Ashlyn Elliott, Occupational Therapy, #yearoftheneighbor2020

Occupational Therapy professor Jeanne Eichler issued a challenge to radio station KUAF’s listening audience in early 2020: Make this the “Year of the Neighbor.”

Eichler had been chatting with Kyle Kellams, news director at the station, about the nation’s loneliness epidemic and the negative health effects of being in isolation. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has given new meaning to isolation, the Year of the Neighbor concept is especially significant, she said.

Eichler hopes the movement will go viral.

Since she started a Facebook group — and gave it a dedicated hashtag of #yearoftheneighbor2020 — it’s well on its way. Eichler and a large contingent of her Fayetteville neighborhood had already been actively pursuing the Year of the Neighbor theme since she’d introduced the concept in January.

Students in the inaugural Occupational Therapy cohort, a joint program of the University of Arkansas and UAMS Northwest, are also helping grow the movement.

All 27 students are participating in a variety of projects that foster connection and are within the CDC, World Health Organization and university guidelines, including virtual meeting and other innovations, Eichler said. It’s part of a class Eichler teaches called “Quest for Wellness.” Students are using the #yearoftheneighbor2020 hashtag as well as #UAUAMSOTD to highlight helpful deeds.

“We would love for others to take on the challenge, which fosters connections — everything from efforts to figure out how to know our actual neighbors as well as awareness of the people in our local and wider communities,” Eichler said.

One of Eichler’s occupational therapy grad students, Haley Stewart, took her #yearoftheneighbor project to a park near her house. The park is closed, but the attached trail is still open. Stewart grabbed some sidewalk chalk and papered the path with inspirational quotes, interactive games and encouraging art work.

“I also threw in some Arkansas pride, because it’s always good to call the Hogs,” she said in a video she made about the project.

Stewart left buckets of chalk along the trail to encourage others to add their own uplifting messages or art.

Occupational Therapy student Ashlyn Elliott filled goody bags that addressed various areas of wellness. The festive bags included items like 21-day guided meditations, cards to send to friends, granola bars, puzzles and to-do lists for jotting down healthy habits. She dropped the goody bags off on random doorsteps.

Eichler said there are many ways to participate in the #yearoftheneighbor2020 challenge. It might be as simple as calling, texting or stepping out on your front porch to chat with a neighbor across the way. It all counts when it comes from a place of care, she said.

“We should think about people we can’t see, who might be alone during this time,” she said. “Loneliness can impact health, and we can do our part by helping people stay healthy in creative ways as we physically distance ourselves. It’s important to reach out — especially at this time. Let’s see what we can do. And pass it on.”

Eichler was recently interviewed by KUAF as a follow-up to the interview that started it all.