“Let’s get people talking to each other”
This phrase stayed with me long after my interview with Hilton Barnett and Larissa Bester of We Are White River had ended under the shady trees at the Courtyard Coffee Shop. Some 3½ years after its inception, this community focused organisation is going from strength to strength. With my own passion for connection and community, I wanted to find out more about exactly what it is they do, their vision for the future and the people behind this vision.
Hilton and his family arrived in White River in 2006, wanting to escape big city life in Gauteng. Larissa is a relatively new Lowvelder, she and her husband moved down from Pretoria in 2009 (although he is Hazyview born and bred). Always elegant and well groomed, she is now a Mom to 3 young children but still finds time to focus on We Are White River.
Hilton says he found a town filled with talented people, a real mix of artists, entrepreneurs and other interesting folk and saw an opportunity to bring people together to realise the town’s full potential which he felt was being missed out on. Thus the seed of We Are White River was born. “What if I start a little project to try and promote the town, instill a sense of community pride, create interest in its history, awareness of all the interesting things to do, with positivity as the central theme” is how Hilton explains it. What he did not want was to create a forum for armchair activists to sit back and complain about everything that wasn’t happening. He wanted to explore and see who showed up and what they would be prepared to do. The intention was to lead by example and demonstrate instead of moaning.
It started with a website to promote a positive and informative view of White River and an active Facebook page to engage interest. Membership was introduced. Then came the We Are White River Conversations, a way to build bridges and bring groups of diverse people from various industries and walks of life together to chat, share ideas and get to know one another, always with community as the focus. The beautifully appointed, high quality We Are White River tent at the Uplands Festival showcased talent and some very interesting mini conversations were held there which continued to create awareness and interest in what We Are White River was all about.
An office was set up at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre and they began to build a membership base, as well as organising specific events and activities and supporting other local events.
As things gathered momentum the We Are White River app was developed and they began offering social media/marketing packages to their clients (let’s be honest, how many business owners have the time to effectively manage their social media?) Most recently they launched WR Travel, which focuses on travel and tourism in the Lowveld but always with White River as the centre. Time and again they reminded me that their underlying principle is community focus. Although paying customers are obviously needed in order to sustain the running of We Are White River, which is a business after all, there are some free services on offer, such as the Directory of basic listings and a Calendar for any local activities . Local charities, churches and NPO’s are offered free membership.
They currently have 100 members, 20 of whom are free. We Are White River believe in the win-win principal and some members enjoy a year of free membership due to their significant financial contributions to events. Some members are renewing for their 3rd year and they also manage social media for 8 clients. There are more specialised packages available for their paying members.
Towards the end of 2017 it was time to streamline and become more mobile, vacating their office space at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre. Now We Are White River goes to where their clients are (and at the same often supports all our local fabulous eateries and coffee shops!)
What’s the biggest challenge We Are White River faces? “Getting people to DO THINGS and also tell us about their events” they both agreed. People are quick to offer assistance in the heat of the moment it seems, but when you go back and try and pin them down to an actual commitment, it’s a different story. There is also the challenge of getting people to tell them about upcoming events so they can include it in the calendar. In a small town we are constantly faced with the challenge of having too many things happening over the same weekend and other weekends where there is nothing at all going on!
What does the future hold for We Are White River?
“More working together for all sections of the community. And getting people in the community to do more” replies Hilton.
“Continued community focus, fabulous events and lots more community involvement so we can grow even bigger and better” adds Larissa.
Without a doubt We Are White River has a lot to offer and hasn’t even started plumbing the depths of their potential. A big focus will be promoting tourism in 2018. A business breakfast and social media workshop is on the cards.
This is a community organisation that is building a strong and solid foundation, determined to put White River firmly on the map. So far it’s looking good!
What is clear is that even with their dedication, passion and commitment to We Are White River, Hilton and Larissa cannot do it alone. Building and uplifting community requires community input. They are open to ideas and collaborations, so what are you waiting for?
So I invite you to give them a call. Start a conversation. Share that idea. Do it.