Family is glue for community-building efforts in Texas neighborhood
For Debbie Villagomez, efforts to build community unity clicked into place when she realized what a potent force her family of five was becoming.
Villagomez, her husband, Badi, and three children — ages 11, 9 and 5 — live in Pennsylvania Gardens, a section of Arlington, Texas, that she describes as “a very suburban neighborhood but fairly diverse.”
Their efforts gained energy after another Baha’i, Rosaline Sharifi, moved close by in late 2018 and a children’s devotional called PJs and Prayers was launched.
“The five children between our two families, as well as three other Baha’i children who live within a few miles of us, began this amazing children’s devotional activity,” Villagomez recalls.
“Each month the eight children planned the program, picked a theme, pulled Baha’i writings on the theme and picked a few YouTube videos.
“Parents were in charge only of breakfast and printing flyers to advertise,” she says. “The kids passed out flyers, invited neighbors and made posters for the front door.”
The monthly activity became “such a highlight” for the community — “Who can say no to an invite from sweet children?” says Villagomez — that it helped start conversations with many neighbors.
Not to mention getting the Villagomez children involved in community building.
A change in mindset
“For so long, I was waiting to get started with more activities because I didn’t think I was capable of achieving much on my own,” she says.
“But my mindset shifted when I realized that the core of our teaching team was my family of five. My husband and our three young children are amazing assets and core members of our group.”
As a family, the Villagomezes gather nightly to recite prayers “for our neighborhood and receptive hearts,” she says.
“Our kids have become vital members of our teaching team, so we always share with them the importance of praying for our efforts.”
Even the 5-year-old has memorized a lengthy prayer for the Southern States found in the Baha’i writings, “because of how often she hears it and says it, as well as the rest of us,” says Villagomez.
A network of coordinated effort
Others also are helping to move activities forward in Pennsylvania Gardens.
To make “all of my grandiose ideas come to fruition,” says Villagomez, she and Sharifi have worked closely with Baha’is appointed to coordinate community-building activities in the area.
Together they identified people ready and willing to serve a children’s class for elementary students and a junior youth group for middle-schoolers.
“I had heard from many, many friends that if we could just get a junior youth group going, how this one core activity would just blossom,” she says. “I didn’t believe it at first, but time soon proved me wrong.”
The neighborhood team launched a junior youth group in March 2020, and it met in the Villagomez home until the COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person gatherings to a halt.
“The following week, we started a children’s devotional on Zoom, every day at 5 p.m. just to have some social time and prayers,” she says. “After three weeks of prayers every day, we switched over to weekly.”
Spreading joy in the neighborhood
During the months of sheltering in, the family noticed how “everyone was getting out for walks and bike rides,” she recalls. “So we had an idea to spread joy in these tough times: a unity project.
“For six weeks, each household could put a themed item in their windows or doorway for others to find on their many walks and bike rides outside since we were all home all of the time.
“One week was rainbows, another was flowers, then silly faces, etc.,” says Villagomez. “It was a huge hit! Overall, we had over 30 houses participate and say how great it was.”
Junior youth group meetings resumed in May on Zoom, and the children’s devotional was turned into a more structured children’s class.
Also, the Villagomez family’s long-standing regular devotional gathering for neighbors is blossoming. One gathering in early June focused on racial justice, in response to “the current events in society.”
For years participation in this devotional gathering had felt like “a very slow drip,” but no longer. “Our neighborhood now feels like the dam has been broken and literally daily we are flooded with more confirmations,” says Villagomez.
Often, she notes, people “attend one core activity, love it and ask what else they can do. They come to a devotional and then want their kids in a children’s class,” she says.
“They have one in the junior youth program and then ask what we have for their younger siblings. The coherence [among various activities] is amazing.
“My husband and I take walks in the evenings and they always end up taking twice as long as we plan for because we have so many meaningful conversations with neighbors along the way.”
A role in offering services
The Baha’is have collaborated as well with the neighborhood homeowners’ association “to build relationships and offer services to the neighborhood,” says Villagomez.
She and Sharifi “were actually asked to help run our neighborhood’s National Night Out event in October.” Also, with the blessing of the HOA, she started a Facebook page for Pennsylvania Gardens.
Through these activities, “we were getting a very clear picture of more of our neighbors.”
So much of sharing Baha’i teachings for humanity, says Villagomez, “is being outside in the field, cultivating relationships and having all of these elevated conversations with neighbors.”
“That’s what my family members have been assisting with all along. I’m so grateful.”