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NKU Capstone Project Leads to $40K Grant for Safe Homes in Price Hill

Like many students in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), Lisa Marie Watkins wanted to work on a Capstone project that would have a positive impact on people in the region. She decided to help develop an innovative program at Santa Maria Community Services, the nonprofit organization where she had recently started working, and co-author a grant application. A few months after Watkins finished the Capstone class, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – the largest public health foundation in the country – awarded a $40,000 grant to the program.

The Healthy Homes Block by Block Initiative is a neighborhood-based program designed to improve the health and safety of at-risk families living in the Price Hill neighborhoods of Cincinnati, the geographic area that Santa Maria serves. The Healthy Homes program recruits and trains block captains who identify families that have children under 6 years old and/or a pregnancy. Then the block captains distribute information and materials to assist families in successful child and family development including:

  • a connection to a family pediatrician or prenatal care provider;
  • a working smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, baby gates and other safety items;
  • information on “ABC” safe sleep options (Alone, on their Backs and in a Crib) to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS);
  • reading activities and 15 additional books to prepare their child for early childhood education and kindergarten readiness.

Santa Maria is working collaboratively on Healthy Homes with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and various social service agencies and faith-based organizations in the Price Hill neighborhoods. Santa Maria’s mission is to be “a catalyst and advocate for Greater Price Hill families to attain their educational, financial, and health goals.” Other programs at Santa Maria focus on workforce development, youth development, early childhood development, international support groups, and literacy classes.

Nonprofit organizations in other parts of the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region have expressed interest in the Healthy Homes program. The Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington, for example, is exploring the possibility of adopting a similar program for areas with at-risk families.

Dr. Julie Olberding, director of NKU’s MPA program, said most students work on Capstone projects that have potential impacts on government and nonprofit organizations and on the people they serve. “Lisa’s work is having almost immediate and real effects in Price Hill. She helped secure $40,000 in funding and is now managing the delivery of safety items and health information to more than 150 families, which means hundreds of individual people,” she said.

“The Healthy Homes program has also inspired groups in other neighborhoods to try something similar, which may result in improved health and safety for hundreds or even thousands of babies, small children and parents in this region,” Olberding added. “We are very proud of Lisa’s Capstone project and how far she has taken it.”

A critical piece of Healthy Homes is the management of block captains who are hourly employees and more traditional volunteers. For her Capstone project, Watkins conducted a literature review of best practices related to volunteer recruitment and retention in neighborhood-based programs, including community health worker programs in Seattle and Uganda.

In addition, she helped develop the curriculum for monthly trainings of block captains on the importance of home safety, health care check-ins, safe sleep options, and reading activities. In turn, the block captains take these trainings out to the families in their neighborhood.

Watkins also co-authored the grant application submitted to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund the Healthy Homes coordinator position and other program costs. Because of her commitment to this program, it made sense that she was a strong candidate for the full-time coordinator position when it was funded. Now as program coordinator, Watkins supervises seven block captains who work with 158 families in the Price Hill area.

Chellie McLellan, Income Impact Director at Santa Maria Community Services, said Watkins was instrumental in helping Santa Maria acquire the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and getting Healthy Homes off the ground. “She has a gift for being able to connect with anyone she comes in contact with,” said McLellan. “She is an asset to our community and our organization.”

Watkins said NKU’s MPA program taught her what it takes to start a new program and ensure its success. “I learned how to promote programs, the basics in managing employees and volunteers and the importance of developing a mission and vision for the work,” she said.

For more information on Santa Maria Community Services, visit For more information on NKU’s MPA program, visit

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