Friendships, jobs advice come from online community groups
DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) — When Carmen Sapara and her husband moved to the Central Bucks area last year, she had few connections.
“I knew two people, a friend and my real estate agent; that’s it,” said Sapara, who moved to Plumstead from East Windsor, New Jersey.
She turned to the Doylestown Community Facebook group, a virtual forum that introduced her to local doctors, landscapers and a social network that has gone beyond answering simple requests for referrals. Her husband, Greg Sapara, is now awaiting news about a job that he learned through a contact on the site.
Such online community groups have redefined what it means to be neighbors, expanding business networks, raising money for people in need, sparking friendships and serving as a real-time source of emergency information that gels people together who might otherwise never meet, community members say.
Dustin Kidd, associate professor of sociology at Temple University, said community groups are giving people a gathering place to meet and connect, without the financial or time commitment required by more traditional organized community groups required.
“Ten or 20 years ago, there was a sense that people were withdrawing from organizations that gave them a sense of community,” Kidd said. “On these sites, people can pull back when they want. Yet they can still share information in these spaces. It gives them a sense of validation that they are an important source of valuable information in their community.”
Community-based groups across the region are thriving on Facebook. There are all kinds — “free and for sale” groups, like “Everything free in Upper Bucks County,” and “Bucks County Free Stuff,” or more specialized groups like “Bucks County Cornhole” or “Lower Bucks County Tabletop Games Meetup.” There are groups tailored to parents, like “Newtown PA Mommies,” and “Mommies of Quakertown.” Groups tied to cities, towns, neighborhoods, even local nightlife are sprouting up. They all have the same basic purpose: uniting people who live in or care about a certain topic or a geographic area.
Members of a Bensalem community forum raised concerns about kids “popping wheelies” in the street, said Donna Sponheimer-Smith, one of the group’s founders and administrators.
The almost 1,700 Bensalem Proud members were encouraged to get video of the kids in question so the police could try to identify them and then go to talk to their families about the dangers of their actions, she said.
“If that saves one kid from getting hit by a car then it’s worth it,” said Sponheimer-Smith, who works in public relations and runs a T-shirt printing business with her husband.
The Bensalem site was first created as an online yard sales group, but eventually became a place where anyone with a connection to Bensalem could go for information about events and find out what is going on in the schools and local government.
“It is a great tool,” Sponheimer-Smith said. “I still like to read the newspaper, just like I like reading a book. But I also realize that social media, it is what the trend is today. You can fight it all you want, but it is here.”
Eric John Sokalski created “Bristol Borough: Neighbors helping Neighbors” in 2013 to help a friend promote a blood drive, and has watched it grow to include more than 3,000 members. “It’s for anyone who wants to connect, post a yard sale, a charitable event or even for a kid who is looking to mow lawns for the summer time,” he said.
He said sometimes, people complain, but good things grow out of community frustrations, he said. Four years ago, when a string of complaints were posted about the poor condition of Grundy Park’s basketball court, a group of members from the site came together to clean up the courts. Just last year members of the Bristol Borough site connected with other members of other area Facebook sites and raised $20,000 for hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
The Doylestown community, with its 15,000 members, is the source of hundreds of exchanges a day. One member this week was giving away moving boxes, another called on the community to help find a lost Wheaton terrier, and others posted in search of a nanny, advice on what to do with an injured bird and recommendations on where to go to find the best tomatoes.
“Back in the day, you knew people on your block — just from riding your bike,” said Sapara, who said such personal contact has faded over the years. “Now, we don’t have that as much, but Facebook changed that.”
She noticed how community groups stepped in to help neighbors during a storm and power was lost for several days.
“People were struggling, and there were posts about bedridden, elderly people who needed help, and complete strangers were offering to bring food to their home,” Sapara said. “I haven’t seen anything like that since I was growing up in Queens and everyone knew each other.”
Site administrators say they try to keep their respective forums as positive as possible, but sometimes run in to some obstacles.
“As inclusive and uniting as these groups can be, they also provide a platform for people to complain about anything and everything,” said Daniel Brennan, who administers Delran Residents Official in Burlington County, New Jersey. It makes it tough when people are “extremely petty and vindictive” on the site that has 4,000 members, he said.
“There are times that a group member posts something that as an admin I feel is inappropriate,” Brennan said. “So I may decide to remove the offending post or comment. And once I do, I’m accused of censorship or worse. It’s always going to be impossible to please everyone. I try to do what I feel is in the best interest of the group. I believe these groups are necessary and a valuable resource. They bring attention to local issues that affect our daily lives. The groups give people a voice they otherwise wouldn’t have. You have to take the good with the bad.”
That’s the approach the administrators of the Medford Lakes, NJ Log takes, too.
“Facebook is a magnet for passive aggressiveness,” said Jeff West, a Medford Lakes site administrator. “People often find it easier to complain about their neighbor’s barking dog online than to walk next door and talk through the situation in person.”
Like other sites, the Medford Lakes administrators are tasked with keeping the forum respectful and above board.
“It’s not easy to manage a Facebook community page, but it certainly has its rewards,” said West, a test developer for the Certified Public Accountant exam. “The group has been a great way to get to know more about the people and activities of our great town.”
Jennifer Ann Peters, who launched the Chalfont Community Facebook site in 2014, said she sees a spike in members when a major local event happens, whether it’s a snowstorm or a major crime. The group has more than 5,700 members.
“I feel more of a connection to Chalfont — the good and the bad,” said Peters, who said the site has been a source of news, finding lost pets, getting information on local roadwork and events and getting alerts on “real time” emergencies.
She said people are thirsting for connections in their communities and, through such pages, get can immediate feedback.
“And at any moment a member of the community can post a question and get a response,” Peters said. “And people can share information about something happening as soon as they hear it, whether it’s school closings for snow days or something else.”
Many heartwarming experiences come from the forum. One woman, who was struggling financially, reached out to the site to find bikes for her children.
“From one posting, all of these people offered to help, and her kids got those bikes; it’s great to see people helping each other and it all coming from the site,” Peters said.
Sometimes people vent about their neighbors setting off fireworks or frustrations over roadwork, but the group is “mostly positive” and respectful. As members have grown, Peters has recruited two others to help moderate the site, keeping “disrespectful comments and rants” off the forum. The advertising executive spends at least two hours on the site daily, but calls the work “a labor of love.”
One recent day Deb Cutillo and Shannon Rosenman sat together, marveling and laughing about how they came together from one posting about kittens left out in the cold.
Cutillo, of Chalfont, met Rosenman, a fellow cat-lover, on the site after responding and acting on a thread about a litter of cats that needed a home nearby. Cutillo helped find homes for the kittens and Rosenman applauded her efforts online and defended her from those criticizing her.
“Some people were being critical in a way that was uncalled for and I told her that she was doing a great job,” said Rosenman. “We started talking and I found out she was cat-obsessed, that we both liked sushi and Bruno Mars.”
After a few weeks of chatting online, the two met at Zoto’s Diner in Hatfield Township to talk face-to-face.
“We talked non-stop for about and hour-and-a-half,” she said. “And we could have talked longer.”
Cutillo said the Chalfont community site “brings back that old neighborhood feel.”
“It brings us back to the old days where you feel safe going out and talking to neighbors, except you are doing it from your living room,” said Cutillo, who found friends, a plumber and a handyman on the site, too.
Rosenman, a Boston native, has lived in Chalfont for 15 years, but never felt at home. Since she’s followed the page for about a year, her life has changed.
“For the first time, I don’t want to move back to Boston; this is home,” said Rosenman, turning to her new friend in her living room and then added, “We should get T-shirts.”
Information from: The Intelligencer, http://www.theintell.com