Last year, economists thought America needed economic stimulus.
Debra Hensley thought Lexington needed social stimulus.
So the former three-term Urban County Council member sent an invitation to everyone on her e-mail list, set up tables and chairs in the front yard of her insurance agency across from Commonwealth Stadium, and fired up the grill.
A diverse crowd showed up for lunch that Friday in June. An even bigger crowd came in July. "Then I thought, 'Step back. What are you really trying to do?'" Hensley said.
That's when she created Debra's Social $timulus, a project dedicated to "people, planet, purpose." She took her project on the road — and online with a Web site (www.debrassocialstimulus.com) and a Facebook page.
Since last fall, Hensley has organized increasingly larger events in three Lexington neighborhoods. A fourth event is planned Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., in a barrel house on the grounds of the former Old Pepper Distillery, 1200 Manchester Street. As always, everyone is welcome.
"When we're in difficult times, it's especially important that we stay connected," Hensley said. "But it's more than that.
"I want people to see parts of the community they might not know much about and learn about our history and culture. I want them to meet and interact with people they might not otherwise. And I want them to help the local economy."
Debra's Social $timulus went to South Limestone in August. The city had closed and begun rebuilding the street between downtown and the University of Kentucky campus — a project that continues — and merchants were complaining that their businesses had suffered.
Hensley booked the Sound Bar, hired Hanna's On Lime next door to provide food, and encouraged people to come over — and keep coming back to spend money on South Limestone.
In September, she organized an event that drew more than 100 people to Morris Book Shop on Southland Drive to meet authors Gurney Norman and Neil Chethik and to enjoy food from several neighborhood businesses: Slone's Signature Market, Good Foods Market and Butt Rubb BBQ.
When an old British bus from Commonwealth Double Deckers and the March Madness community marching band showed up, things really got stimulating.
Hensley's October event attracted even more people to the Old Episcopal Burying Ground on East Third Street. That gathering showed off the neighboring London Ferrell Community Garden, the Seedleaf community food organization and the YMCA drum choir.
This week's event will showcase the Lexington Distillery District project and surrounding neighbor hoods of Irishtown and Davis Bottom. The area has long been one of Lexington's poorest, but it is being transformed by construction of Newtown Pike Extension.
"How many people drive by and never go into these neighborhoods?" Hensley wondered. "It's an interesting part of our city with a rich history and culture."
She plans to show several videos that were made recently in the area. They include interviews with residents and a volunteer nurse at Nathaniel Mission, a United Methodist church that Hensley calls "the glue that has always held the neighborhood together."
Food will include chili from C&P Market, which Paul Holland has operated in the neighborhood since the 1970s. Dancers from Mecca Live Studio on Chair Avenue will entertain. Mecca is best known for the annual Halloween Thriller parade down Main Street, which has become a sensation in Lexington and on Internet videos.
"I want people to not only see the talent there, but know they can hire them to enliven any kind of gathering," Hensley said of Mecca's dancers.
What started as a cookout has become almost an obsession and a second career for Hensley, who in her spare time lately has been raising money for Haiti relief.
What is stimulating her to do all of this?
Hensley said she has no plans to get back into politics, although this is a good way to market her business as community-oriented. More than helping her insurance agency, though, she hopes Debra's Social $timulus will help build a stronger, more inclusive Lexington.
"I feel like I'm reinvesting in the community," Hensley said. "It's really hard to explain what all of this is about. But it is fun."