Community Engagement Center Leadership Team

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashley Valis and Tyrone Roper work to maintain UMB’s community engagement mission by offering programs and services virtually to the University’s West Baltimore neighbors.

The Champions of Excellence campaign is a multiyear branding campaign at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) in which we highlight individuals and teams that exemplify extraordinary accomplishment and represent excellence at the University. In 2020-21, UMB is highlighting the employees who've done exemplary work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and The Elm will be featuring these UMB Champions, who are making Baltimore, our region, and in some cases the world a better place.

Today: Community Engagement Center Leadership Team, Office of Community Engagment

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to shut down in Maryland, only those deemed essential were allowed to remain open with strict safety protocols in place. While the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) Community Engagement Center (CEC) was not considered essential to the state, it is absolutely essential to the West Baltimore community it serves.

Ashley Valis, MSW, executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement at UMB, knew that she and her CEC team would need to find ways to continue serving their West Baltimore neighbors. So Valis and CEC executive director Tyrone Roper, MSW, began brainstorming with their Office of Community Engagement (OCE) colleagues on ways to bring weekly programs and services to virtual platforms.

“Our families are extremely appreciative that we haven’t totally shut down, because we easily could have,” says Valis, who along with Roper was named a UMB Champion of Excellence for their work during the pandemic. “We are extremely committed to our community, and continuing our services during this really difficult time shows that we are all in this together.”

(Watch video below.)

The pandemic hit at a particularly disruptive time for the CEC. A few months after the quarantine began, construction crews finished renovating a historic building on 16 S. Poppleton St. into the new, reimagined, 20,000-square-foot CEC. “It’s extremely frustrating for us, because we have this brand-new building, we are really excited to share it with the community, and we haven’t been able to do that yet,” Valis says.

For Roper, the pandemic came with additional challenges. He joined UMB in late December 2019, and once he started getting acclimated, the pandemic hit the pause button on all of his plans.

“I started to talk about some strategic planning, and then the March quarantine hit, so I almost feel like I’m still in an orientation phase a year later,” he says. “It’s tough. I really just want to make sure that we continue to do all we can do to support the community.”

Valis and Roper found ways to collaborate with UMB’s neighbors, providing resources and programs virtually such as health and fitness classes, line dancing, and job searching assistance. Also, lunch boxes with school supplies and other essentials are delivered to families involved with the UMB Police Athletic/Activities League each week.

“Tyrone has reported to the CEC every day during the crisis to answer every knock on the door and every phone call,” said Jennifer Litchman, MA, senior vice president for external relations and special assistant to the president, who nominated the duo for the award. “He and Ashley have worked tirelessly to ensure that services to our community continue during the pandemic.”

One such COVID-safe resource for the West Baltimore community was the annual CEC Christmas Store, where parents and caregivers signed up for time slots to shop in an outdoor tent for deeply discounted new toys priced between $1 and $5.

“Seeing people in person after so many months was amazing,” Valis says. “There is something about seeing someone face to face that you can’t replace over the computer. The University’s approval of some programs and services to be held outdoors is really helpful to us.”

Valis emphasized that all of the efforts to support the community were made possible because of the dedication and commitment of the entire OCE team. “This award is really a reflection of all of our hard work, and it feels fabulous,” she says.

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