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How are you building and maintaining community in light of social distancing?

Ohio City's Jay Avenue Residents Rally For Their Most Vulnerable Neighbors

[ Malaz Elgemiabby ]
Malaz Elgemiabby is standing in front of 500 paper bags that are in her living room.

Designer and artist Malaz Elgemiabby knows her neighborhood, and her neighbors.

As part of her research for designing Ohio City’s Riverview Welcome Center, she drove for Uber and Lyft to get one-on-one time with people and their perspectives, eventually interviewing more than 200 residents.

The project and the people even inspired her to move to Jay Avenue, across the street from Riverview Tower, a high-rise apartment for seniors run by the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).

So it’s no surprise that her vulnerable Riverview neighbors were the first ones she thought of when Gov. Mike DeWine issued the March stay-at-home order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

What is surprising is how fast Elgemiabby and her Jay Avenue neighbors were able to raise more than $8,000 and put together 500 care packages for them in a matter of days.

Bags — 500 of them — ready for transport and delivery to neighbors across the street. [Malaz Elgemiabby]

Elgemiabby, with the help of fellow Ohio City residents Brian Mallory and Angelo Trivisonno, started small, checking in with neighbors and asking Riverview residents what they needed. What they heard about wasn’t just the typical staple foods and toilet paper. They needed a little fun, too.

“I mean, imagine you are a senior person who is used to meeting your friends and play games. And now you're trapped inside in your apartment all day. So this is one thing that we didn't think of,” Elgemiabby said. “If we hadn’t heard from the needs of the people, we wouldn't have thought of that.”

Each care package became three kits: the Hygiene Kit, with beach, soap, Tylenol, a pair of gloves and rolls of toilet paper; the Emergency Food Kit with beans, tuna, chicken, oatmeal, granola bars, rice and more, including recipes; and the Fun Kit, with word searches, sudoku puzzles, crosswords, Cleveland-themed coloring pages and crayons.

The ktis include not just food but recipies to spark ideas for what to make with it plus puzzles, games and Cleveland landmark coloring pages to keep seniors sharp. [Malaz Elgemiabby]

To gather the funds, the team put up a campaign with neighborhood-centric crowdfunding platform In Your Back Yard (IOBY). They posted a fundraising goal of $8,477, listing every item needed and its price, at 8 p.m. on a Thursday. Less than 24 hours later, the neighborhood came through, far surpassing the goal.

But to coordinate with the Cleveland Food Bank’s monthly mobile food giveaway on Tuesday, Elgemiabby had to move fast. And she still needed helping hands.

“It's a lot of work but the people just showed up. And it was just a very organic process. This is not an organized something that we've been planning for for months,” she said. “On Friday, when we realized we have the money to go buy the stuff, we just started working, and that's it.”

Angelo Trivisonno is an Ohio City Inc. board member, Jay Avenue resident and volunteer leader [Malaz Elgemiabby] 

Neighbors just kept coming out of their houses, working in shifts on the assembly line set up the in the street on Jay Avenue, Elgemiabby said, turning the task into a social-distancing block party, playing music while portioning bleach into 500 cups.

“It was such a nice thing to do, during this whole negative environment, to see how people come together in an organic way.”

By Tuesday morning, all 500 care packages lined Elgemiabby’s home.

“They came like, three days, working. We worked nonstop,” she said. “We worked through the night, through the morning.

CMHA coordinated with the team throughout the process, helped transport the bags to Riverview Towers and ensured that each senior who was not able to come out to grab their bag would still receive it.

A masked CHMA employee helps with care package distribution.  [Malaz Elgemiabby]

While passing out bags, Elgemiabby said the one main question she got from neighbors was, “Who is this from?” The appreciation was almost as overwhelming as the help she got to make the care packages happen, she said.

“I think it is truly what is more valuable than the food, than everything else, that people in the community do really care about each other, that the Riverview residents are considered part of the community,” she said. “And that we are working together to take care of our most vulnerable members of our community.”

Taking care of the most vulnerable is not new for Ohio City residents — that sense of community is part of what attracted Elgemiabby to live and work there. In her research last year, time and again she was told the story of St. John's Church being a stop on the Underground Railroad and how the rope to the church bell would be left outside the building so anyone could pull it and ring the bell to warn enslaved people of bounty hunters.

“I've heard that story so many times… when I was doing the research on Ohio city and talking with the people,” she said. “So I think now, the people doing this now is just a continuation of that. You know, people are going to take care of our most vulnerable.”

The IOBY campaign is still open with plans to provide each resident with two washable, reusable masks in another care package in the next few weeks.


A previous version of this story misstated the number of bleach cups filled and distributed as 250. The correct number is 500. It also originally misidentified a photo of a CMHA employee a volunteer Brian Mallory. ideastream regrets the errors.