Santa Maria’s Youth Development Program Soldiers On During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since Santa Maria’s Youth Development Program’s big move into Joe Williams Family Center, (formerly Espy Boys & Girls club) four years ago, there has been great room for program growth and expansion, and although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused cuts to personnel, Santa Maria continues to serve families and young people of Lower Price Hill (LPH). Beyond facilitating social/emotional skills groups for middle school students at Oyler School, Santa Maria’s Youth Development Program has had the opportunity to lead various after school programs, including the start of a sports league for younger children, and reviving a Girl Scout troop. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the doors to the Joe Williams Family Center (JWFC) were open four days a week, allowing us to serve more youth than ever before, providing a safe space to play basketball, make art, receive academic assistance, play board games, and mingle with their friends.


Every summer, four teens are hired to work in the Community Gardens in Lower Price Hill, learning how to grow their own food and plants, caretaking, and realizing the value of shared spaces for their neighbors. Another group of teens meet with Cincy Stories, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building community through storytelling, collecting stories from residents and staff, and producing their own podcast, “Young Voices of Cincinnati.” You can find their interviews on the Podcast App ( In addition to great programs, our youth plan service projects, support community gatherings, and take weekly field trips each summer.


In response to increased youth violence across the city last summer, a social justice group called the Justice League was formed. In the Justice League teens come together to discuss pro-social topics, support community events, and positively contribute to their neighborhood. Justice League was even invited to present at the Neighborhood Summit in March, but that had to be postponed due to COVID-19.


Santa Maria has partnered with many programs and organizations, connecting the coolest kids to the greatest opportunities. Those partnerships include: Community Matters, Lower Price Hill Artist Collective, District Three Police, Oyler School, WordPlay, Women Helping Women, Redemption Ranch, Indigo Hippo, 1Girl, Urban League, and Cincy Stories just to name a few. Santa Maria also has a group of wonderful volunteers who have become lifelong mentors to some of our youth. Staff work hard to keep these relationships strong and steady, as they know it takes time to build trust, and a village to raise a child.


Beyond youth work, our administrative assistant, Nancy Laird, works to connect adults in the community to any resources they may need, navigating systems to ensure sustainable supports for households. Nancy has helped families get assistance with food, benefits, unemployment and other services. Due to COVID-19, families now must make an appointment, wear a mask, and maintain social distancing while in our facility.


Our program has worked hard to shape a community and youth-led environment, addressing and working through barriers, building intentional relationships with residents, and discovering all the beautiful assets of Lower Price Hill. Even though the pandemic has halted group programming, forced three members of the Youth Development Program team to go on unemployment because of the budget cuts in social service funds from the City of Cincinnati, and changed the means by which staff could provide support to LPH families, the two remaining staff pressed on to provide services as safely as possible. JWFC recently received renewed City of Cincinnati funding that brings a collaborative of partners, businesses, residents, and police officers together in order to brainstorm and facilitate activities that focus on preventing violence in LPH.


Jessica Polzin, Youth Development Program Director at Santa Maria, was proud of how JWFC was able to continue services during the pandemic, “Staff facilitated small group virtual meetings with youth, and initiated phone calls with individuals as a means of communication to support families. Emergency assistance was also provided over the phone to assist adults with unemployment, benefits, taxes, and more. Food resources, gift cards, toiletries, and other tangible items were still dropped off with families as needed. Group service projects turned into individual efforts as youth utilized service project supplies that were dropped off at their front door by staff members to bless their friends, family, and neighbors.”


Intentional support to youth and families has continued to be the forefront of services in Santa Maria’s Youth Development Program. There are still numerous uncertainties present as COVID-19 lingers on, but JWFC is beginning to develop small group face-to-face programming for youth in hopes to combat the feelings of isolation and depression during this trying season. Only time will tell what the future holds for everyone, but we are all in it together.