Fit for a queen: QUEENIAM gives Cleveland youth community and purpose in COVID times

Dameyonna Willis believes that self-love and empowerment are royally important—and that’s exactly why she started QUEENIAM, a nonprofit organization offering workshops and programming geared at helping young girls thrive. Though COVID-19 has put a cramp in Willis’ in-person meetups, she hasn’t let that stop her, instead creating a vibrant “Queen in Quarantine” virtual program to keep the movement in motion.

 

As part of QUEENIAM, girls are encouraged to develop a vision for their future.“Queen in Quarantine gives our girls an opportunity to look forward to something each month,” explains 26-year-old Willis. “It also gives them a safe space to deal with isolation and any depression they may be experiencing.”

 

Aimed at girls between the ages of 7 and 17, the group meets on Zoom twice a month for themed virtual workshops such as pottery painting, lip gloss making, Zumba dance, and other fun activities.

Willis typically partners with other local organizations to lead the instruction—for instance, Cleveland Sews and Cosmic Bobbins led participants in an embroidery project, while Tie-Dye by Keyanna hosted a T-shirt tie-dying party.

 

“Every workshop I put together, I want the girls to be able to create something they can keep and say, ‘I made this at Queen in Quarantine,’” says Willis, who also sends weekly resources to participating families. “It all comes back to individuality and loving yourself—we try to tie it back to the idea of them being their own person while creating and learning something new.”

 

Cake decorating funThe initial spark for Queen in Quarantine happened when Sweet Costo’s Shelby Costo reached out to Willis in the early days of the pandemic to see if she could make a donation to QUEENIAM. “[Rather than make a monetary donation], I asked her, ‘Could you do a cake decorating party?’” recalls Willis. “We delivered the cakes all over Cleveland, hopped on Zoom, and decorated the cakes together with the girls—there was such a good turnout I thought maybe I could do something again the next month.”

 

Willis first founded QUEENIAM in 2016 when her infant daughter was hospitalized for two months after open heart surgery for congestive heart failure. At the time, Willis was a mentor and coach at Open Doors Academy (ODA), and while on leave to tend to her daughters’ medical needs, she took time to ruminate on the close relationships she’d formed with students at ODA. “I missed them just as much as they missed their ‘Miss Yonna,’” says Willis, who first began working at ODA at age 19.

 

Dameyonna Willis with a QUEENIAM participantWillis decided to form her own girls empowerment organization, and after 45 girls attended the first information session, QUEENIAM was in full swing. Since then, Willis has hosted events all over Cleveland at various libraries, schools, and rec centers—as well as field trips and college tours—with a focus on four main buckets: financial literacy, college and career readiness, service learning, and health and wellness. The majority of participants hail from Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, and Euclid.

 

Currently, Willis is selling handmade 100% soy candles to raise funds for Queen in Quarantine supplies, along with actively seeking sponsorship. She has also participated in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program and procured grants from Neighborhood Connections to further the cause, but she’s not stopping there. “My eventual goal is to have a physical space that can be a safe haven and community center for the girls,” says Willis, who resides in West Park.

 

Until then, Willis will continue to offer virtual Queen in Quarantine programming and helm the movement that is QUEENIAM—all of which she does on a volunteer basis on top of her full-time job as a “Say Yes” coach at Cuyahoga Community College.

“QUEENIAM has been a lot of long hours, weekends and nights, but it is a passion project for me,” says Willis. “I have been rewarded in so many different ways, especially by these families believing in me and allowing me to be part of their journey.”

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. Along with her work at FreshWater, she is the editor-of-chief of Edible Cleveland and a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes for Creative Groove, Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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