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‘The demand is high, the need is great’: Howard teacher organizes donation drives to help during coronavirus pandemic

By 10 a.m. every day, Columbia resident Erika Strauss Chavarria is out the door.

With her trunk filled to the brim with diapers, boxes of pasta and cans of vegetables, Strauss Chavarria collects the text messages and Facebook direct messages she’s received since the previous day to map out her route, and she’s off.

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Maneuvering through Columbia neighborhoods, she gathers donations from people’s doorsteps and, by 10:45 a.m., she’s parked at Swansfield Elementary School.

Like many Americans, the spread of the new coronavirus means that Strauss Chavarria has been thrown out of her regular routine as a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia and has settled into a new normal. For Strauss Chavarria, that means organizing a daily donation drive at five locations for Howard County residents in need.

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“We have a lot of need in our community. People don’t realize how much need there is in Howard County,” she said. “[We need] to make sure our families were sustained in a steady fashion.”

Strauss Chavarria, 37, created a public Facebook group, Columbia Community Care, on March 14 to see what needs existed in the community and to find people who could help meet those demands. She started by adding a few of her friends. From there it took off.

As of Monday, the group had more than 900 members.

Every day from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom are Howard teachers, set up tables outside five county schools — Swansfield Elementary, Lake Elkhorn Middle School, Wilde Lake Middle School and Oakland Mills Middle School, all in Columbia, and Howard High School in Ellicott City — and fill them with donated food, toiletries and household items people need.

Gov. Larry Hogan issued a new “stay-at-home” directive Monday aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. According to Strauss Chavarria, the group will continue to operate with no interruption in its services.

Howard County residents can walk or drive up to any of the five sites and collect the items they need. Strauss Chavarria has taped signs to each of the tables encouraging social distancing and asking people to stand 6 feet apart. She keeps hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at each table for volunteers to practice safe hygiene. They also spray each of the donated items with disinfectant.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority,” Strauss Chavarria said. “Everything that the state and the county are recommending, we are sure to do.”

The five sites are set up near the Howard County Public School System’s “Grab-N- Go” sites where children younger than 18 can go to receive a snack, lunch and dinner for the current day, and breakfast for the next morning.

On March 25, state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon announced that the statewide public school closure would continue through April 24. In response to the extension, Strauss Chavarria wrote in a Facebook post that the group’s donation distributions/collections would continue through at least April 12.

Strauss Chavarria said her volunteer group aims to supplement the school system’s work. When she began, the school system was not providing meals during the weekends, and she said her tables were the only available resource to people older than 18 or those without children. On March 26, the school system announced it would begin serving weekend meals April 3.

Maryland Department of Health officials announced Monday that the state reached 1,413 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 96 in Howard. The county health department on Sunday announced the first coronavirus-related deaths in Howard, two men ages 75 and 90.

Approximately 42,000 Maryland residents filed for jobless benefits during the week of March 16 to 20, including more than 1,500 in Howard, creating a need for basic resources across the state, a void Strauss Chavarria hopes to fill through her efforts.

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“We’re building the plane as we fly it,” she said. “I'm really trying to keep up with the need each day.”

In addition to the Facebook group, volunteers have also passed out flyers around the community, in English and Spanish, with an email address and phone number so residents without transportation can get what they need. If Strauss Chavarria receives an email or phone request, she delivers those goods directly to residents’ doors. She said she’s made about 20 of what she calls “wish list” deliveries.

Meg Feroli, 59, of Columbia, has worked as a substitute teacher at Oakland Mills Middle for 12 years and has been volunteering at the school’s table since Strauss Chavarria put out the call.

“I was looking for something to do with school closed and asked [Strauss Chavarria] if I could help,” Feroli said. “[I’m] happy to find something to direct my energy toward.”

Feroli said she worries that, as the pandemic continues to spread and affect more community members, it might become more difficult for volunteers to donate their time or for community members to let go of extra items around their own homes.

“I just hope that we are able to maintain the level that we have started because it has been incredible,” she said. “The demand is high, the need is great, but volunteers keep showing up with bags of food [at sites].”

The group has been 100% dependent on donations from the community. Since the group first set up tables March 18, it has collected $4,390 in donations via Venmo, Cash App, PayPal and cash. Strauss Chavarria said she’s been unable to keep track of the amount of physical donations, but on March 25 for the first time, they completely ran out of the items at all of the sites.

Strauss Chavarria frequently posts item requests she gets from families in need on the Facebook group page; within minutes, volunteers offer to use Instacart to get the items to her or send her a location where she can pick them up. Those interactions sometimes happen hourly.

Steve Whiddon, a band and strings teacher at Laurel Woods Elementary School and lifelong Columbia resident, has been volunteering for the past week at the Swansfield Elementary table.

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“There’s probably more need [than] we have people showing up,” Whiddon said. “I hope people realize that we’re there.”

Whiddon, 47, was initially concerned that, as time went on, donations would dwindle, but he said he’s seen the opposite. As Strauss Chavarria has put calls out on Facebook, people continue to answer.

His concerns have now shifted, and Whiddon wonders how the group’s efforts will adapt to educators switching to virtual teaching and that taking up most of their time.

“We’ll see what happens when distance learning comes into effect,” Whiddon said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be home, so it’s the perfect opportunity to give back a bit.”

The Howard County school system has not yet announced specific details of its distance learning plans. Teachers started engaging virtually with students and families on Monday to offer support but cannot give out assignments or assessments. School staff members will begin professional learning this week to prepare for distance instruction.

Strauss Chavarria also has called on former students, many of whom have started to volunteer and have connected her to residents in need. Brandy Lemus, a Wilde Lake Class of 2016 graduate, has been a liaison connecting Strauss Chavarria to community members who haven’t seen the flyers or Facebook posts.

“I’ve known this family for a while. She’s a single mother, [and] she was in need of food and the basics. [Strauss Chavarria] was able to get all of that for three families [including the single mother], living in one home, for nine people,” Lemus, 21, said.

“[Strauss Chavarria] is one of those people who has always helped. She sees a need for something, and she’s up for the challenge.”

Strauss Chavarria said she has tried to make every option available when it comes to collecting the necessary goods. If people post in the Columbia Community Care Facebook group that they have items to donate, she collects their addresses and picks up the donations the next day. If people are able, they also can drop items off at one of the five sites when volunteers are set up.

“Grassroots activism is part of my existence. I am very aware of the needs of this county. I was not surprised at the demand,” Strauss Chavarria said. “If anything, this has exposed the inequities and economic inequalities that we have in our school system and across this country.”

She said if she had more volunteers and more time, she would open up more sites around the county.

Until then, the group of volunteers continues to organize donations, separating them equally among the sites, and watch as community members help each other through these uncertain times.

“It is miraculous and amazing how the community responds to calls [for donations],” she said. “This community has come together in a way that gives me faith in humanity. The level of generosity to make sure that we are all OK gives me hope.”

To find out more information about the Columbia Community Care group and how to help, go to facebook.com/groups/807588256400584.

Other ways to help in Howard County

The Howard County Food Bank is seeking food and monetary donations. To donate funds, go to cac-hc.org/programs-services/food-assistance. Food donations can be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday in a collection bin at the Howard County Food Bank parking lot, located at 9385 Gerwig Lane in Columbia. Items most in need include: canned and dried fruit; hot and cold cereal; soup; pasta and pasta sauce; tuna; 100% fruit juice; peanut butter; canned beans including pinto, kidney and black; canned vegetables; and baby food, diapers and wipes.

The Howard County Animal Control and Adoption Center has a pet food bank available to those who need assistance. Residents can reach out to the center directly at animalcontrol@howardcountymd.gov for help. If residents would like to donate, they can do so through the center’s Amazon wish list online at bit.ly/hocoanimalcontrol. Those who wish to drop off donations may leave them under the front overhang of the center at 8576 Davis Road in Columbia. The center is also accepting monetary donations here.

The Howard County Department of Community Resources and Services is collecting donations of the following new items: N95 face masks, surgical masks, powered air purifying respirators, impermeable gowns, non-latex medical gloves, hand sanitizer (not homemade), eye protection, flip-down grinding/splash shields, and cleaning supplies/disinfectants. Collections may be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday at the weather-tight bins located outside 9830 Patuxent Woods Drive in Columbia. If you have a donation that you would like the county to pick up, email PPE@howardcountymd.gov.

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