Columbia Community Care, a nonprofit founded in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to assist with collecting and distributing needed food and personal items in Howard County, announced its plans to expand the organization to a community center.
Columbia Community Care Peace and Justice Center will be the next step in the eight-month journey for founder Erika Strauss Chavarria, a community activist and Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.
The organization currently offers drive-thru pickups twice a week — Wednesdays and Saturdays — at three locations: Swansfield Elementary and Oakland Mills Middle, both in Columbia, and Howard High in Ellicott City. Columbia Community Care uses two food pantries, one at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City and another at New Hope Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Fulton, as distribution centers for volunteers filling individual home deliveries.
Strauss Chavarria said it would be her dream come true to see the community center up and running by the summer or fall of 2022. She hopes to find and acquire a building by the end of the school year. She is hoping to find a space with easy transportation or within walking distance from the Wilde Lake area in Columbia.
“The COVID crisis and Columbia Community Care have put a spotlight on the need in this county. If you don’t see it by now, I don’t know where you’re looking,” Strauss Chavarria said. “[The community center] is a type of restoration and solution to so many problems that we see.”
Strauss Chavarria said she hopes the community center will help address the community’s needs beyond physical resources and provide spaces for essential skills.
“This is my education heart; need goes so much beyond food. We can’t not think about the entire being,” she said. “We have the ability and the responsibility to do so much more.”
Makenna Burns, 19, a program manager with Columbia Community Care, has been working with the group since March. Burns, who attended Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, said she saw the need for a community center when she was in school a few years ago.
When she was in high school, Burns attended Studio A Modeling & Dance in Randallstown. She said that space served as her community center equivalent.
“I was lucky I had that,” Burns said. “If I had that in Columbia, I definitely would have utilized that and used it to my advantage because the kids here need it.”
Burns said there is a disconnect in opportunity in the county.
“A lot of the programs that are offered to higher-level students aren’t necessarily offered to all students, so the need for a community center is definitely there to help all kids,” she said.
Strauss Chavarria got the idea for the community center after a visit to Chicago brought her to the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. There, she saw how the community center was providing local kids with necessary resources like job skills, communal gardens, a music room and a kitchen.
“I left there feeling inspired, but it never occurred to me, ‘Oh, we should do that in Columbia,’ ” Strauss Chavarria said.
A year or so later, Strauss Chavarria said she had a dream that she opened a community center in Columbia, just like the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. She wrote everything down at 3 a.m. and went back to sleep. Strauss Chavarria said she told her husband and mother about the idea at the time and stored it in the back of her mind.
“The original plan I wrote, I’ve been adding to it throughout the past couple years. As I think of more things and talk to more people, I keep adding things [to the plan],” Strauss Chavarria said. “Then COVID happened and I founded Columbia Community Care and Columbia Community Care grew to what it is today.”
Strauss Chavarria said she realized that she had the foundation in place to fold the existing nonprofit structure into a community center.
“Columbia Community Care just naturally led into this plan of creating a community center,” she said.
Strauss Chavarria said she recognized the need for a community center after years of teaching at Wilde Lake and seeing that there are few places for kids to go after school.
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“I know community centers save lives. It can put you on a path to success and well-being or the lack of one can be the difference,” Strauss Chavarria said. “I know so many people who I’ve spoken to and known throughout my life who have told me community centers saved them.”
The community center plan includes: arts, sports, community gardens, supplemental education, library, youth programs, community activities, food pantry and a kitchen, potentially a clothing closet, classrooms and a peace room.
Strauss Chavarria said she is hoping to partner with community organizations to provide career assistance for students. She also wants the community center to have a working relationship with the Howard County Public School System to offer staff anti-racism and restorative justice training.
“[It will be] a place for students to come for healing and safety and educational opportunities that are not necessarily offered in our schools,” she said.
Strauss Chavarria said soon there will be a separate Facebook group for the community center fundraising effort.