We're known for being friendly in the Deep South. Visitors are always surprised by the warm welcome and cheerful nature of Southlanders. It's a great thing to be known for.
I'd have to agree that we're a friendly bunch but I'd like to see us become more neighbourly as well. Ask yourself, how well do you know your neighbours? You might say hi over the fence in passing but do you really know them?
Back in our grandparents' and, to some extent, our parents' time people knew their neighbours, considered them friends, and took care of them. You knew everyone on your street and they knew you. These days we're busier, a nine-to- five work day is becoming rare, and I think we see less of our neighbours than we used to.
While there is always room for improvement, I think Southland does better than many places when it comes to knowing our neighbours and belonging to our communities.
Some years ago I lived in Tuatapere where I worked as a police officer and was involved with search and rescue and other community organisations. This really showed me how important it is for people to know their neighbours. When the crunch came the community rallied together to support the families affected. It helped ease the pain for everyone.
It wasn't just tragedies that saw people acting in a neighbourly way; if there were concerns about the welfare or safety of others, people would come forward and let me know. It's important that people act if they think someone may need a hand - it could make a huge difference to their life.
There are often articles in the newspaper about the good work Southlanders are doing around the region to help others, be it fundraising for someone with cancer or relief efforts for overseas disasters. There are a lot of caring people out there.
I'd like to see this community spirit and neighbourliness become part of our everyday life. I encourage you as Southlanders to really get to know your neighbours and to be strong communities.
For the first time this year Southland District Council is taking part in Neighbours Day Aotearoa. The idea of Neighbours Day is to turn strangers into neighbours and streets into neighbourhoods. It's about doing small acts of neighbourliness to make our towns safe, fun and friendly.
I encourage you to be part of Neighbours Day, if not through an official event, then through a visit to your neighbours and getting to know a bit more about them.
I'd like to see Neighbours Day take off in Southland and become something which every town takes part in, and not just once a year.
I think we could hold our heads high knowing that our towns are made up of more than just people who live in the same area, that instead they are thriving communities where people care about each other, the places they live and their neighbours.
The Christchurch earthquake is an example of how important strong communities are. After the quake, neighbourhoods and communities united in a way they hadn't before, with neighbours helping and supporting each other through what was probably one of the toughest times of their lives.
This is an example for the rest of us, although I don't think we should wait for a disaster to strike before we extend a hand. Strong neighbourhoods are important for other things too - a good example is Neighbourhood Support. Police have been working with Southland communities and groups such as Neighbourhood Support; this has led to a drop in crime.
A community working together is far stronger than a bunch of individuals wanting the same outcome.
A great initiative which has helped our communities work together is competitive fundraisers, facilitated by Venture Southland. If you haven't been to one then go. I attended the Manapouri and Te Anau event - it's awesome seeing communities competing to raise funds.
Neighbours Day Aotearoa is being celebrated next weekend (March 29, 30) and I hope you'll choose to take the theme and run with it. Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks and I will be taking part, meeting on a farm which sits on the Southland District and Gore District boundary for a cuppa on Tuesday afternoon.
It's a chance to continue building on our neighbourly relationship.
Then I'll be having afternoon tea in Wyndham at the Memorial Hall, where I hope the public will come along to say hi and get to know me and a few of their other neighbours.
As for my own neighbours, looks like it's time for a catchup barbecue. We just have to decide who will host . . .
» Gary Tong is Southland District mayor.
- The Southland Times