Dameyonna Willis Empowers Girls Through QUEENIAM
Tri-C alumna and success coach helps area girls see selves as royalty through community initiative
Sometimes, our greatest inspiration comes from our toughest trials.
It was August 2016 when Dameyonna Willis brought her 5-month-old daughter, Kylee, to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. Over the preceding months, the infant had begun experiencing a series of worsening symptoms, including heavy breathing and an inability to feed properly.
Doctors quickly determined the cause — congestive heart failure — and scheduled Kylee for surgery.
“Her chest was held open for three days because her heart was so enlarged,” Willis said. “Overnight, my daughter’s health and recovery became my singular focus.”
Just a year earlier, Willis was a newly minted Cuyahoga Community College graduate. Her Associate of Arts degree had led to a job working with youths at a nonprofit. She planned to continue her education at Cleveland State University.
She set all that aside to care for Kylee, who was released from the hospital two months after successful surgery and treatment.
But Willis still had a desire to improve the lives of Cleveland’s children — particularly girls like her daughter. She knew the struggles many of them faced to overcome life challenges while maintaining a sense of self-love and self-worth.
“When I had to leave the nonprofit to care for my daughter, the girls wanted me to come back,” she said. “I was a mentor and confidant for a lot of them, and they were missing that. I couldn’t commit to a regular job at that point, so I started to think about other things I could do.”
She came up with the idea of a girls’ empowerment group that would meet several times a month for activities to promote positive self-image, build friendships and provide a safe haven. On the suggestion of a friend, she named the group QUEENIAM.
“I thought it was perfect,” Willis said. “It gets to the heart of the idea that I want these girls to see themselves as royalty — to value themselves in that way."
After Kylee’s release from the hospital, Willis began advertising her group on social media. The response was overwhelming, with numerous girls and their parents attending the first informational session.
Out of that initial session came about 25 participants between the ages of 7 and 17. The four core focus areas introduced back then continue to guide QUEENIAM today.
“We help them explore health and wellness, financial literacy, community service and college readiness,” she said. “For example, in health and wellness, we might have a yoga or Zumba class and talk about positive body image. We always try to tie everything back to self-love and self-development.”
Her work with QUEENIAM led to other speaking and mentorship opportunities. She brought her message to students at John Marshall High School and spoke to students at Hathaway Brown School and the Douglas MacArthur Girls’ Leadership Academy.
Willis began searching for ways to expand her reach even further. She explored the possibility of renting or purchasing a permanent home for QUEENIAM instead of holding meetings at libraries and schools.
That all came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic forced mass closures in spring 2020.
Willis needed to get creative. She knew how much the QUEENIAM program meant to participants and didn’t want to shut it down due to a lack of available meeting space.
So she moved the program online, launching the “Queen in Quarantine” initiative and hosting more than 20 virtual workshops. Though it wasn’t the same as being together in person, it gave the QUEENIAM girls a much-needed sense of belonging and connection during the pandemic isolation.
“It actually worked out very well,” she said. “Just about everything we did in person, we were able to do virtually.”
But the goal always was to return to in-person meetings. This spring, as parents began receiving COVID-19 vaccines, Willis surveyed them to gauge their comfort with having their children attend on-site gatherings again. In April, QUEENIAM had its first in-person meeting in more than a year at JJ Ice Cream and Café in East Cleveland.
“We want to gradually get back to a sense of normalcy,” she said. “I’d like to get back to speaking engagements at area schools. But we’ll take it one step at a time.”
Willis’ life has also started returning to normal. From those initial anxiety-filled days in the hospital following open-heart surgery, Kylee, now 5, requires only yearly follow-ups with her doctor.
Her daughter’s return to health allowed Willis to resume her education and full-time employment.
She joined her alma mater in 2019 as a success coach with the Say Yes Scholar program at Tri-C. Say Yes encourages Cleveland Metropolitan School District students to pursue postsecondary education through scholarships, mentoring and other forms of support.
In 2020, Willis re-enrolled at CSU. The 26-year-old Cleveland resident plans to graduate this summer with a degree in nonprofit administration.
“My CSU degree will help me in my role in the Say Yes program, which has been a great fit,” she said. “The social and emotional support component, which is central to QUEENIAM, translates very well to my job. In both cases, I’m helping students develop skills for meeting the challenges of daily life.”
Whether it is with QUEENIAM, the Say Yes program or speaking to students in area schools, Willis plans to keep communicating her message of positivity and self-worth. She also resumed her pursuit of a permanent home for QUEENIAM and is exploring grant opportunities.
“I try to fill a gap by teaching kids what they might not learn in school,” she said. “How to grow as a person. How to love yourself. How to work through a challenge you’re facing. There are so many peer-pressure and self-esteem issues children and teens face today, and I think above all, young people need to learn that being an individual and being yourself is OK.”
This story can also be found in the Summer 2021 edition of Tri-C Times.
June 16, 2021
Erik Cassano, 216-987-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org