EASTHAMPTON — Numerous signs welcoming people to the community have been stolen recently from residents’ front yards.
The signs have a simple message: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” written in English, Spanish and Arabic.
The signs are distributed by the Good Neighbors Project of Western Massachusetts, a nonprofit in Hadley “that aims to facilitate open dialogue for the purpose of creating safe and welcoming neighborhoods for all people.” The organization has offered to replace any signs that have been taken.
The initiative draws from a larger project inspired by the Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The welcoming signs have spread across the country.
Good Neighbors Project in Hadley started in December. Since then, signs have been distributed to Northampton, Easthampton, Hadley, Greenfield and Shelburne Falls. The project offers the signs for a donation of $15.
Easthampton residents have reported their Good Neighbor signs missing over the last two weekends.
Diana Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton, said she witnessed a tall individual wearing all white steal a sign from her yard on Main Street on Sunday night.
“Stop thief! Give me back my sign,” Smith said she yelled in her “teacher voice.”
The person dropped the sign as they ran away and she believes they drove a blue Honda Element.
But it didn’t solve the problem because her sign was stolen the next night.
Smith said she has about 20 signs to give to anyone who needs a replacement.
Within the past week, the Easthampton Police Department has received at least half a dozen reports of stolen “Good Neighbor” signs.
And Smith said she has noticed several signs she’s spotted in the neighborhood go missing.
But according to Easthampton Police Officer Chad Alexander, there were also numerous reports of stolen political signs during election season.
“It’s not a political statement,” Smith said. “This is a sign that says who we are as individuals in a community.”
For resident Cassie Sanchez, who had a sign stolen from her front yard off Main Street, the theft feels more like a demonstration of hatred and intolerance — like a hate crime, she said.
“Personally, I am troubled by the police’s refusal to take these thefts seriously,” Sanchez said.
Alexander said anyone who sees someone take a sign should call the police. A license plate number and surveillance footage can help to identity the thief, he said.Open conversation
The stolen signs in Easthampton come at a time of tension within the community as residents debate whether to designate the area as a sanctuary city.
Volunteers for the Good Neighbors Project said they want people to display signs for all sorts of reasons and open conversation.
“We as a group don’t want to dictate the reasons people put the signs out,” project volunteer Katie Jackson, of Northampton, said. “Everyone who posts these signs has a different reason for doing so, which I think is the thing that makes it so beautiful.”
Kerriann Collins, who had her sign stolen off Carol Avenue the weekend of Feb. 11, said she bought a sign to make sure anyone who feels affected by anti-immigrant rhetoric, knows those comments do not represent the community as a whole.
“Our decision to buy and display the sign was inspired by the climate of fear and anti-immigrant sentiment my wife and I were sensing in the wake of the current administration’s executive orders and the anti-immigrant rhetoric we were hearing on a national scale,” Collins said. “There are many people here who find diversity to be something that enriches our city.”
Sanchez also said one of the reasons she bought a sign was that it serves as a “positive and patriotic response to the hate-filled, un-American rhetoric of the Trump administration and its illegal executive orders on immigration.”
Jackie Brousseau-Pereira bought her sign to let people know Easthampton is a welcoming community.
“If you are here, you are part of the community,” she said.
When her and her neighbor’s signs were stolen from their yards on Garfield Avenue over the weekend, Brousseau-Pereria said she felt a sense of disappointment and sadness.
“Can’t we just be nice to each other?” Brousseau-Pereira said.
Over the course of the past two months, there has been talk on the “Easthampton, MA Group Page” on Facebook regarding the signs as well as opinions on immigration.
Last month a Facebook post referring to the signs triggered many residents to comment, with some expressing outrage and some support.
Ben Renaud, of Easthampton, wanted to make it clear he does not welcome immigrants who are here illegally. “It’s not a race thing, it’s a legal thing,” he wrote.
While many residents say Easthampton is already a welcoming city, Sanchez said the sign-stealing and vitriol on Facebook points to the exact opposite.
“I’m worried about how far people are willing to go to make a statement about their intolerance of those who offer tolerance and support of our neighbors, including immigrants and refugees,” Sanchez said.
Good Neighbor signs are available at Cornucopia Foods in Thornes Market, River Valley Co-op in Northampton, Comics N’ More in Easthampton and Colorado Ski Shop in West Springfield. For people who have had their signs stolen, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at email@example.com.