Below the Line: Santa Maria Community Services has spent more than a century helping its neighbors

'Everybody has something to contribute'

As part of WCPO's ongoing coverage of childhood poverty online and on air, we are profiling local organizations helping families out of poverty. This is the second in a series of stories about what is working. Click here to read the first story.

CINCINNATI — Keishea Ewing was nearly 30 when she decided she wanted a different life for herself and her kids.

Ewing grew up on welfare. She had dropped out of high school her freshman year and got her General Educational Development degree when she was 16. When she was 18, she took over raising two younger brothers.

"That's what introduced me to the welfare system, and it kind of made me dependent," she said. "When I started to have my own children, I received a lot of help."

Ewing spent years raising her brothers and children without any goals or aspirations for herself. She was 29 when she finally decided to go back to school so she could work her way off public assistance and give her children a different life, but she had no idea how difficult that would be.

Now, Ewing rents a place that she pays for with the help of a roommate, not a public subsidy. She's off of welfare. And she just got a promotion at her job and earns enough to have extra money each month to pay for her kids' extra-curricular activities.

But she and her children never could have gotten to this point, she said, without the help of Santa Maria Community Services, a nonprofit organization that has been serving Cincinnati's Price Hill communities for more than a century. In fact, Dec. 8 marks Santa Maria's 118th anniversary.

 

"I had been getting help from other places," Ewing said, choking back tears. "But not one single organization before Santa Maria took the time to customize my needs other than just throwing me a food box with rotten carrots or a cake with mold on the side."

Tailoring programs and services to the needs of low-income children and adults — and treating families with respect — have been at the heart of Santa Maria's philosophy for more than a century.

Ewing and her four kids are among the more than 3,000 people from infants through senior citizens who get help from Santa Maria's various programs each year.

Related: Childhood poverty keeps getting worse here

The Sisters of Charity started Santa Maria in 1897 as a settlement house for the city's Italian immigrants. In the 1940s, the organization shifted to serve Cincinnati's new immigrants from Appalachia. These days, descendants of those Appalachian immigrants and black residents of the Price Hill neighborhoods make up a large portion of Santa Maria's clients. Over the past two decades, a growing number of Hispanic and Latino residents have moved into the Price Hill communities, too. Santa Maria started serving them in 2001.

That willingness to shift with the community is part of what has made Santa Maria so successful at helping families lift themselves out of poverty, said Ross Meyer, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

"They have a real deep sense of trust with the neighborhood and a real pulse on the needs of the community and therefore respond in a pretty comprehensive way," Meyer said.

'Everybody Has Something to Contribute'

Santa Maria has programs to help clients with education, housing, emergency assistance and job training. It has some programs aimed at children living in poverty, but most work to help the entire family. And the organization measures and studies the results of those programs to make sure they are making a difference, he said.

The small nonprofit also has shown a penchant for innovation.

Just last year, Santa Maria and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center collaborated to create the Healthy Homes Block by Block program. The program trains — and pays — neighborhood moms to be "block captains" who go from door-to-door to meet their neighbors and ensure families with young children and pregnant women have the support they need.

The program won a $40,000 grant from the national Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is serving 158 families in the Price Hill neighborhoods.

The idea behind Healthy Homes was to reach children and families living in poverty who needed assistance but didn't seek it.

"A lot of programs struggle with how do you reach those who are hardest to reach, and just waiting for them to show up is not going to cut it," Meyer said. "The innovation there is really getting back to grassroots community organizing."

All Santa Maria's work is aimed at helping the families of Price Hill build upon their own strengths and the strengths of their community, said H.A. Musser, Santa Maria's president and CEO.

"It's a belief that we have that everybody has something to contribute," Musser said. "People come to us because they want to change. We will walk with them on that journey. But we're not interested in dragging people along to get them out of poverty."

The key is to "meet a client exactly where they are when they walk through the door," said Chellie McLellan, Santa Maria's Income Impact Director.

"Some stay on and work on," McClellan said. "Some walk out the door. And then next time they walk through the door, we don't hold that against them. We say, 'Maybe today's the day.'"

Ewing was someone who kept coming back to build upon the support that she and her children were getting from Santa Maria.

Weaning Herself Off the System

Ewing and her kids lived in subsidized housing at the edge of the Incline District at the time.

She had just ended a relationship that had lasted for nine and a half years, and her kids were struggling with their dad's absence. Ewing went to Santa Maria to see if the organization could help her find after-school activities for her four children. Amelia Wehr, a Stable Families specialist at Santa Maria, explained the organization could help with food and household supplies, too.

Keishea Ewing sets up her family Christmas tree with her children on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"I was just trying to get myself a master plan of how am I going to wean myself off of the system," Ewing said. "Amelia started to put a plan in action for me. I knew what I wanted to do. I just didn't know how to go about doing it."

Ewing was getting food stamps, but she was struggling to afford the basics for her children. Her budget covered food, utilities and rent, but she couldn't afford soap powder, toilet tissue or deodorant.

"It got to the point where I was really thinking of quitting my job to get (public assistance) because I felt like the job wasn't doing it for me," she said.

But Wehr was there for her. She gave Ewing household supplies when she needed them. She gave her a $25 Kroger gift card every so often.

"She was my go-to," Ewing said. "It was kind of my secret. You don't want to call your auntie and say, 'We don't have any food,' because your auntie is going to call your brother, and your brother is going to call your other aunt."

Wehr helped Ewing get counseling for her kids, who were still struggling with her breakup. And Ewing focused on working hard at her job and getting noticed, eventually earning a promotion to a full-time schedule and a raise.

"You have to remind people of the successes that they have had, and they can keep moving forward and to just keep pushing themselves," Wehr said. "That's really what Keishea has done."

Doing What They Must to Survive

Moms like Ewing aren't the only types of clients that Santa Maria serves.

Some teenagers come to the organization for help getting their GEDs after they have dropped out of school.

"Many of our youth don't have a birth certificate and ID card or a driver's license," McClellan said.

Santa Maria gives those clients a check for the $12 fee to go get ID cards right away. The organization helps them find copies of their birth certificates and tells them how to get their social security cards.

Staff must work quickly to get results for those young clients because so many other adults and institutions in their lives have let them down in the past.

Keishea Ewing with her children Kyrah, Keriana, Jeremiah and Keiron. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Santa Maria has worked to become more efficient by studying how long it takes to help clients and determining what help the organization is equipped to provide.

Through that process, Santa Maria's managers realized that the staff is best at helping families over the long term.

Using a Financial Opportunity Center model, Santa Maria strives to help clients: 

  • Earn the money they need by getting and keeping good jobs
  • Budget wisely to make those dollars cover their basic needs
  • Become more financially stable by saving and improving their credit

It is more difficult than it sounds.

McClellan told the story of one young woman who came to Santa Maria for help. She had been staying with her aunt, and a man who was staying there filled out a false tax return and told her to sign it as a way to pay rent. She ended up in trouble with the IRS and didn't know where to turn.

"It's not even predatory lending. It's predatory family members or community members who see a target," McLellan said.

Other young women who have just turned 18 find they can't get apartments of their own because family members have used their social security numbers to get utility services and then haven't paid the bills, she said. It's identity theft, committed in the name of keeping the heat on for the whole family.

"People do what they need to do to survive," McLellan said. "It's not necessarily that you're trying to ruin your child's life. You're just trying to get by. How do you make it work?"

Starting Over With Help

That was the question Anthony Brown was asking himself when he found Santa Maria about four years ago.

Brown was living in East Price Hill and raising his youngest child, a son, after the boy had been removed from his mother's custody.

He had lost his job and needed help updating his resume to get another one.

Santa Maria helped him do that and had computers he could use to look for a job. Brown worked with Wehr to develop a budget and get a better handle on how to find a good place to live with his son.

"I done came so far with them," said Brown, who is 57. "It's like starting all over all from bottom to top. They've been with me all the way."

With Santa Maria's help, Brown and his son have found stability. Brown is working a night-shift sanitation job, and a lady in the neighborhood has provided daycare for his son for the past three years.

His boy, who is now 7, is doing well in school.

"He's a blessing. He's a joy," Brown said. "And he's healthy and smart."

For the staff at Santa Maria, that's what it's all about — helping parents like Brown and Ewing create stable, happy homes for their children.

"We're working side-by-side with that parent or that person who is using our resources to work together," Wehr said. "Not just to give something, but to really help."

Just as Santa Maria Community Services has been doing for more than a century.

For more information about Santa Maria or to donate, click here or go to https://www.santamaria-cincy.org.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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