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Column: Newcomers still welcome, with or without wagon


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NO one is going to fault Columbus for not being a welcoming community.

In fact, Welcoming Community is the name of one of the city’s strongest initiatives to acquaint newcomers with their recently adopted hometown.

Past mayors have long championed programs to make new arrivals feel at home. Bob Stewart launched Ethnic Expo and Fred Armstrong formed the Mayor’s Cultural Awareness Committee — both efforts aimed at breaking down local barriers for those coming here from other countries and cultures.

Over the years, there have been a number of specific programs geared to newcomers.

Through the second half of the 20th century, people moving into Columbus often were greeted at their front door by a representative of Welcome Wagon, armed with a basket full of gifts and coupons from area merchants.

More recently, arrivals have been encouraged to become involved with the Newcomers Club, a forum in which they can network among their peers through personal friendship and an unstructured system of subgroups.

Still, there are some who are missed.

Diane Scott of Columbus pointed out one of them in a recent email:

“I help out at the USO. I had a captain who has just moved into our area. He told me that the schools don’t help military children transition into a new school or even the communities or into the new schools. He said he lives in Shelbyville, but he’s not alone.

“Many new families are moving in around the base.

I remember (Welcome Wagon) from back in the 1960s. They would come to your home and give you information on the town you live in. Businesses provided coupons. There was also information about local clubs, doctors, churches and schools. There was even a history of the city. “

The Welcome Wagon greeting Scott referenced no longer exists. Welcome Wagon was a for-profit international organization that provided newcomers with information about their new home and introduced them to local businesses through coupons included in their welcome package.

There were Welcome Wagon hostesses who received leads on new arrivals from area realty agents and other sources. The first Welcome Wagon hostess in Columbus was LaVonna Guckenberger, appointed in 1953.

By 1998, the Welcome Wagon model had become outdated. The visits to newcomer homes by hostesses eventually were abandoned. The gift packages were continued for a time, but they arrived in the mail.

While I’m sure the basket of coupons was appreciated, I imagine most newcomers attached greater importance to the information about the town and the feeling of friendship that came with personal interactions.

There have even been times when newcomers to some Columbus neighborhoods found one or more of their neighbors on their front porches bearing trays of cookies or other homemade foodstuffs and welcoming them to Columbus.

Michele LaPointe doesn’t recall any cookie-bearing neighbors on her front porch when she and her family moved to Columbus 13 years ago.

She found something better — a local group called the Newcomers Club.

She’s still a member. So are a lot of other longtime residents. It even has a few Columbus natives on its membership rolls.

The club is a social networking vehicle. There are groups within the larger group that offer specialized pursuits as to interests. The main theme is to interact, exchanging useful information about the community or life in general, developing friendships and mostly, making people feel like they belong.

It is structured to the point that the large group meets the third Thursday of every month at North Christian Church. “We have speakers from various sectors of the community and a social time to give people the opportunity to get to know each other,” LaPointe said.

Members rely on networking and publicity to spread the word about the organization. “We run meeting notices in the paper and we have fliers posted throughout the county in places like the Visitors Center,” LaPointe said, adding that she can be reached at 373-0185 by anyone seeking information about the club.

While groups such as the Newcomers Club are certainly strong vehicles for making people feel welcome, it also falls upon newcomers to avail themselves of opportunities to become a part of any community.

The days of looking out a front door to see a Welcome Wagon hostess bearing a basket of coupons or a smiling neighbor balancing a tray of cookies are over.

On the other hand, a tray of cookies is a nice way to introduce somebody to the neighborhood.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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