Your Friendly Neighborhood Hero:
Spanish Teacher Creates Community Welfare Program Amidst COVID-19
By: Livia Zhao and Jennifer Wu
Past the little coffee shop and the Giant where the locals go to pick up their weekly groceries, there is a gigantic line of people standing outside Swansfield Elementary. It is startling for a second until the reason becomes clear: Erika Strauss Chavarria’s Columbia Community Care. Strauss Chavarria, a high school Spanish teacher in Howard County, serves as a role model not only to her students but also to her community.
Growing up in New Mexico, Strauss Chavarria witnessed injustice firsthand, which influences the values that she holds today.
I was brought up with an eye and a heart for activism… My parents instilled in me from a very young age the necessity of recognizing and fighting back against injustice... An intentional part of my upbringing [was] to love people from all backgrounds but also to understand [how] our government and history have played into the socio-economic and systemic issues that we see today."
Because of her strong belief in promoting equality among all people, she takes on various activism works to influence change.
“I don't necessarily do things like coat drives or toy drives or things like that. I [usually] focus more on systemic and institutional change—changing policies [and] changing practices to make our systems better for everyone in our society.”
While Strauss Chavarria works to transform the community for the better outside of school, she spends her time in school educating students of all different backgrounds.
“I teach Spanish but I put a huge focus on the Aro-Latino identity because that's a part of Spanish language and culture that is very often missed… I'm very intentional [in] making sure that my students can see themselves in a curriculum that they connect to...and that they feel, at all times, safe and respected in my class and [know] that their opinions are valued.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Strauss Chavarria has acknowledged the influx of new and pre-existing issues brought onto the community by the pandemic. As a solution, she started an organization that focused on self-care and community involvement: Columbia Community Care.
With the help of hundreds of volunteers, Columbia Community Care has been able to carry out two continuous operations with the mission of supporting the community.
“We operate at five different sites… and our sites are open for anyone to come and get what they need—food donations, product donations, baby items—from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, [on] Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”
Besides collections at the morning sites, Columbia Community Care also provides another option tailored more for those who are unable to travel due to the pandemic.
“We have a lot of families who can't leave their homes for whatever reason—whether they're sick [or] whether they're afraid. And so we have home delivery service for them [and] we have two churches in our community… that have offered up… their spaces are our pantries.”
“One of the most powerful things that we've done is showing the sheer spirit of this community and the fact that communities have the capability and the compassion to help one another when we are in need.” - Erika Strauss, founder of Chavarria's Columbia Community Care
Even though Columbia Community Care has thrived due to Strauss Chavarria’s organizational skills, she owes most of her success to the community. Not only does she have a supportive core team and hundreds of volunteers, but she also has a group of translators to facilitate communication.
“One of the most powerful things that we've done is showing the sheer spirit of this community and the fact that communities have the capability and the compassion to help one another when we are in need.”
Columbia Community Care may have started with the rise of COVID-19 cases, but this certainly does not mean it will end when it is over.
“I definitely don't want this organization to fizzle out… We do know that this work is
important. We do know that needs are always here. I'm trying to find a way to make this more of a permanent structure.”
Although her busy life with teaching and running Columbia Community Care may seem effortlessly handled, in reality, she does not balance her schedule that well.
“I don't sleep… I work a lot. I actually have to force myself to take a day off... But I think that the organizing work that I do is really my heart and my soul, so I don't really view it as work; I view it as life.”
For Strauss Chavarria, advocacy and activism have become ingrained into her character. As for others who are equally as passionate about their beliefs, she offers this piece of advice.
“First [research] the community, see what organizations already exist, and see if [you can] be involved in those organizations. If you find that those organizations...don't exist, then I would say the second step would be to find people... who have the same vision… and who have the same drive [and] the same passions because you cannot do it alone.”
Strauss Chavarria believes that having such a passionate and generous community has been the key to the success of Columbia Community Care.
“I'm overwhelmed with gratitude every day; it's amazing what this has become and it's because of a community that has come together to support each other.”