencies.

Many neighborhoods drew closer during the COVID pandemic as people pitched in to help each other. Outdoor gatherings on front yards or patios helped fill the social vacuum and strengthen bonds between residents who might have waved at each other in passing during normal times, but now had the chance to sit down together.

Nominees for Seattle’s Neighbor Day include so many outstanding neighbors — right in our own backyards

When the pandemic disrupted Seattle’s annual Neighbor Day celebrations last year, the city switched from in-person events to a socially distanced alternative: asking residents to nominate people who deserve recognition for being exceptionally good neighbors.

The response was so positive, the city decided to make it an annual event.

“We’re looking to shine a spotlight on good deeds, on people going the extra mile to help out in their communities,” says Sam Read, communications manager for Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods

Neighbor Day was created in 1995, when Phinney Ridge resident Judith Wood suggested “a special day to celebrate the goodness in those around us and to reach out and strengthen our bonds to each other.”

The hope, Read says, is to inspire us all to be better neighbors, whether through small gestures of kindness or more ambitious efforts to brighten the corner of the world we share with others.

This year’s nominees (there’s no competition or “winners”) range from a 9-year-old girl who knows everyone on her block to an 80-year-old grandfather in Renton who has volunteered to help unsheltered people for two decades. (For others, see this week’s Backstory and the Front Porch blog.)


To a person, the five nominees profiled here blanched at being singled out. “There’s nothing uniquely special about me,” said one. “I just do whatever is necessary,” said another.

But in a way, that’s the point. Anyone can be more neighborly. And doing so benefits everyone involved, including yourself, says psychologist Milla Titova, who leads the delightfully named Happiness and Well-Being Lab at the University of Washington.

Research shows helping others “makes us happier and gives us a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives,” she says. “And it connects us with others, which is also really important for happiness.”

CHARLES WRIGHT couldn’t agree more.  

To keep track of everything the energetic 78-year-old does for others, you’d need a multipage spreadsheet — but to him, it’s just part of being human.

“I try to be helpful,” he says. “It’s nothing complicated. There’s a lot of pleasure in passing it on — whatever it is.”

Today, what he’s passing on is a bounty of food. Boxes of cauliflower, frozen pork roasts, free-range chicken breasts, mixed nuts, packaged salads, bagels, asparagus and more line the floor of his garage in Hillman City, all donated by a local distributor with surplus and collected by Wright and a friend. The giveaways have become so frequent that Wright bought an extra freezer and refrigerator to keep the food fresh.


When he gets word a new batch is coming, Wright alerts a network of acquaintances and organizations who might be in need, and anyone can swing by and load up. He also delivers to food banks and pantries.

“Everybody needs a hand up sometimes,” he says. It’s an outlook fostered in the small Georgia town where he grew up. Times were often hard, but people pitched in for each other. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure out we’re not on this Earth to be all about ourselves.”

A retired bus mechanic for King County Metro, Wright repairs neighbors’ lawn mowers and helps with leaky faucets and broken-down vehicles. “He can fix anything,” says next-door neighbor Dr. Eileen Gibbons, who nominated him.

She recalls the day she arrived home in the pouring rain with her 2-year-old daughter to find robbers had kicked in her front door. Wright helped put it back up.

His garden — all organic — is legendary, and he gives most of the produce away. A traffic circle down the block is filled with flowers Wright planted. He’s also an evangelist for the power of Mason bees as pollinators. The eaves of his house are crowded with wooden houses for the insects to lay their eggs.

“He would do anything for anybody — and has done,” Gibbons says. Hillman City is one of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhoods, and Wright’s web of friendships spans multiple cultures. “He just brings us all together.”


THERE’S A DAILY rhythm at the Shuttsie Love Little Free Pantry in northeast Seattle’s Meadowbrook neighborhood.

The early birds show up at 5 a.m. for coffee and oatmeal they mix themselves with hot water from an industrial-size electric urn.

Kids walking to and from school grab hot chocolate, granola bars or bananas. 

For the lunch crowd, a cup of noodle soup and a boiled egg seasoned with sriracha make an easy meal. Or a neighbor might have dropped off one of her signature stacks of turkey and cheese sandwiches.

Other neighbors collect the trash for disposal, keep a cache of travel-size toiletries stocked and make cash donations. A bunch of overripe bananas disappeared to be replaced the next day by freshly baked banana bread. One man, living unsheltered, arrived with his backpack stuffed with cleaning supplies and scrubbed every surface.

“It’s not sustainable if one person is doing it,” says Victoria Shutts, who started the pantry in her front yard a year ago. “It couldn’t function without community.”


On a recent afternoon, she and her friend and neighbor Sharon Acacio are restocking the drawers and fridge with an assortment of groceries and fruit — some they bought themselves, others donated. 

Most items are gone within a few hours, says Shutts, 48.

“It’s students. It’s people living in their vehicles. It’s people in houses who are struggling between paychecks, and it’s truly unsheltered neighbors who come.”

Visitors leave notes of thanks on a whiteboard, along with wish lists, which Shutts and her network try to fill.

The project is rooted in the concept of mutual aid — people helping each other in ways the government can’t or won’t, Shutts explains. She was inspired by Indigenous and Black-led organizations, particularly the Black Panthers, who opened health clinics and provided free breakfast to kids in their communities.

Contributing is easy, says Acacio, 45, and there are Little Free Pantries across the city. When she shops for her own family, she’ll buy an extra dozen eggs or package of cookies. When they have too much of something — think giant Costco packages — she drops off the excess.

This evening, a neighbor texted that she will bring individual portions of hot soup and cornbread, which Shutts will store in a cooler for the late crowd.


“It’s constantly busy,” she says. “It’s something people can rely on.”

WEDGED BETWEEN SAFEWAY, Bardahl Manufacturing and multiple breweries, Greg’s Garden P-Patch is a small oasis in urban-industrial Ballard. But keeping it green over the past several years has been a struggle, with thefts and vandalism rampant. The tool shed was broken into almost a dozen times and all the equipment stolen, says Koji Intlekofer, unlocking the gate on a cloudy spring afternoon.

Just overnight, he points out, someone — he suspects a homeowner — dug up several bunches of irises, rhizomes and all.

As one of the garden’s volunteer coordinators, Intlekofer was on the verge of giving up when he decided instead to do his best to keep the patch alive. Despite a busy career in the tech industry, he worked with city officials to get temporary fencing installed. He and others scrounged up replacement hoes, shovels and rakes.

Now, gardeners are starting to return, and another growing season is renewing hopes.

Lupines and irises are blooming; espaliered apple trees are setting fruit; and Swiss chard, bok choy and potatoes are flourishing in the section called the “giving garden,” destined for the Ballard Food Bank.


This is the part Intlekofer, 39, loves. As a kid in Bellevue, he always had a small plot in his dad’s garden. His parents also stressed the importance of community service. Now that he’s an apartment-dweller, the P-Patch is a way to reconnect with those roots and help others get started.

“I didn’t know much about vegetable gardening, and Koji has been so helpful,” says Valerie Gleeson, 71, who nominated him. She moved recently from Anacortes and joined the P-Patch to meet people and get outdoors. Intlekofer taught her how to enrich the soil and suggested plant options.

“It’s mostly trial and error,” he says, laughing, as he cuts sorrel from his plot adjacent to Gleeson’s.

The pandemic disrupted most normal operations, like work parties to tackle big projects, and Intlekofer is trying to get everything back on track. He’d also like to eventually be able to ditch the fence.

“It’s the antithesis of what a community garden is supposed to be,” he says.

When the sun is shining and the garden is bursting with flowers and produce, he enjoys explaining the P-Patch program to curious passersby. And he loves eating the fruits of his labor.


Tonight, it’s fresh asparagus harvested from plants he and his girlfriend planted five years ago.

AFTER LIVING OUT of his ’78 Ford pickup for several years, Jim Hand was delighted to get an apartment at Westwood Heights in West Seattle. Friends helped him navigate the application process and waiting list for the low-income, senior complex, and he’s been paying it forward ever since.

“He’s a good person,” fellow resident Diane Nelson says, as Hand measures boards to brace the windows of her first-floor apartment for extra security. “He helps everybody in here.”

Hand has lived in the 130-unit building almost four years and knows almost everyone. Before sizing up Nelson’s windows, he was waiting outside in the rain to help a resident in a wheelchair disembark the van bringing her home from the hospital. The day before, he hung curtains for another neighbor. It’s a rare week when he doesn’t give several people rides to the store or doctor’s office.

“It’s so easy,” he says, shrugging off the effort. “Just a little bit can go a long way.”

Hand, 68, worked most of his life as an auto mechanic — a skill he learned in his father’s junkyards near Detroit and Little Rock, Arkansas. Now, he applies that knowledge to wheelchairs and hospital beds and anything else that needs fixing. Service always comes with a stream of jokes and conversation.


Next up today is 82-year-old Carolyn McCool’s electric wheelchair. The front wheels are “bald as Eisenhower’s head,” as Hand puts it.

He rummages through his stash of salvaged parts in the garden shed and locates a pair of replacements. Leveraging the heavy chair onto a homemade wooden brace, he quickly slips off the old wheels and slips on the new, tightening them with a socket wrench.

“I like the tread on those, Jim,” says McCool, who puts a lot of mileage on her chair traveling all over the county. The old wheels wore out in six months.

She gets back in the chair and gives it spin.

Hand grins and gathers up his tools.

“Like Willie Nelson said, you’re on the road again.”

IT’S CRUNCH TIME in the kitchen at Lake City Presbyterian Church. A team of volunteer cooks is preparing lunch for 200 senior citizens, cutting cornbread, tossing spinach salad, quartering oranges. Yolanda Hong is dicing barbecued chicken for sandwiches.

“It’s a group effort,” she says, reaching for another tray of meat. “That’s why there are so many of us.”

The organization Hong is working with today is The Hunger Intervention Program. On other days, you’ll find her cooking and delivering food to a local food bank or an organization that provides meals to homeless people. Earlier in the pandemic, she drove a 26-foot truck for a group that distributed free boxes of produce.


“She’s probably involved in a lot of stuff I don’t even know about,” says Rachel Cummings, who nominated Hong for Neighbor Day recognition. “I asked her why she does it, and she said she loves to eat and can’t imagine going without.”

Hong’s community work started in the tiny kitchen of her condo in the Magnuson Park area, where she baked and decorated cakes and gave them away through the local “Buy Nothing” network — an online forum where neighbors share freely with each other. The network also introduced Hong, 41, to some of the people in her own building, where she had lived for years without really connecting.

“Now I know a lot of my neighbors, and they know me,” she says. She’s also tapped into a supportive web of organizations and individuals working to help and feed others.

“I do my little part and other people do what they can, and together we make this whole thing, which is pretty cool.”

Some of her contributions are really small, Hong points out. This morning, she boiled a $1 box of spaghetti, then stir-fried it with chopped onion, leftover cabbage and red bell peppers recycled from a crudité plate at a social event. The result: six individually packaged portions of veggie lo mein.

After she finishes her senior meals stint, Hong stops off at a nearby community fridge — an outdoor refrigerator maintained by a local resident and stocked with food that’s free to all. She slips in the lo mein, along with a half-dozen chocolate ganache cupcakes, then heads home.

By the next morning, all the food is gone.