The word “community” used to imply something fairly innocuous — a group of people who have something in common, like living in the same neighborhood.

Then it became a touchstone for all that is warm and fuzzy, glowy and good. Creative types, Nosy Nellies, and compulsive do-gooders seem particularly susceptible to its charms. And yes, those descriptions apply to me.

It’s an inspiring word for folks who genuinely want to make life better — and not just for their own selves and families.

Community. The word conjures an invisible congregation in my mind, in an imaginary church, singing together in perfect harmony.

My imagination doesn’t zoom in too close, doesn’t require me to shake hands with each congregant — much less do them a favor that might inconvenience me.

Some people tell ourselves we’re doing things “for the community,” but what the heck does it really mean? Probably 80 percent of my so-called community work involves me having meetings with other would-be do-gooders, or sitting all alone in front of a computer. Is that community?

What happens when people in the community need our help — not our attendance at a catered fundraiser, not our slogan on a beautifully crafted flyer, but our hands-on help? What happens when we are confronted with real human beings, rather than a foggy mass that allegedly benefits from our altruistic, self-proclaimed community-mindedness?

Recently I had cause to explore these questions. A volunteer I know made a significant mistake of a bureaucratic nature. Let’s call her “Sarah.”

A young working mom with a hectic schedule, Sarah is not her real name, but she is a real person in the Sisters community.

The mistake she made led her to ask for help and collaboration from a couple community organizations — ones that operate with full-time staff, decades of experience in the nonprofit and business sectors, and/or serious revenue.

Due to the nature of Sarah’s error, these orgs hold the keys to getting Sarah and her little group out of this mess. But to help her, the orgs would have to collaborate with her. They’d have to share.

Which might be a big ol’ logistical pain in the rear.

But I figure that’s what real community does. It collaborates. It shares. Collaboration, sharing, and hassles are the building blocks of which true community is made. Smooth sailing doesn’t bond people to each other. Crisis does. Ask anyone who’s been through an accident, death in the family, or a near-miss from a forest fire.

Ask author Rebecca Solnit. She researched how people behave in the wake of disasters. She writes:

“What startled me about the response to disaster was not the virtue, since virtue is often the result of diligence and dutifulness, but the passionate joy that shined out from accounts by people who had barely survived.”

She goes on, “These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors.”

We don’t have to wait for a war or an earthquake to develop real community. We can do it today, when smaller problems like Sarah’s arise.

Her situation got me thinking. Real community isn’t a mission statement: it’s a series of actions. Many of them aren’t written into anybody’s five-year plan or given a line item on a budget.

Real community makes dinner for your neighbor’s family after their dad goes in for surgery. It frees your driveway of snow because hey, it already had the snow-blower out.

Real community tries to put out the fire in your barn. If the barn burns down? Real community raises a new one.

It lends valuable equipment to scrappy performers. Shows up for the picnic on an uncomfortably hot day. Gives you a call when you’re having a hard time—not just when it wants something.

Real community takes the time to help people, even if they’re imperfect, wield little financial or social power, or don’t fit our demographic ideal.

If they’re young and make rookie mistakes, so much the better. Real community understands that the young adults of today, with their lack of bureaucratic experience, their demanding families and day jobs, are the community leaders of tomorrow.

So. What are these organizations going to do for Sarah? My hopeful side believes they’ll see an opportunity for synergy and lend a hand. They’ll share their resources, knowledge, and collaborative spirit. My inner cynic thinks they’ll wear a big ol’ smile as they gently but firmly push her aside.

I tell my cynical side to hush up, that things are gonna be just fine for Sarah. Because in Sisters, we don’t just drop the C word for show. We have the heart and generosity to build real community, one mistake at a time.