CINCINNATI -- Being part of the fabric of a neighborhood means understanding its people and challenges.
“This isn’t Price Hill, it’s Lower Price Hill -- and that name connotes a lot more than elevation,” said Jim Holmstrom of Santa Maria Community Services’ Youth Development Program. “It’s a very insulated community with Appalachian roots, so if you want to tackle the challenges facing families here, you have to start by building trust.”
That’s a big part of Holmstrom’s job as director of the program, which moved in August to the new Joe Williams Family Center on State Avenue. After-school programming -- and even after-after-school programming -- includes everything from basketball and volleyball to arts and crafts, emotional counseling and academic tutoring.
Services aren’t just for kids and adolescents, however. The center also offers adult events such as bingo, regular outings and a weekly women’s group meeting. Block by Block is designed to raise awareness and support safe homes in an effort to lower the community’s infant mortality rate.
In November, the Youth Development Program received a $100,000 city grant that organizers will use to create a Lower Price Hill Collaborative for Violence Prevention. Specifically, funds will be used to hire staff, purchase supplies, expand programming and connect families with resources shown to relieve stress and support a healthier, safer environment.
“Through this grant and the collaborative, we can approach violence prevention from several angles,” said Holmstrom. “We can build protective factors in the community, and we will also be able to reduce risk factors by helping build socio-emotional life skills.”
The nonprofit Santa Maria has served the Price Hill community since 1897 and since 2007 has been a leader in Place Matters’ early childhood/youth development efforts.
Holmstrom came on board 39 years ago and has worked with hundreds of individuals -- often multiple generations within the same family.
“This is a poor neighborhood, and with that comes issues like incarceration, substance abuse and mental health issues,” Holmstrom said. “Those are the risk factors that contribute to violence, so those are the areas where we want to help families improve.”
The program received funding from the city of Cincinnati for several years under its violence-prevention category. But in late 2015, the funding model changed, making larger awards available for projects targeting violence prevention, job creation and homelessness.
Mayor John Cranley assembled a violence-prevention task force of roughly 30 experts, and Holmstrom was invited to join representing Lower Price Hill.
“I really wanted to be on the task force because I have a lot of years working on the streets down here, and I have some ideas about what causes violence,” Holmstrom said. “It turns out I was preaching to the choir. Everyone agrees there’s a need for this collaborative in Lower Price Hill, and they also understand that we’re not going to see results overnight.”
Police response has been particularly positive, he said. Every third week, the police department sends Community Officer Tony Johnson to interact with kids at the center -- which is located just yards from one of the city’s most crime-ridden intersections.
“The kids love Officer Johnson, and that’s saying a lot in this neighborhood where there’s not always a lot of goodwill toward police,” Holmstrom said. “Many of these kids have family members who are currently or have been incarcerated, but there is honest, real dialogue there, and it’s helping to improve those relationships.”
In addition to law enforcement and other community organizations like nearby Oyler School and the Children’s Hunger Alliance, Holmstrom relies on a team of youth workers and other administrators to deliver the program’s services to Lower Price Hill families.
Longtime staff member Nancy Laird expressed excitement for the possibilities increased funding could bring. In the two months since the grant was awarded, Laird has helped more than 75 adults with tasks such as securing food stamps, WIC benefits and medical care for newborns.
Youth worker Michelle Ricica moved to Cincinnati as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Starfire Council. She soon became inspired by Lower Price Hill’s tight-knit community and the Youth Development Program’s work helping students hone emotional skills. Now she considers the community’s residents family.
“My experience with our program and in the community goes far beyond the outcomes we write down on paper for funding,” Ricica said. “It's building relationships, hearing people's stories, gaining people's trust. Just recognizing we're all in this together. That part doesn't feel like work. And that's my favorite part.”