Santa Maria staffer knows what it's like to be the kind of kid she helps with Healthy Homes program

'What if there was a neighbor to help?'

CINCINNATI — Lisa Marie Watkins knows what a big difference a single interaction can make in the life of a child.

She sees it all the time in her work at Santa Maria Community Services.

Watkins oversees the Healthy Homes Block by Block program, where moms serve as "block captains" in several Price Hill communities. They go door-to-door to meet their neighbors and find out how they can help families in need.

Watkins knows from personal experience, too.

She was just 7 years old when her mom decided she couldn't handle raising her kids on her own.

Watkins and her younger brother and sister ended up in foster care. Her older sister, who had a different father, went to live with him. Watkins' younger siblings got adopted, but she never did. She moved from foster home to foster home until she left the system at age 18.

"My mom did the best she could for us," said Watkins, who is now 28. "But what if a block captain came and knocked on my mom's door, and that was the change that she needed to not put us in the system?"

That personal "what if" is what made Watkins certain she wanted to be involved in the Healthy Homes program.

And she has been, from almost the beginning.

Healthy Homes was the brainchild of Santa Maria's Chellie McLellan and Dr. Robert Kahn, associate chair for community health at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. In May 2014, McLellan, who is Santa Maria's Income Impact director, approached Watkins with the idea.

At the time, Watkins was working two different part-time jobs at Santa Maria. She also was a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University, getting her master of public administration degree. She has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati.

Watkins loved the idea, and it became her capstone project, the culminating final assignment, for her graduate degree at NKU. She even helped write a grant for the program. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded $40,000 to help pay for Healthy Homes a few months after Watkins finished her capstone class.

'She Doesn't Take No For An Answer'

She now supervises seven block captains who work with families who have kids 6 years old or younger or who have a pregnant woman as part of the household.

The block captains make sure the families have a connection to a pediatrician or doctor who can provide prenatal care. They also make sure homes have:

• A working smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, baby gates and other safety devices;

• Information on "ABC" safe sleeping, which recommends babies sleep alone, on their backs and in a crib, to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS;

• Reading activities and 15 more books so parents can prepare their young children for kindergarten.

The block captains earn an hourly wage, and Watkins researched other programs to help determine the best way to manage the group. She also helped create the monthly training sessions that block captains take to learn about home safety, health care visits, safe sleep and reading activities. The block captains then share what they learn with their neighbors.

So far, the program includes 158 households.

"It's addressing two big issues in our region — infant mortality and school readiness. And it's doing it in a way that's very grassroots," said Julie Olberding, director of NKU's Master of Public Administration Program. "I'm excited that other cities and communities are looking at it as a model. It could be that it grows beyond Price Hill and Cincinnati and in other cities across the country."

And the more it grows, the more families it can help.

For her part, McLellan said she knew Watkins was the right person to lead the program.

Santa Maria's Financial Opportunity Center

"She's dynamic and extremely persuasive on the phone," McLellan said. "She doesn't take no for an answer from clients and what they need to get done."

Watkins' success — and her drive to make Healthy Homes a success — is all the more impressive considering how difficult her own childhood was.

Watkins didn’t even own a car when she began working for Santa Maria, in fact.

McLellan helped connect her with local nonprofits that helped her improve her budgeting skills and get a car so she could manage the Healthy Homes program.

Having people such as McLellan involved in her life has helped Watkins overcome the challenges her childhood presented, she said.

"I have to say that people like Chellie who love me and who took their time to show me the ways of the world and how to handle it gave me what I need to be where I am today," Watkins said.

"When people show you love and they show you how the world works, it's all in God's plan," she said. "Everything's going to be alright."

'These Women Are Amazing'

Now, Watkins lives in the Price Hill neighborhoods that Healthy Homes serves, and she finds her inspiration in the block captains she trains.

"These women are amazing," she said. "They are natural born community captains. They are here to help serve."

The programs works hard to build trust and not be viewed as the eyes of the child welfare system, she said, although she stresses to block captains that they should listen to their guts if something doesn't seem right.

"There's been some hoarding situations where the house will be really, really dirty, but after some observation, they see the kids are taken care of," she said. "There's just a lot of stuff."

Most important, Watkins knows that her work and the Healthy Homes program are helping to keep families together who should be together.

Just the other day, she said, the Healthy Homes program delivered a pack and play to a mom in the hospital who didn't have a bed for her baby.

"Her caseworker was getting ready to say if you don't have a pack and play, I have to say the child should not stay with you," Watkins said.

The story made her think again about her own childhood and that big "what if."

"My mom, God love her, she did exactly what she felt was right, and that's what saved me," she said. "But I always felt, what if there was a neighbor to help."

Thanks to Healthy Homes and Watkins' work, hundreds of kids in Cincinnati's Price Hill neighborhoods will never have that "what if" to wonder about.

Lisa Marie Watkins, back row center, with some of the block captains in the Healthy Homes Block by Block program.

For more information about Santa Maria Community Services, click here.

For more information about NKU's Master of Public Administration Program, click here.

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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