Okay, so I’m slightly….no extremely embarrassed to admit that until about three weeks ago, I was unaware of this little event over in Urbana called Jettie Rhodes Day. And it turns out it’s not a little at all, but a pretty major neighborhood party that brings over 1,000 people together to enjoy food, music, community and more, and this year is the 17th annual celebration at King Park. The event was born out of a simple idea by a woman who had a simple question. “Who is your neighbor?”
I spoke with Lashaunda Cunningham last week, who is an Urbana Parks commissioner and vice president of the Jettie Rhodes Day committee. She also happens to be the granddaughter of Mrs. Jettie Rhodes. According to Ms. Cunningham, her grandmother “had a very big heart…and was very giving. She advocated for not just her neighborhood, but for her community.” She recognized the lack of programming in the Urbana community at the time, and wanted to do more. Ms. Cunningham describes that first Jettie Rhodes Day as being very small. Her grandmother and a few neighbors provided hot dogs to try to get people to come out and get to know each other. Unfortunately, Mrs. Rhodes passed away not long after the first event. But those neighbors and her son Scott Rhodes decided to take up the cause and continue hosting the event each year.
In the early days, it was that small group of neighbors that took care of everything, with the help of local churches. As the event has grown, Ms. Cunningham has been a part of taking things to a new level. Now, they are partnered with the Urbana Park District, and are really focused on outreach. What used to be a gathering of Urbana neighbors is now a gathering of folks from Urbana, Champaign, and surrounding communities. It really expands that idea of “who’s your neighbor.” Community organizations are now an important component of Jettie Rhodes Day. Families can attend a fun free event, while making connections with those in our community who can help with any needs they might have. Conversely, those organizations have an outlet for more exposure and networking opportunities. And free means free. There is no charge for any part of Jettie Rhodes Day: food, booth rental, kid’s activities. The generosity of local stores and donors help to make that possible.
Every year the celebration features a BBQ cook off and a bake off, as well as local entertainment. Attendees this year will hear from local band Nfinite Soul, the Mount Olive Baptist Church choir, CUper Stars and more. There’s a raffle with prizes for all ages, inflatables, representatives from the Urbana Police Department and Fire Department, and over 40 community organizations with information to share.
Each celebration has a theme that helps to bring awareness to issues that affect our community. Last year the theme was gun violence, and this year’s theme is bullying awareness and prevention, an issue that is close to Ms. Cunningham’s heart. The committee wanted to “send a strong message that we need to be talking about (bullying) more. There are so many kids out here who don’t have a voice and don’t know when to tell.”
I love everything about this event. One woman, determined to bring people together, created something that has lived on with her spirit woven throughout. In a time where we all seem to be pulling apart, Jettie Rhodes Day is focused on bringing people together. Seventeen years ago, Mrs. Rhodes asked that simple question, “who is your neighbor.” As we seem to become more and more isolated, more stuck in our bubbles, it seems her vision is more important than ever.
The 17th Annual Jettie Rhodes Day is from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, June 24th at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Urbana.The event will take place rain or shine, and is completely free. For more information, visit their Facebook page. All photos are from the Jettie Rhodes Neighborhood Day page.