National Night Out is about more than just fighting crime — it is about creating a feeling of community, according to participants.
Tuesday night, Martinsville was one of more than 10,000 places across the United States that took part in the annual event, aimed at fighting crime by helping people get to know their neighbors and police.
Participating in National Night Out helps create “a sense of belonging” to a community, said Vivian Penn of Ridgeway, who was at a public “block party” at Agape Bible Christian Fellowship on Market Street.
“It helps you get to know your neighbors and friends better,” said Jane Toler of Martinsville, who was at another block party at First Baptist Church of East Martinsville on East Church Street.
When you know people, Toler said, “you keep an eye out for each other.”
That is why First Baptist has hosted block parties for National Night Out each of the past several years, said Pastor Charles Whitfield.
“Over time, it brings about camaraderie in neighborhoods,” Whitfield said, whereas “a one-time event doesn’t” always do that.
Christians are supposed to look after each other, noted the Rev. William Shackleford, pastor of St. Paul High Street Baptist Church on Fayette Street, the location of Martinsville’s other block party. Referencing Scripture, he declared “we are our brother’s keeper.”
National Night Out aims to raise awareness of crime and illegal drugs, as well as send criminals a message that people in neighborhoods are cooperating to fight crime, according to Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers.
Officer Coretha Gravely, who oversees the Martinsville Police Department’s community-oriented policing efforts, said the program is working.
“People are calling us and letting us know when they see suspicious people or vehicles in neighborhoods,” Gravely said. Even when they are driving along a road and see something that does not seem right, they often notify police, she said.
Their efforts are appreciated, she added, because “as police officers, we can’t be everywhere at one time.”
When a crime occurs, sometimes people can help their neighbors start to recover before police arrive, said Ike Fountain of Martinsville, who attended First Baptist’s party.
Ridge View Apartments residents attend block parties at First Baptist, and church members have gotten to know many of them, according to Charity Ingram, who oversees the apartments’ Neighborhood Watch program.
Ingram said that in the seven years she has lived at Ridge View, she has seen a large drop in loitering, for which she credits neighbors’ crime-fighting efforts.
Martinsville’s three block parties each attracted hundreds of people.
Some of the parties had music. Agape’s party featured a performing mime.
All of the parties featured children’s activities, socializing and free food such as hamburgers, hot dogs and fried fish.
Flames rose high from the grill where Dennis Hairston was preparing burgers at St. Paul. The heat was intense and could be felt several feet away.
Cooking for a crowd takes energy, but Hairston said once he goes home and takes a nap, he will be ready to do it again. He enjoys cooking and has been doing it since he worked at Chatmoss Country Club as a teenager, he said.
No official National Night Out block parties were held in Henry County. The county sheriff’s office has said it hopes county residents gather informally with their neighbors to show support for crime-fighting efforts.