The Longest Table Brings Lakeland Community Together
by James Coulter
As the mother of a home-schooled child, Lakeland resident J. Sanchez often finds herself at home with her son, Aiden, 11, with very little to do. For this reason, she often seeks out local events for them to attend so they can socialize with other people.
Both of them had the opportunity to do exactly that during the inagural community event, The Longest Table, last Sunday. Both of them joined several hundred local residents as they sat at tables around Munn Park to enjoy free food and camraderie with one another.
Being able to enjoy good food was a plus for her and her son; but what Sanchez loved most, as she does with other local events such as this, is being able to go out and meet new people.
“I love meeting people, getting uncomfortable and putting myself out there, putting my kid out there, and getting to know someone,” she said.
The event itself reminded Sanchez of another event that she and her son often attend: the Conscious Communication Community, a monthly event hosted on the first Sunday of every month where people in the community gather to meet and talk with one another. It was a lot like what happened at the Longest Table, only without the food, she said.
As much as she loved the event and its efforts to bring together the community, she wished that it had lasted more than two hours in order to allow her and other people to better get to know each other.
“I think this should be done more than once a year,” she said. “How much can you really learn about somebody while you are eating for five to ten minutes? You are only reaching the surface. You reach the surface on a grocery store line. To really get to know people, you should be able to meet them more than once and get to spend time with them, you never know who you will meet, you never know.”
Sanchez and her son were two of several hundred local Lakeland residents who had the opportunity to meet new people while enjoying free food during The Longest Table on Sunday.
Hosted by the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, the community event was designed to bring people together who would otherwise not meet each other as a way to make people within the community feel connected with one another.
Mayor Bill Mutz opened the event that afternoon by commenting how it helps harken back to a time prior to the internet when local communities were more connected with their neighbors. He said that he hoped that the event succeeded in helping people do just that.
“We live in the city of Lakeland,” he said. “That is certainly a geographic location, but within that city, each of us live in communities, and those are made of the people who live around you…Today we will not only talk about Lakeland as a city, but what makes your community. Because community is what helps to define us, and what we want to do is bridge communties.”
The event was organized in part by the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, with help from the Parks and Recreation Department and the sponsorship and support of up to 50 local businesses. Michelle Ledford, Chamber Chair, mentioned how she anticipated how the event would make the Lakeland community feel even more like a community.
“This is a beautiful day,” she said. “Today, Lakeland is setting an example of how we can come together in kindness and caring and hospitality to get to know one another. It means so much for people planning this event that you all made the commitment to come out here and get to know some new people within this community, and together, this is what makes Lakeland a great place to be.”
Hundreds of local residents gathered in Munn Park to enjoy good food as served by local eateries such as Mission BBQ and Fred’s Kitchen. The line for the food table stretched past the entrances to the parks and even spilled out to the sidewalks across the street.
Once they received their food, attendees could then sit at tables set up around the park where they could talk with the people sitting next to and across from them. Helping spur conversation were placemats with conversation suggestions.
John Morrow, a local keynote speaker and personal communications coach, loves events such as this because they allow him to meet other people that he otherwise would have not, and it allows other people to do likewise.
“It is easy to make friends when you sit down and have food together because one of the great fellowships with life is having dinner together and I think that is something we are missing in our culture: the idea of sitting around the table, having food, and enjoying time to just relax…and making friends is the best way to do that,” he said.
Sarah Breed, Director of Initiatives at the Lakeland Chamber, found the inagural event to more than meet expectations. She saw a great turnout with many people happy and enjoying each other’s company through lively conversation.
Some people who registered for the event did not show up, and her team closed registration at the event to ensure that people would have enough to eat. Otherwise, this year’s inagural event turned out well, and they expect to improve their marketing strategy to ensure that future events will receive the maximum number of attendees, she said.
“My goal was that people would connect with other people,” she said. “At the end of the day, I had so many people come up to me and say they sat next to someone they would never have a chance to interact with. At the end of the day, that is what made me happy. We managed to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.”