Dameyonna Willis believes that self-love and empowerment are royally important – and that’s why she started QUEENIAM, a nonprofit that offers workshops and programs to help young girls thrive. Though COVID-19 caused a spasm of Willis’ face-to-face meeting, it didn’t stop her, instead creating a live, Quarantined Queen virtual 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,” explains 26-year-old Willis. “It also gives them a safe space to deal with isolation and depression.”
The group is aimed at girls between the ages of 7 and 17 and meets twice a month on Zoom for virtual themed workshops such as pottery, lip gloss making, Zumba dancing and other fun activities.
Willis usually works with other local organizations to lead the instruction – for example Cleveland Sews and Cosmic coils led attendees on an embroidery project while Keyanna’s Tie-Dye hosted a t-shirt party to die for.
“With every workshop I put together, I want the girls to be able to create something to keep and say, ‘I did this with Queen in Quarantine,'” says Willis, who also sends weekly resources to participating families . “It all comes back to individuality and self-love – we try to trace it back to the idea that they are their own person as we create and learn something new.”
Cake decorating funThe first spark for Queen in quarantine happened when Sweet costoShelby 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 have a cake decorating party?” Willis recalls. “We shipped the cakes all over Cleveland, jumped on Zoom and decorated the cakes with the girls – there was such a good turnout that I thought I might be able to do something again next month.”
Willis first started QUEENIAM in 2016 when her young daughter was hospitalized for two months after open heart surgery for heart failure. At that time, Willis was a mentor and coach Open Doors Academy (ODA) and while on vacation to attend to her daughters’ medical needs, she took time to reflect on the close relationships she had built with students at ODA. “I missed her as much as I missed her ‘Miss Yonna’,” says Willis, who started working for ODA at the age of 19.
Dameyonna Willis with a QUEENIAM participantWillis decided to start his own girls empowerment organization and after 45 girls attended the first briefing session, QUEENIAM was well underway. Since then, Willis has hosted events at various libraries, schools, and recreation centers, as well as field trips and college tours across Cleveland, with an emphasis on four main areas: financial literacy, College and career readiness, service learning, and health and wellness. The majority of participants are from Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, and Euclid.
Currently, Willis is Sale of handcrafted 100% soy candles to collect donations for Queen in quarantine and actively seek sponsorship. She’s also participated in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program and received grants from Neighborhood Connections to help keep things moving forward, but she doesn’t stop there. “My ultimate goal is to have a physical space that can be a safe haven and community center for the girls,” says Willis, who lives in West Park.
Until then, Willis will continue to offer the virtual queen in quarantine programming and lead the QUEENIAM movement – all on a voluntary basis in addition to her full-time employment as a “Say Yes” trainer at Cuyahoga Community College.
“QUEENIAM has had long hours, weekends and nights, but it’s a passion project for me,” says Willis. “I’ve been rewarded in so many different ways, especially from these families who believe in me and allow me to be part of their journey.”