Have you ever thought about how we do not know what we need until we have it?

After two decades of this parenting gig, I thought I had most of the basic elements figured out. From how to get out the door on time, to which packet of school pictures to order, to the drop-off lane rules, I pretty much have a playbook of experiences to guide my day.

Then I had a third child.

My first two, the “big kids,” are small circle people. Introverted by nature, they value social time in small groups of friends or family. Unlike other teenage households, there is no revolving door of kids through the house cleaning out my fridge and camping out on the couch.

The youngest, though, is referred to by many as my “mini me.” Recently we had a conversation about not talking in class, and she replied, “Well mom, I am just like you.” Ouch. Truth hurts.

As an illustration to this point, birthday parties for the older two consisted of less than five friends. Maybe a trip to laser tag with a few buddies but, as requested, nothing big or overly planned.

Earlier this month, my youngest had a birthday party at the park for the entire second grade class. She invited 45 kids, of which 15 showed. She did the same in first grade with a similar turnout. Unprepared is hardly an adjective to describe how I felt that day.

Contrasting the two years, though, I have noticed a big difference not in the behavior of the children but in that of the parents. Instead of staying to their respective tables, or selectively engaging with only the parents they previously knew, they now mingle and engage more broadly.

Some even felt comfortable to leave their children and run errands, which may or may not have been wise considering we unknowingly lost one of the girls for a period of time. She returned, telling the story of watching a bird in the tree. Whew!

Others jumped into the tasks of the day, helping serve food, take pictures and clean up. This year the party flowed by with laughter and fun. The ending time coming all too soon.

The 13th Annual Harvey County United Way Chili Cook-off is Saturday. Over the 13 years, the event has evolved, grown and changed with the times. Just as my three children are motivated differently, I imagine ticket holders have a variety of reasons for attending.

In my opinion, though, the cookoff is about more than raising money, tasting the best chili entries or watching good-natured competition. For me, at its core the Chili Cook-off is about building a sense of community.

My job that day is simple: I walk up and down the street greeting, thanking and making everyone glad they came. As I weave through the crowd, I greet people I know, catch strangers off-guard by asking about their favorite so far, and pose for selfie photos.

Connections and reconnections are made that day. Ticket holders see a familiar face dishing up chili and say, “I didn’t know you cared about this organization.” At least one new board member was recruited by participating. Crowded streets lead to rubbing elbows and sharing picnic table spots with perfect strangers, striking up conversations about whatever comes to mind.

What we hope is those connections last long after the last bite of chili. Just as my group of second-grade parents are now calling on each other to help, support and celebrate our children. Chili Cook-off folks may then help, support and celebrate this community. Community, as a figurative and literal concept, can slip into oblivion without actively making it our priority.

Tickets are $5 in advance (gate admission goes up to $8) and available at Ameriprise Ironstone Wealth Advisors, Community National Bank, Jason High Farm Bureau Agency, Heartland Credit Union, Midland National Bank, Prairie Harvest, Newton NOW and online (harveyunitedway.org). Ticket holders will have the chance to sample chili and contribute jar votes for the People’s Choice awards from 29 entries.

Agency Class (and sponsors): Harvey County Infant Toddler Program, Trinity Heights Respite Care, CPRF, Peace Connections, New Hope Shelter, Offender Victim Ministries (Roofing Services), Meals on Wheels (ComfortCare Homes), Grand Central, Community Playschool (Security 1st Title), Health Ministries Clinic, Safehope (Citizens State Bank), Big Brothers Big Sisters (Community National Bank), and CASA (Midland National Bank).

Open Class: Luke Edwards for School Board, JP Weigand & Sons, Conrade Insurance Group, Jason High Farm Bureau Financial and Harvey County Farm Bureau, Prairie Harvest, Revolution Auto Sales/Roth Detailing, Prairie View, Jantz for School Board, Melissa Schrieber for School Board, Clint McBroom for City Commission, Morton for School Board/Treaster for School Board, Heartland Credit Union, Harvey County Sheriff’s Office, Nathan Dominguez for School Board, Newton Fire/EMS, J& M Automotive.


— Tina Payne is director of the Harvey County United Way. She can be reached at 283-7101.