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Organizers create task force to help neighbors in Paradise community of Catonsville during coronavirus pandemic

Megidelawit Yirefu, a graduate student at University of Maryland's School of Pharmacy, told Baltimore Sun Media reporter Taylor DeVille that she has started the Paradise COVID-19 Volunteer Network as a way to provide aid to residents in Catonsville's Paradise community who may be vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Megidelawit Yirefu, a graduate student at University of Maryland's School of Pharmacy, told Baltimore Sun Media reporter Taylor DeVille that she has started the Paradise COVID-19 Volunteer Network as a way to provide aid to residents in Catonsville's Paradise community who may be vulnerable to the coronavirus.(Courtesy of Megidelawit Yirefu / Baltimore Sun)

Megidelawit Yirefu, a Paradise resident of five years, watched the coronavirus pandemic unfold from her boyfriend’s Mount Vernon apartment.

A graduate student studying pharmacology at University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy, the 26-year-old remembers hearing the announcement issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 25 warning that the coronavirus, a novel viral respiratory illness that first emerged in the Chinese city Wuhan in December, would severely disrupt communities in the United States.

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“Seeing how things were unfolding in Italy and China, it was very apparent that we were probably going to be taking measures similar to them,” Yirefu said.

The Montgomery County native joined a Facebook group of Baltimore City health care professionals sharing information and seeking to provide mutual aid. Neighborhood support groups in Baltimore City began posting about their efforts to organize to help local populations most vulnerable to the pathogen, like the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, as health officials urge citizens to socially distance by avoiding mass gatherings and staying 6 feet from other people to prevent spreading the virus.

“I thought that would be a good idea to kind of expand out to Paradise,” Yirefu said.

Since posting on Facebook groups for Paradise and Catonsville communities on March 12 — the day Gov. Larry Hogan announced the closure of state public schools to curb disease spread — Yirefu so far has gained seven volunteers to begin convening the Paradise COVID-19 Volunteer Network to serve neighborhoods within the eastern Catonsville community.

“The idea is if someone is immuno-compromised or they are self-quarantined because they have symptoms of the virus ... to keep them home so they are not out and about,” Yirefu said.

After its first meeting on March 16, the group is seeking six block captains to help coordinate aid to residents from Blakeney Road to New Market Court; Cedarwood Road to Sherring Court; South Paradise Avenue to Taylor Avenue; Overbrook Road to Merrill Road; and Briarwood Road to Harlem Lane.

As the group gets it legs, those boundaries could change, but its services are strictly limited to Paradise, where the group estimates roughly 2,000 residents are seniors citizens.

“It would be nice to cover, or have micro-communities of people kind of replicating this model,” Yirefu said. “We would be happy to talk to people to get them to get the infrastructure ... and get the conversation going in their communities.”

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Maryland updates the number of confirmed cases each day at 10 a.m. Local jurisdictions also have been announcing cases separate from those confirmed by the state.

As of March 19, 12 cases were confirmed in Baltimore County and at least 107 were confirmed in the state, according to Maryland Department of Health. One person, a Prince George’s County resident in his 60s, has died.

Using an online form, the ad-hoc task force is seeking volunteers willing to shop for and deliver groceries, pick up medications, walk dogs and provide social support over the phone or via Skype.

Yirefu said the task force is waiting to release service request forms until it has the volunteer base established and the organization in place. The next step is purchasing printed materials to mail out to neighbors who may otherwise not have access to Facebook and other social media.

“Time and time again research has shown that when people stick together during disasters, that mitigates a lot of the negative impacts the virus might have,” Yirefu said. “This is what the aim is, to make sure we’re supporting each other during this time."

Other Catonsville residents are seeking to facilitate volunteer connections. Ellie McIntire, who runs multiple Catonsville-focused Facebook groups, has launched an online form to connect health care professionals with volunteer child care services.

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About a dozen individuals have volunteered, with some saying they can watch as many as five children and others offering overnight help, McIntire said. So far, volunteers outweigh the number of individuals requesting service, but that certainly could change as the contagion spreads, McIntire said.

“We just have to do what we can,” McIntire said. “Even if we help a few people ... we can but just try. We don’t know if we’re going to go into lockdown, but we’re winging it together.”

Paradise residents who may be in need of assistance can email paradisetaskforce@gmail.com or call Megidelawit Yirefu at 443-840-8998.

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