RIDGEFIELD, Wash. — On a quiet street in Ridgefield, WA, something simple and nostalgic ties neighbors together: a yard sign in front of most homes with an iconic red cardigan and bold font that reads, "Glad to be your neighbor."
"It's such a good message. And right now we all need all the smiles we can get," Sharon Panek said. "The feeling of isolation we're all feeling and that sign makes you not feel isolated, it makes you feel that you're part of a bigger community and that everybody is looking out for each other."
Just before the pandemic hit, Panek's next-door neighbor Joe Manning, a middle school teacher, decided to design and print yard signs inspired by his idol Mr. Rogers.
"Fred Rogers: America's favorite neighbor!" Manning said.
Joe asked his talented friend Sofie Ruse, a full-time speech pathologist and part-time artist, to paint the red cardigan in watercolor. She, too, grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and, although she never met him, always felt safe around him.
Their business venture, Cardigan Neighbor, turned out to launch at a perfect time.
The signs took off amid the stay-home orders, not just locally but around the Portland metro area and from coast to coast.
"It was a way to reach out to neighbors when we were stuck inside," Ruse said. "His messages can live on through us; we can be his example by letting everyone know, I'm committed to being a kind, good person and I'm going to reach out to you if you need help and you can do that to me too."
"Folks weren’t seeing their neighbors, they weren’t seeing people close to them and it was a way for them to communicate that, 'Hey, I’m here, I'm still thinking of you, we’re still together,'" Manning added.
People started ordering the yard signs to balance political ones.
"Those messages from Fred Rogers, I think, are really good at helping to re-center ourselves on what is most important," Manning said.
In a divisive election year, who better to give advice than Mr. Rogers?
"It became something that was a reminder of how to be a good person. We can all be kind to each other; we can think opposing things and have different ideologies but I still live here, you live here, we're neighbors, we can all exist here together and really support each other," Ruse said.
Through their online Etsy shop Cardigan Neighbor and word of mouth Manning and Ruse have sold about 1,000 signs, for between $14 and $29. From his home he ships out anywhere from two to 20 signs a day.
One of the signs shares Mr. Rogers advice including: be kind, believe in others, give your honest self, do your best with what you have, listening is where love begins, love people just the way they are, help others win too, make the most of each beautiful day.
Mr. Rogers' message to children was look for the helpers, so Manning feels his message to adults is be a helper.
"I think sharing a sign in your yard is a way to begin that difficult journey towards kindness, but it's just the beginning," Manning said.
They hope their signs start conversations, reflection and encourage neighborly love in a time we have to be distant. No doubt, Mr. Rogers would want us all to grow closer through this!
"People have to do the difficult work of seeing, 'what does this mean in my life and how do I carry this out?'"
Since this is a side project for Ruse and Manning they want to keep it small-scale. They're not necessarily in it for the money, although they say it would be amazing to see the movement grow in each state.