Dameyonna Willis believes that self-love and empowerment are of royal importance – and that’s exactly why she started QUEENIAM, a non-profit organization offering workshops and programs to help young girls blossom. Although COVID-19 has put a cramp on Willis’ in-person encounters, she hasn’t let that stop her, instead creating a dynamic virtual “Queen in Quarantine” program to keep the movement moving.
As part of QUEENIAM, girls are encouraged to develop a vision for their future.“Queen in Quarantine gives our girls the opportunity to look forward to something every month,” says Willis, 26. “It also gives them a safe space to deal with isolation and any depression they might be feeling.”
Aimed at girls ages 7-17, the group meets on Zoom twice a month for themed virtual workshops such as pottery painting, lip gloss making, Zumba dancing and other fun activities.
Willis typically partners with other local organizations to lead instruction. For example, Cleveland Sews and Cosmic Bobbins led attendees in an embroidery project, while Keyanna’s Tie-Dye hosted a T-shirt dyeing party.
“Every workshop I host, I want the girls to be able to create something they can keep and say, ‘I made this to Queen in Quarantine,'” says Willis, who also sends out weekly resources to participating families. . “It all comes back to individuality and self-love – we try to tie it to the idea that they are themselves while creating and learning something new.”
Fun to decorate a cakeThe initial spark for Queen in Quarantine happened when Sweet Costo’s Shelby Costo reached out to Willis at the start of the pandemic to see if she could donate to QUEENIAM. “[Rather than make a monetary donation], I asked him, ‘Can you have a cake decorating party?’ “recalls Willis. “We delivered the cakes all over Cleveland, hopped on Zoom and decorated the cakes with the girls. There was such a turnout that I thought maybe I could do something again next month.”
Willis first founded QUEENIAM in 2016 when his baby 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 she was on leave to tend to her daughters’ medical needs, she took time to reflect on the close relationships she had. had established with the students of the ODA. “I missed them as much as they missed their ‘Miss Yonna’,” says Willis, who started working at the ODA at 19.
Dameyonna Willis with a QUEENIAM contestantWillis decided to start her own girl 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 recreation centers, as well as field trips and college tours, focusing on four main buckets: financial literacy, college and career readiness, service learning, and health and wellness. The majority of participants come from Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and Euclid.
Currently, Willis sells handmade 100% soy candles to raise funds for Queen in Quarantine supplies, while actively seeking sponsorships. She’s also participated in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program and won grants from Neighborhood Connections to further the cause, but she doesn’t stop there. “My ultimate goal is to have a physical space that can be a safe haven and a community center for girls,” says Willis, who resides in West Park.
Until then, Willis will continue to offer virtual Queen in Quarantine programming and lead the movement that is QUEENIAM – all of which she does on a voluntary basis in addition to her full-time job as a “Say Yes at Cuyahoga Community College.
“QUEENIAM has been long hours, weekends and nights, but it’s a project I’m passionate about,” says Willis. “I have been rewarded in so many different ways, especially by those families who believe in me and allow me to be part of their journey.”