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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

The first Hammonton Posada: a community meeting to bridge differences

Blog by Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, MA, ACS, LPC, Founder & Executive Director – Allies in Caring, Inc.

We met Ivette at the Creative Hammonton Call to Collaboration in January, 2016. During the course of those days, she had the opportunity to meet other community members who, like her, thought collaboration and inclusion were key factors to make Hammonton better. Ivette kept the conversation going and by December of that year she gathered a diverse group of people around an exciting idea: a community celebration to bridge differences: The first Hammonton Posada.

In this blog, Ivette shares with us how this celebration, common in Hispanic countries, brought together hundreds of residents of different backgrounds to foster curiosity, openness, tolerance and unity in Hammonton.

The story of our Posada, a Latino Holiday Christmas celebration that took place in December 2016, is a story of collaboration among seemingly disparate individuals and institutions. And it is also a story of the strength required to speak up and take action that is more available when we know that we are not alone. Before Creative Hammonton, I did not know that I was surrounded by people who, despite our differences, care about the same issues: the safety of our town, the well-being of our families, the opportunity to contribute to our community, etc. Knowing that there were other like-minded people in my community gave me the courage to act.

In 2016, the political climate became significantly more hostile towards Immigrants and Mexicans. With support from Hammonton Main Street, I lead the organization of a traditional Christmas celebration: a “Posada”. The goal of the Posada, which took place on December 15th, was to reverse the impact of negative stereotyping, divisiveness and threat of deportation that was having detrimental consequences in behavior and health

I reached out to like-minded people that I had met at Creative Hammonton and hosted community gatherings with leaders of the local Latino community to plan the event, identify resources, recruit volunteers, etc. Parents and children came together to make piñatas for our Posada, and in the process, we shared stories about our cultural heritage and found what we have in common.

We sought in-kind donations from restaurants, vendors and families in our area. Through word of mouth, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions learned about our gatherings and offered to sponsor our event, as well as provide education to our community about preservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

As it became clear that the weather was going to be unfavorable, we partnered with the Hammonton Family Success Center to have an indoor location for our event. We also partnered with the Noyes Museum of Art to work on logistics, and requested the support of the Hammonton School district to publicize our event. Students from the PR department at Stockton University helped with press releases

Our highly successful event was attended by approximately 300 people. It succeeded in bringing together youth, adults and the elderly from different races and backgrounds in an atmosphere that was welcoming and helped all of us find strength in our heritage and diversity.

What helped most in gaining support and engagement was paying attention to creating an atmosphere of trust by building relationships, asking questions, listening with curiosity and openness, and supporting the ideas that emerged. The location, timing, set up, food, introductions, and structure of our meetings were carefully crafted but with flexibility.

When individuals expressed discomfort with giving money because of past bad experiences related to mismanagement of funds, we jointly explored other ways to contribute.  When individuals expressed differences, I made sure these differences were integrated into our conversations and paid close attention to ensuring that everyone got a chance to talk, which included supporting silent people to come forward and gently asking more vocal people to make space for others. When there was frustration, we also made room for that, which helped us to prevent scapegoating. And when people said no to contributing, we still welcomed them. If I were to do it again, I would spend more time with a core group of leaders, whom I would empower and delegate more to, so they could lead different task-force teams. I would pay attention to all the details involved from beginning to culmination, so that by the end there would be sufficient support for cleaning up.  I would also spend more time after our event to re-connect, evaluate, learn and continue to build our relationships, and would share more responsibilities to avoid depletion.

My next step is to galvanize people around creating the Health and Wellbeing HUB to better address mental health problems, reduce health care costs, and promote health equity. There is considerable research and clinical evidence supporting Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLCs) that can be potent in determining both physical and mental health such as: exercise, nutrition and diet, time in nature, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, and contribution and service to others.  This HUB will provide a place for change agents to engage the community in classes, counseling, group meetings, community art projects, shows, presentations, etc., designed to promote therapeutic lifestyle changes TLCs.

Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, is the founder and CEO of Allies In Caring, Inc. a New Jersey nonprofit providing mental health counseling and educational services for Latino, Deaf and other undeserved populations. Her experience as a Mexican-born child of Deaf parents, has provided profound understanding of the potential for growth that lies within the hardships that are a part of the human experience. Ivette founded Allies In Caring, in 2012 determined to tend to the abilities and strength in people rather than focusing only on their deficits or illnesses. AIC helps families thrive and develop into more skillful, mindful, and compassionate human beings, while working through the adversity in their lives. Her professional training includes a Master in Mental Health Counseling from Gallaudet University, D.C. She has had extensive post-graduate training in Multicultural Therapy, Systems Centered Therapy (SCT), Trauma Focus – CBT, and in Mindfulness Based Interventions. Additionally, she studies and practices Theory U and Social Presenting Theater.

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“The Orange Call to Collaboration ushered in a period of increased collaboration among the municipality, school district and nonprofit and community-based organizations.”

– Robin Gordon – Director of Administration, HANDS INC. (Orange)