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Fast-growing nonprofit Columbia Community Care is on a mission of care during coronavirus

It’s been five months since Erika Strauss Chavarria first started Columbia Community Care as a Facebook group to collect donations for Howard County residents in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since mid-March, the Facebook group has grown from 900 members to more than 6,000 while the organization has received nonprofit status and community volunteers have helped more than 38,100 Howard County residents.

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With school about to begin in the county, Strauss Chavarria is tweaking the program.

Beginning Wednesday, Columbia Community Care went from offering drive-thru pickups five times a week to two, while consolidating from its original five locations to three. The three sites — Swansfield Elementary and Oakland Mills Middle, both in Columbia, and Howard High in Ellicott City — will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

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“People are starting to go back to work, [and] a lot of our volunteers are teachers themselves,” said Strauss Chavarria, who teaches Spanish at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. “We are going to gauge how everything goes over the first few weeks and, if we see there is a need, we will open more days.”

Strauss Chavarria said the cutbacks are not because of a diminished need in the community for the resources Columbia Community Care offers; rather, it’s because she wants to maximize the time and use of volunteers.

Originally, the group started with a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were Howard teachers, setting up tables for two hours every day outside five county schools — Swansfield Elementary, Lake Elkhorn Middle, Wilde Lake Middle and Oakland Mills Middle, all in Columbia, and Howard High — and stocking them with donated food, toiletries and household items people need.

While those tables will continue to be open in Howard, according to Strauss Chavarria, the services have expanded since March.

The organization now has two food pantries, one at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City and another at New Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Fulton, that are used as distribution centers for volunteers filling individual home deliveries.

In March, Strauss Chavarria said she was handling the individual home deliveries herself and had only made 20 deliveries that month. Now, the group is making 40 home deliveries a day.

Strauss Chavarria is also shifting those home deliveries to occur between Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Since it has gained nonprofit status, the organization has also become eligible for grants. It recently won a grant from Brawny paper towels, awarding the group 900 rolls of paper towels and $2,500.

Columbia Community Care also received a $50,000 donation from community members Lesley and Mike Salandra. The donation is for $2,000 a week until $50,000 is reached, though Strauss Chavarria has said she needs about $5,500 a week to stay operational.

The expansion is something Strauss Chavarria said she could not have anticipated, but she knew the need was there.

“I know my students, I know my communities [and] I know my families, so I knew that the COVID situation was going to put even more stress on their lives,” she said. “The need that we see is not because of COVID; COVID exacerbated existing needs.”

Makenna Burns, 19, of Columbia, has been assisting Strauss Chavarria since she returned home in March from Clark Atlanta University in Georgia.

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Burns is responsible for keeping the two pantries stocked in order to fill the daily home deliveries. She’s also starting a new Columbia Community Care service to support local businesses. Some of the money that is donated to the group is used to buy meals from local restaurants and delivered to the pickup sites once a week.

“Growing up in Howard County, we like to act like these things don’t happen. We act like everyone has running water and food to eat,” Burns said. “This work is really important and it’s necessary.”

The Facebook group Strauss Chavarria created back in March is still flooded with daily requests and offers from community members to assist however they can.

“It’s really beautiful to see how many people are ready and willing to help,” Burns said. “Our work is far from over.”

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