Tim Parker was new to town when he met Thomas Novosel Jr. at a local farmers market where Novosel was representing his company, Happy Valley Chef. The two hit it off and met later for coffee, where the seed for a new kind of community event was planted.
“We talked about something (Novosel) really wanted to do for the community — a meal where people could sit at one table and get to know each other (and) tear down the walls that people put up, in order to build trust, get connected and get to know who our neighbors really are,” Parker said.
He jumped on board immediately, confident the two, with their combined skills, could create an organization to fulfill Novosel’s goal. The organization became Open Seat.
While Novosel has the meal part of the equation in hand, Parker is the brains behind Open Seat’s community aspect.
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“I am a church planter. My responsibility is to go into communities and bring people together. For the past six years, I’ve been a pastor in central Pennsylvania and central Ohio,” Parker said. “My experience has been gathering people ... and helping people get out of their shells. As a church planter, one of my passions and one of the ways you build community is through activities and food. I saw (Open Seat) as a great opportunity.”
When Parker first moved to the State College area, he met with more than 250 individuals for what he calls social market research, in order to uncover the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of residents in the greater State College area. He met with anyone who would give him the time of day, for coffee, lunch or volunteer projects, to truly understand community issues and needs.
What he heard from people was that the area has limited places to build meaningful relationships.
“There aren’t a whole lot of places around town, unless you choose (to go) to a bar or tailgate or something along those lines. While those are good places to gather, they’re not always places people desire or want to gather,” Parker said.
He also found that it can be a challenging area for newcomers.
“In my conversations, I also found out it was taking people who had just moved to State College or people who have been here for a while anywhere from a year to sometimes two years to find people they could trust to even watch their dog,” Parker said. “It’s a somewhat hard community for newer people to break into or for people who have been here for a while to start to welcome people in, because it’s a highly transitory area.”
According to Parker, Open Seat helps address this issue directly. Here’s how it works.
Individuals save the date of an upcoming Open Seat event on Facebook and watch out for the registration link. After registering, each attendee is assigned an ingredient for the event’s menu to donate. Ingredients are due to be dropped off at a designated location a few days in advance. On the evening of the event, the focus isn’t just on the meal. Parker explains that there are several hours of mixing and mingling, group activities and opportunities to share.
“We get (attendees) to really think about who else is in the room and get them to realize that someone else in the room is probably going through a good or a bad thing just like you,” Parker said. “The strategy is, if you want trust, you’ve got to give a little bit away; if you want love, you have to show a little bit.”
Open Seat has hosted two events so far. The first was at Parker’s home and brought in around 30 people. The second was hosted at Fraser Street Commons and included more than 40 attendees. The next event is slated for Feb. 21 at Toftrees Resort and Conference Center. Registration opens next week.
For those interested in attending, Parker assures the process is simple and the team — which now includes a third leader, Quinn Pompi, who’s assisting with some of the more logistical aspects of Open Seat — is working to make it even simpler.
“The hardest thing is paying attention to when the registration goes up. We had 26 people sign up in the first two or three hours last time and we only had enough slots for 40 people,” Parker said.
The only associated cost is that of your randomly assigned ingredient and most often that cost is no more than $10 per person.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/OpenSeatSC.