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‘Grandma’ delivers help through pandemic

BALTIMORE >> The perils of the new coronavirus have been well documented for older Americans: They are one of the more at-risk groups for the lethal virus.

And yet Bertha Knight, 63, ventures out of her Baltimore home — equipped with her personal protective gear — throughout the week to help the students and families of Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore’s Mondawmin neighborhood. Knight makes no-contact deliveries of gift cards, organizes food pantries and helps families with other tasks they need to make it through the pandemic.

Knight has served since 2014 as Robert W. Coleman’s community school coordinator through Child First Authority, a Baltimore nonprofit whose mission is to develop youth and strengthen families with resources such as community schools, after- school programs and summer learning programs. Such schools serve as hubs for health, social and other services.

She serves as the liaison between the school, families and community, working with them to provide what students need to be successful. Knight said she has helped establish partnerships with Kaiser Permanente, Whiting-Turner Contracting and the University of Maryland Medical Center and other local institutions, which have provided food, uniforms, back­ packs and other supplies for students.

“That role is really important right now,” said Jennifer McDowell, director of community schools at Child First Authority. “It’s been important even when school is in session, but right now it really serves as the bridge to what families need in their day-to-day lives and the support that their children need to become successful academically.”

During the pandemic, McDowell said, some families face “insurmountable challenges,” from job loss to questions about how they will pay their rent.

With the ever-changing situation, Knight gathers information and coordinates with the school to funnel available resources through the school’s app, such as how to apply for SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

When the coronavirus forced schools to close, Knight shifted the school’s food pantry to New Shiloh Baptist Church, another partner, to continue assisting the school’s homeless population.

“She’s a go-getter,” said Carlillian Thompson, principal of Robert W. Coleman.

It’s just another act of serv­ice to students from Knight, who moved to Baltimore from Edenton, N.C., when she was 7, and has taught at multiple schools in Baltimore. Knight also served as director of enrichment for Baltimore City Public Schools, helping launch gifted education programs throughout the school system.

With schools closed since March, Knight, who many students affectionately refer to as “Grandma,” has been “on the front line,” Thompson said, ensuring that the kids are as prepared for academic success as they can be, even while they’re at home.

“I’ve always been an activist in the sense of wanting to serve, wanting to help, wanting to do whatever I could to serve the community,” Knight said.

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