How a Mom With a Picnic Table and a Paintbrush Started a Community-Building Movement

In the midst of a loneliness epidemic, Kristin Schell put a question to the test: What happens when you just show up?

How a Mom With a Picnic Table and a Paintbrush Started a Community-Building Movement
Kristin Schell, author and founder of "The Turquoise Table" and "Front Yard People" movement, sits at her own turquoise table. (Courtesy of Kristin Schell)

Ten years ago, in central Austin, Texas, Kristin Schell painted a picnic table bright turquoise and placed it near the curb in her front yard. Then, she sat down and waited. She felt a bit crazy, but in her heart, she was hoping that by sitting outside so conspicuously, she might meet a few of her neighbors.

Within a few hours, she met a neighbor from around the corner. Within a few weeks, a small group of neighbors was gathering to tell stories. Within months, families were gathering on Friday evenings, and more turquoise tables were popping up around town.

Within a few years, Schell was doing podcasts and telling the story of the turquoise table at conferences, and in 2017, she published a book on the topic, "The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard."

The turquoise table took on a life of its own as people drew inspiration from it to start their own front-yard communities. Now, there are more than 2,000 turquoise tables around the world—in all 50 states and in 13 countries—in addition to a robust online community through The Turquoise Table website and on various social media platforms.

Schell is still amazed by the effect her unusual gesture of community building has had.

“I didn’t know any of that would happen,” she said. “All I ever wanted was for neighbors to get together around a table.”

People from around the country—and the world—have shared stories of their own turquoise table communities. (Courtesy of Kristin Schell)
People from around the country—and the world—have shared stories of their own turquoise table communities. (Courtesy of Kristin Schell)

A Bright Idea

Schell’s instinct to paint a picnic table a cheerful color and place it in full view was born out of a deep-rooted feeling of personal dissatisfaction. A decade ago, she was a stay-at-home mom with four busy elementary- and middle-school-aged children.

“I found I was living in the minivan more than with my family. Our conversations and interactions were always on the fly,” she said.

Not only did she feel too busy for meaningful connections within her own family, but also with her friends.

“We’d have sideline conversations at soccer games, or promises in the grocery store—‘Oh, let’s get together for coffee’—and months would go by with no time for those coffees,” she said.

At first, she didn’t think anything was amiss.

“I thought it was normal—all my friends were going through the same thing,” Schell said. “With four kids and a dog, loneliness wasn't something I would ever have thought was going on.”

She joined book clubs, wine groups, moms’ happy hours—“all the fun things,” she said—but none of these filled the need.

“Quite frankly, it was driving me nuts," she said.

“I finally slowed down long enough and said, ‘OK, what is the root of all of this? What am I aching for, what do I need, and how can I address it?’”

Schell realized what she was missing: community.

“I think the problem of loneliness, or that deep-seated desire for community, is a basic human need that always comes out eventually,” she said. “The table became my solution, and for that I’m grateful.”

Starting with the table in her own family home, Schell learned that “something really magical and special happens around a table," which she calls "the great unifier.”

Meeting at a table satisfies several basic human needs: the need to eat and the need to connect. There’s a vulnerability to sitting down together and taking time to eat and talk with one another.

Kristin Schell with an employee of Austin's ReWork Project, a jobs program that employs men and women transitioning out of homelessness to build wooden picnic tables. (Courtesy of Kristin Schell)
Kristin Schell with an employee of Austin's ReWork Project, a jobs program that employs men and women transitioning out of homelessness to build wooden picnic tables. (Courtesy of Kristin Schell)

Inviting the Neighbors to the Table

Given the importance that Schell places on the table being at the center of her family, it was perhaps a logical next step to place a table out on the front lawn and wait to see what would happen.

What happened was this: Around the corner lived a woman named Susan. Susan was researching a project on her father, who had been in the military. That first morning at the turquoise table, Susan was knee-deep in old memoirs, papers, and voice recordings, and badly needed a break. A piece of junk mail had been delivered to her house by mistake, so she used it as an excuse for a walk.

Susan saw Schell sitting at the turquoise table and had an immediate emotional reaction to the color, as it reminded her of one of her elementary school teachers who had loved turquoise. So, she started talking to Schell, who told her about her “crazy idea.”

“You’re the first person I’ve met!” Schell excitedly told Susan.

Schell sat outside at her table on Thursday mornings, because that was the day that worked for her. She did it long enough and consistently enough for people to expect to see her there.

“At first I was nervous—this is weird,” she said with a laugh. “I did it anyway.”

With no expectation that people would stop, but with the hope that somebody might, she continued to show up Thursday after Thursday.

Susan asked Schell if she knew another neighbor, and gradually, together, they started connecting with some of the neighborhood’s older homeowners who enjoyed getting together to tell stories.

“It just started working,” Schell said.

The regular Thursday mornings became combined with "Front Yard Fridays," when families would gather once a week.

Then, spontaneous text messages between friends would pop up: “I need table time!” Often at the end of the day, Schell said, “after dinner, when the dishes are still piled in the sink and the kids are ornery, and you’re done, [someone would text] 'can we just meet at the table?'"

"It was a timeout for the moms!” she said.

Schell said that, over time, “relationships became deeper."

"We started experiencing loss, lifestyle changes, divorces. Real-life things that were going on behind closed doors now started having a place where they could be shared and trusted,” she said.

After a while, Schell noticed, hers wasn't the only turquoise table. Others were cropping up around town.

“You would see people sitting out at their tables having coffee or babysitters with kids stopping for a quick snack. It became a symbol of a friendly place to sit down and talk,” she said.

One of the reasons the turquoise table community works, Schell says, is that when neighbors see a turquoise table sitting in a front yard, they're going to ask why, as "it’s really odd and clearly intentional.”

“It was just so simple," she said. "A picnic table is such a common thing. I think that’s what was so endearing about it for so many people.”

Schell believes that others in the community saw the simplicity of the idea and decided that they could do it, too.

Growing Influence

In 2005, years before the turquoise table, Schell had started a blog called The Schell Cafe to share family recipes dating back to the 1920s.

“Over the years,” she said, “the blog grew and I began writing about my faith—sharing stories of hospitality and our growing family.”

It was there that Schell began to share the story of the turquoise table online.

“Knowing my audience,” she said, “I assumed there might be some interest in my turquoise table and how I was using it as a simple way to meet my neighbors and gather with friends. What I never expected was that people would get their own turquoise tables.”

Social media was a new, easy way to communicate and share the story, and, through it, a “sense of multi-layered community developed,” Schell said. “People were gathering at their own turquoise tables and seeking community, advice, encouragement online from fellow table owners who were scattered across the country and even abroad.”

Schell said she was never fully comfortable with social media, especially as Facebook became less desirable, so she “took advantage of a new online community platform called Mighty Networks."

"It was and remains a great solution for The Turquoise Table Community," she said. "It’s free for members and has wonderful tools for our people to connect with one another. People swap table ideas, recipes, and tips for gathering. People share stories, photos, and even connect in real life based on location.”

In 2015, Schell established a partnership with the ReWork Project in Austin—a community jobs program whose mission is to provide meaningful work to help lift people out of homelessness—to build and paint turquoise tables for sale in the Austin area. Orders for the tables are still coming in.

More Than a Movement

When COVID-19 arrived, everything came to a stop. Schell pulled back from all social media, and while she did try having live video gatherings at the beginning, it wasn’t sustainable.

“I thought the whole thing would just shrivel up, and I would move on,” she said.

But, in fact, the opposite happened.

“More people were getting tables, more people were sending emails about how they could still meet outside, and how lawn chairs could be moved around the table to be 6 feet apart,” Schell said.

“I was never the hero of this story. The turquoise table was never the hero of this story. The people are the heroes of this story. People need one another, and we’re going to find a way to gather, no matter what.”

Schell no longer manages any of the social media accounts, although the online group still exists and lives on.

“It doesn’t need me,” she said. “The beauty of the movement is that it doesn’t really need a leader. By simply sharing my story, others are encouraged to start their own turquoise table communities.”

Schell is still discerning what the next stage of her story will be. For now, she continues to host regular gatherings at her own turquoise table, and says she's "still busy replying to emails from people who take the time to write ... and share their stories or ask advice.”

She dreams of one day writing a cookbook, because “food, faith, and hospitality" are always at the core of her work, and she sees hospitality as a gesture of the heart.

“There’s a simplicity that attracts us,” she said. “I’m just showing up.”

Tips for Building Community in Your Neighborhood

Schell has five pieces of advice for anyone who wants to start a community gathering place—with or without a turquoise table.
  • “Begin to take notice. Every neighborhood has a rhythm. Is there a time of day when people are out walking dogs, do people ride bikes, is there a school bus that stops somewhere nearby, is there a time when traffic is busier?” Notice when people are out and about in your neighborhood and the reasons that bring them outside.
  • “Ask yourself what you would like to see happen, or what you feel is missing.”
  • “Do a parallel assessment: ‘What is going on in my neighborhood and what would I like to add?’ At some point, there’s going to be a crossover—meeting a need will cross with the rhythm.”
  • “Show up! You can have dreams of meeting people all day long, but at some point, you just have to show up.” Since this is the hardest thing to do, Schell recommends asking a friend to come with you.
  • Be creative. “There are turquoise tables in libraries, hospitals, universities, markets ... anywhere people gather!”
Hazel Atkins loved teaching English literature to undergraduate students at the University of Ottawa before becoming a stay-at-home mom, enthusiastic gardener, and freelance writer.