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In it together: Teddy bears, poems and applause bring sense of community to Baltimore amid coronavirus pandemic

UMBC writer in residence Lia Purpura, right, talks with neighbor Cheryl Curtis after putting out a poem, written by Lucille Clifton, on a chalkboard in front of her house for her neighbors, who are mostly staying home.
UMBC writer in residence Lia Purpura, right, talks with neighbor Cheryl Curtis after putting out a poem, written by Lucille Clifton, on a chalkboard in front of her house for her neighbors, who are mostly staying home. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Getting home the other morning from a long shift at the hospital, the physician assistant was just at the door of her Fells Point apartment when a passing jogger called out to her.

“Thank you!”

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Hours earlier, the physician assistant, Kendall Barnes, had treated her first confirmed coronavirus cases. For weeks, she and her coworkers at the emergency department of MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center had anticipated the virus’ arrival. Now it was here. The eerie image of an infected lung up on the monitor, up close and real.

At work, Barnes and others try to stay calm to reassure one another and their patients. But something in the jogger’s voice touched her. She smiled. She teared up as she opened the gate. By the time she was inside, she was sobbing. “I just felt appreciated,” she said.

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In ways big and small, Baltimoreans are finding ways to offer help and to lift one another’s spirits in a frightening time: from gathering masks for health care workers, to displaying poetry on chalkboards. Some are organized, with spreadsheets and Google docs where folks can register for help. Or it can be as simple as saying thanks.

Amid the common hardship brought by the pandemic, said Barnes, “There’s a great sense of community.”

UMBC writer in residence Lia Purpura put a poem, written by Lucille Clifton, on a chalkboard in front of her house for her neighbors.
UMBC writer in residence Lia Purpura put a poem, written by Lucille Clifton, on a chalkboard in front of her house for her neighbors. (Kenneth K. Lam)

In Radnor-Winston, one resident has taken to inscribing poetry on a chalkboard in her front walkway. Lia Purpura, a poet and University of Maryland, Baltimore Countyprofessor, selects light, uplifting verses — “poems that buoy us” — for joggers, dog walkers and others who pass by.

Recently, it was Wendell Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things.”

“For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Poetry is a good match for the slowed-down pace of life in lockdown, Purpura said. “Poems take a little while to read, you can’t read them the way you would a headline,” she said.

Other projects, like the community-led quarantine response network, are more organized. In neighborhoods across Baltimore, residents volunteer to buy groceries and just check in on people who ask for help.

In Abell and Charles Village, volunteer Zach Margulies helps to maintain a spreadsheet to connect volunteers with those who need help. He knows that crises like these hurt people on the margins the hardest. When the pandemic first reached the area, he said, “I remember feeling very scared for myself and being paralyzed.”

His next thought: “What can I do?”

A few elderly residents rely on social media to ask for help. Jack Arnold has been confined to his red brick row home in Patterson Park for weeks. The 81-year old, who suffers from COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lives alone. When he runs out of supplies, he puts out a call on his Facebook page.

Recently, he posted a note saying he needed two cans of tomato soup. By the end of the day, four crates full of soup and four more individual cans had been left on his front steps. It was just the first of many such favors.

“The whole thing’s been making me feel just ... warm,” he said.

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Other citizens, meanwhile, are stepping up to respond to the widespread shortage of protective equipment.

“Our front-line health care workers are risking their lives to protect the community. We don’t want them to go in without proper protection,” said Han Fang Lim. Along with other parents and staff at Towson’s Baltimore Chinese School, she’s been gathering gloves and masks to donate to local hospitals and urgent care facilities. They started a GoFundMe to buy more, and raised $10,450 in three days.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommending everyone wear cloth masks in public, Baltimoreans have gotten to work making face coverings for family, friends and neighbors, too.

Hampdenite Holly Harris dusted off her old sewing machine for the first time in a decade and searched online for a pattern. She dug up some old fabric she happened to have in the house.

“They’re not made with skill, they’re made with love,” she said, holding up a few examples of her handiwork on the front porch of her stone duplex. Through trial and error she’s found that 7 inches by 9, with a triple pleat, works best.

In recent days she’s made dozens, giving some to her mother’s retirement community, to neighbors, friends and anyone who needs one. “It feels good to make them.”

Two stuffed bears displayed on the window at a home on 4000 block of Roland Avenue.
Two stuffed bears displayed on the window at a home on 4000 block of Roland Avenue. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The sight of so many adults in masks might frighten small kids, says Kim Lane, the director of Pigtown Main Street. In an effort to make the masks less scary, she’s been wearing a mask over a fuzzy pink pig costume she keeps on hand for work.

Along with a friend dressed as the Easter bunny, Lane has recently made a hobby of walking through Pigtown and Hamilton-Lauraville, where she lives.

They wave to children and parents, careful to keep a six-foot distance. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun. “You should really get a onesie and come out with us," she told a reporter.

After days stuck indoors, the sight of a pig and a bunny shimmying to “Happy” by Pharell Williams was a welcome distraction for neighbors.

“It was just uplifting,”said neighbor Aaron Robinson, a podcaster who also goes by the name Aaron Dante. His 19-month-old son ran to join the bunny before his parents grabbed him.

Some acts can be as small as placing a teddy bear in a window. Neighbors have put them there to entertain children, imitating an idea popularized in parts of Canada and the U.K.

“Teddy bear hunts are so much fun,” said 4-year-old Genevieve Black of Roland Park. Lately, she’s been seeing stuffed animals in people’s windows on her daily walks with her mother, Margaret.

“I spied a teddy bear in the window, and Mommy didn’t even spied it and she’s bigger than me. I’m very good at spying things," Genevieve said. “It was yellow. I remember it was yellow.”

Why were the neighbors putting teddy bears in the window? a reporter asked. “Because it’s just Teddy Bear Day,” Genevieve said.

Other acts of benevolence have also been inspired from European countries, where coronavirus arrived several weeks ago.

Baltimore resident Vincent Scellini, left, and girl friend Anya Singer show their appreciation for frontline workers by doing "applause for healthcare workers" at 9 p.m. nightly.
Baltimore resident Vincent Scellini, left, and girl friend Anya Singer show their appreciation for frontline workers by doing "applause for healthcare workers" at 9 p.m. nightly. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Residents of London, Paris, and other European cities have lately started a custom of nightly applause to recognize the labor of health care workers.

Remington resident Vincent Scellini first heard about the idea during a Skype call with an aunt who lives in Hamburg, Germany. His aunt left in the middle of their call to go clap out her window along with her neighbors.

Scellini seized on the idea. Before he even got off the call, he was posting messages about it on neighborhood groups.

He thinks of it as not only cheering health care workers for their bravery in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, but for grocery store employees busy restocking shelves, and really, for everyone else, too. Even those who are home are doing something: “holding up and staying strong in our homes.”

Each night at 8:57 p.m., Scellini’s phone alarm begins buzzing. He walks outside to the marble steps in front of his Remington row home. At times, his partner and a few neighbors join in.

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And sometimes, it’s just him. At 9 p.m., alone in the evening air, Scellini claps and claps, until his hands hurt.

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

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