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Simpson Street event on Saturday remains socially distanced — but still generous

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Diane Small with sign

Near the garden where she raises produce to give away to neighbors, Diane Small displays the signs she will put up at the 13th Simpson Street Finest Families Annual Reunion, taking place Saturday.

Diane Small’s backyard garden has already yielded big crops of collard greens, tomatoes and cucumbers this summer, and there’s plenty more on the vine. She regularly gives away the produce to anyone in her Southeast Madison neighborhood who asks.

On Saturday, Small will give away even more as she hosts the 13th Simpson Street Finest Families Annual Reunion.

Starting at noon in a parking lot behind her home and bountiful garden, Small — better known to friends and neighbors as “Ms. Diane” — will hand out 100 gift bags of practical items for adults and another 100 for children, plus pulled-pork and turkey sandwiches donated by nearby stores and restaurants and ice cream treats paid for out of Small’s own pocket.

Diane Small in parking lot behind her home

Diane Small, organizer of the annual Simpson Street Finest Families Reunion, will fill the parking lot behind her home with food and gift bags for hundreds on Saturday. 

This will be the third year the Simpson Street reunion is held as a drive-up event. Before COVID, Small organized an annual get-together in a nearby Monona park where the park shelter would overflow with food and community.

But she doesn’t feel comfortable going back just yet to the large-scale, in-person format: Too many hugs might be exchanged and too many masks may not be worn, she said. Keeping a socially distanced event is safer at this point, she said.

Diane Small with green tomoato

Diane Small holds a small green tomato in her backyard garden in 2021.

Small herself makes all the calls and rounds up the donated items from local businesses for the annual giveaway, which is meant to reward neighborliness and build friendships.

Simpson Street reunion in 2021

Tim Hall and volunteer youths from the "Life as a Boy" program prepare for last year's Simpson Street Finest Families Reunion, organized by Diane Small. This year the reunion will also be a drive-thru event.

“The fact that she helps out so many people and helps make such a difference is amazing,” said Alexis Kokenzie, assistant general manager at the Thirsty Goat in Fitchburg, which has donated sandwiches for the reunion for the past three years. “And her community garden is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard of.”

“It’s only by the grace of God I’m doing this,” said Small, who spent the last week filling up donated drawstring backpacks with items like shampoo, toilet paper and soap for the adults and soccer balls and school supplies for the children. Some visitors will also get framed certificates from the governor and mayor commemorating the Simpson Street reunion tradition. “Ms. Diane” framed them all herself.

She’s a little nervous that rain in the forecast will scare off visitors to the first-come, first-served event.

But “we’ve had this for 13 years, and every year it’s rained,” she said. “Whatever God sends us, I’ll be thankful for.”

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