Danny Burridge, Youth Development Director at Santa Maria, remembers very clearly the first time he met DJ Martin. It was February 2021, and Danny had just started his new position at Santa Maria’s Joe Williams Family Center (JWFC). Youth Development staff were looking for youth to attend a group session, but since it was still the middle of the pandemic and a snowstorm was coming on fast, it was not surprising that only DJ, and his little brother Evan, showed up. DJ was 12 then; wiry, bubbly, full of clever comments, and had a crazy head of hair. He also wasn’t the best-behaved, Danny recalled. After the group session was canceled, DJ, Evan and Danny went outside to shovel the sidewalk in front of the JWFC, but DJ was way too busy throwing snowballs at Evan and Danny to be very helpful with snow removal. Danny said he couldn’t help but like DJ: “I could easily see that glint of intelligence and determination in everything he did.”
Danny wasn’t the only one who noticed these elements of DJ’s personality. The other youth workers at the JWFC knew that DJ had a lot of potential, but he also had a hard time staying focused in school and staying out of trouble. Nancy Laird, the JWFC Administrative Assistant and Resource Navigator who has been working in Lower Price Hill for 40 years, tells stories from a few years back when Oyler’s School Resource Officer would have to chase DJ all over the school grounds to try to get him back into class. She also recalls working together with DJ’s mother, Melissa Miller, at the Price Hill Recreation Center to provide opportunities for neighborhood youth. At the same time, Nancy was also working directly with DJ’s mother to support her as she struggled with depression and anxiety.
Neighborhood-wide problems in Lower Price Hill related to poverty, crime, and substance abuse soon landed DJ’s dad in jail, and left his mom even more isolated as she struggled with her mental health challenges. Then, in 2019, she was diagnosed with cancer, though DJ and his siblings didn’t immediately find that out.
At that time, DJ was coming to the JWFC, or just “the Center,” as kids in Lower Price Hill call it, with his older brother, Johnny, to play basketball, board games, and other activities that aren’t readily available on the streets of Lower Price Hill. In sixth grade, DJ started getting even more formally involved with Santa Maria’s youth programming by joining in-school, social-emotional groups at Oyler school. He remembered that he liked everything about those groups, but especially the other kids, as well as Santa Maria’s Jessica Polzin, and Jim Holmstrom. Mr. Jim and Ms. Jessica (along with Nancy) have been foundations of the Lower Price Hill community for many years, working with generations of families (Jim was the director of the youth program for 40 years and Jessica has worked
in the program for ten years). Without a doubt, DJ’s transformation over the years—and even within the past year—can be at least partially attributed to Santa Maria’s Youth Development program. There is no limit to the value of having positive mentors and safe group spaces in a young person’s life.
Over the past couple months, Danny has been having more conversations with DJ when he comes to the Center to hang out, play basketball or other games, or get help looking for a job (which has been his main focus in the past few months). Danny asked DJ what he’s learned as a result of being in Santa Maria’s groups and participating in activities at the Center. DJ said that he, “used to be selfish and couldn’t do anything with other people,” but now, he said, “I learned to be on a team, to do teamwork, because you actually can’t do much on your own.”
As DJ pointed out, there were specific issues in his life, and specific responses that sprung from his own determination and sense of self-worth that made him want to do better. Santa Maria staff and programs played a role in providing him with alternative activities and positive mentors, but DJ has had to do the hard work himself. He learned how to look out for himself, and how to lean on other people when he needs support.
In 2020, when DJ was in seventh grade, he and his siblings finally learned that their mom had cancer. And after a long, hard-fought battle, she sadly passed away in June 2021. At that point, DJ said, he wanted to give up, but it was then that his older sister, Johnna, stepped up for him. She cared for him, talked to him, and helped him think things through. She eventually took him in formally to her house as well, now as his legal guardian. DJ is grateful, but he still struggles with the loss of his mother, especially with the holiday season approaching. “Now,” he said, “Christmas just ain’t the same, nothing is the same. I don’t even like the holidays.”
DJ knows that his behavior, “used to be everywhere,” but when Danny asked what really made that change for him, DJ said, “when my mom got sick it was time for me to act my age. I realized that I had to be a role model for my younger brother and sister. I had to cut some other people out, the people I was hanging out with… I just couldn’t do it with my behavior… and then especially after seeing my dad in jail, you know, I realized that I had to be better than my dad.”
And if the tragedy of his mom passing wasn’t enough, just months later, in November 2021, his sister Johnna’s infant baby, DJ’s nephew, also passed away after just two days of life. With Johnna struggling with the loss of her mother and son, DJ needed to seek help from another source. Just then, someone else stepped up for him: Abdullah Powell, better known as “Brother Abdullah,” a creative music producer and artist who had worked with the Cincinnati NGO Elementz. Brother Abdullah had just begun volunteering in Lower Price Hill at both Oyler School and Santa Maria’s youth program.
With Brother Abdullah’s help, DJ created the music and wrote the lyrics to a song that memorialized his late baby nephew, but also expressed the pain and anguish he felt at losing someone so special to him. DJ talked about how the writing of that song was a big accomplishment for him in his life, and how it also helped him process his emotions. He said, “I wanted to make a song when my nephew passed away because it broke my heart and it was a sign, and I wanted to make a song about it. Working on that and then having the song finished helped me to deal with depression.” And as proud of the song as he is, DJ is also very guarded about it; he keeps it posted on YouTube, but only shares it with a select few people. He only gave Danny the title after many conversations, and Danny consistently expressing his interest in hearing it.
DJ is such a unique young man and has lived experiences at his young age that most of us could never even comprehend, but at the same time he demonstrates typical character traits of youth who live in Lower Price Hill. He is street-smart, hyper-vigilant, slow to trust people, but loyal once you gain his trust. He doesn’t mince words and he doesn’t waste them either. He’s overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles just to start another school year (now in the tenth grade), to keep showing up to the Center, to keep showing up for his friends and family, and to keep showing up for himself.
When Danny asked DJ a few months ago, why he keeps coming to the Center even though he now lives 15 minutes away from Lower Price Hill with his sister Johnna, he responded: “It helps to come to the Center to play basketball and everything these days, but it’s not even about the basketball so much. I just like to be around people. At the Center, I feel like I’m part of something, something that helps me to better myself. Being around y’all, it’s a good influence… y’all help me talk about stuff.”
So, while Santa Maria’s work with youth at the Center is geared toward teaching youth “social-emotional” and “life skills” that will enable them to succeed in school and in their future careers, when Center staff hear that they’re helping a kid to just “talk about stuff,” they know that’s a huge victory. But DJ is taking things even further as he plans out his future and works to make his goals a reality. He described where he’s at in his life by saying, “You gotta learn to go through the motions, take the proper steps toward a goal… that process stays the same no matter what. What changes is what you’re working toward. You can’t get comfortable, you gotta learn the new motions… you’re only a kid until you’re 13… I ain’t no kid no more, maybe my body and my age says that I’m a kid but I got a grown person mindset. I’m gonna do what I want. If I want something I’m gonna go get it. And I don’t give up. I keep trying over and over…Ain’t nothing I can’t get through. It might not work the first time, but maybe the second or third time it will.”
The last time Danny and DJ talked, DJ talked about his summer job working on the “Green Team” for Community Matters, a nonprofit organization in Lower price Hill, where he was tasked with helping to cut down honeysuckles, picking up trash and maintaining community gardens. But he quickly moved on to his plans for the future, “I want to go to trade school to do body work on cars.” Danny asked DJ how he got interested in that and he replied, “One day my grandpa was outside working on a car, and he asked me to help him change a tire, and so I did, and I picked it up right away, the first time. It just made sense to me.” Danny started telling him that sounded like a great career, but before he could finish, DJ interrupted saying, “but not my whole life… I want to be able to do other stuff too. I also want to be a mechanic for the military…You know, once you’re in the game, you gotta figure out how you’re gonna change the game too.”
DJ is changing the game in his life without a doubt. And anything that he may lack economically he makes up for in dreams, determination, and mindset. Danny doesn’t doubt for a second that DJ will be successful in his future. And like a lot of other kids in Lower Price Hill, he may even change the way we understand success itself along the way.