116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Nearly a year since power was restored to one southwest Cedar Rapids area after the derecho, neighbors have found themselves powered by a different type of energy — friendship.
When the storm hit, Cari Lamb started feeding her neighborhood three meals a day. A year later, she’s still feeding the people — who have become her friends — on Juniper Drive SW.
A few nights each week, the backyard at 2440 Williams Blvd. SW, known as “the park” to adjacent residents, is the place to be as dozens of neighbors continue to share meals and commune in a way that has made them more than just neighbors.
“I always thought that our neighborhood was normal,” Lamb said. “But now I know that we operate in a different way.”
Armed with a Blackstone grill, the Cedar Rapids mom started to help after the storm in the best way she knew how — food.
“If you feed them, they will come. And that’s exactly what happened,” she recalled — filling one belly at a time as parts of a city living in the dark weeks after the storm turned to their grills for dinner.
Lamb’s family returned home after Aug. 10 from a Florida trip to substantial damage and 14 trees downed in her one-acre yard. Her family was without electricity for 22 days.
“When we landed (in Cedar Rapids), there weren’t words to describe what we were visually seeing,” she said. “You couldn’t help but just feel like the rug was pulled out from underneath you.”
But despite personal difficulties during the pandemic, compounded by substantial property damage, her first question was, “How can we help?”
As neighbors grew tired of brats, pork chops and standard grilled fare, her propane-powered griddle hit the spot with items others couldn’t cook, forming a habit that neighbors have kept going. With some money from neighbors, meat donations from farmers and even a donation from a Facebook group for Blackstone griddle owners, Lamb was cooking wholesale quantities of food daily.
For a chicken meal with baked potatoes, she easily would go through 15 pounds of chicken, five-pound bags of potatoes and five pounds of bacon. Often, the Lambs are funding most of the meal costs themselves.
But with power back on and functioning kitchens in homes, it’s clear the gatherings now do more than fill bellies — they warm hearts.
“At the heart of it is service. … The way you get through life is by leaning on other people and helping other people,” Lamb said.
“My husband and I felt called to continue to nurture our neighborhood family. We felt it’s important for us to be close to the people we live next to.”
And though the neighborhood was close before, some neighbors said, the regular gatherings transformed a group of homes into more than families that live next to each other.
“You never say ‘(these are) my neighbors and friends,’ you say, ‘(these are) my friends and neighbors,’ ” said Kathy Kammerer, known as “Grandma Kathy” to the neighborhood.
A resident since 1972, she has been established in the neighborhood longer than all but one of the other neighbors.
Kammerer described a familiarity not often found between neighbors, where people feel free to ask for help and others are inclined to pitch in — no matter how big the need.
“Before the pandemic, we were social with each other. If we were all outside, we’d say hello,” neighborhood resident Sara Kohl said. “It was truly after the derecho that we started going out of our way to continue to help each other out …
“Neighbors are people you have to be cordial to,” Kohl said. “They have turned into friends and we really do rely on them a lot.”
“Landscaping can be replaced over the years,” added Mike Cutter, a resident since 2005, “but the relationships that were galvanized weren’t a replaceable thing.”
Along with quality of relationships, Cutter said the amount of time the neighborhood spends together has increased as well.
Though nobody could quite define why they’ve kept gathering at “the park,” nearly every neighbor described the group as a “village.”
“I think it’s the heart of each and every community member,” Lamb said. “I think we learned together that we can do anything, we can take anything on.”
Lamb, the mother of two biological children, one adopted child and foster children, said the community is an emotional realization. Each time she hands a neighbor a plate of food, she channels a spirit of service and generosity she said was instilled by her grandmother.
She “wanted to (have) the house that everyone came to, that everyone could get fed at,” Lamb said through tears. “I hope she’s looking down and proud of me for helping feed the community, because I know that’s what she would do.”
Before the derecho, Lamb thought she lived in a pretty typical neighborhood. Thanks to a new source of power now, it’s anything but.
“It is beyond my wildest dreams for me to wake up in the morning and know that some of my best friends are my next-door neighbors,” Lamb said, “and that I get to live next to them.”
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