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Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

June 4, 2011 12 comments

My blog features a number of stories that deal with good works by faith-based organizations, and this is another one. Northeast Omaha’s largely African-American community suffers disproportionately in terms of poverty, low educational achievement, underemployment and unemployment, health problems, crime, et cetera. These challenges and disparities by no means characterize the entire community there, but the distress affects many and is persistent across generations in many households. All manner of social services operate in that community trying to address the issues, and the subject of the following story, Hope Center for Kids, is among those.  I filed the story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) and I came away impressed that the people behind this effort are genuinely knowledgable about the needs there and are committed to doing what they can to reach out to youth in the neighborhoods surrounding the center.

 

 

 

 

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

Northeast Omaha’s largely poor, African-American community is a mosaic where despair coexists with hope. A stretch of North 20th Street is an example. Rows of nice, newly built homes line both sides of the one-way road — from Binney to Grace Streets. Working class families with upwardly mobile aspirations live there.

Yet, vacant lots and homes in disrepair are within view. God-fearing working stiffs may live next door to gang bangers. To be sure, the good citizens far outnumber the thugs but a few bad apples can spoil things for the rest.

Endemic inner city problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, gun violence, unemployment, school dropouts and broken homes put a drag on the district. Church, school and social service institutions do what they can to stabilize an unstable area. Meanwhile, the booming downtown cityscape to the south offers a vista of larger, brighter possibilities.

One anchor addressing the needs is the faith-based nonprofit Hope Center for Kids. Housed in the former Gene Eppley Boys Club at 2209 Binney, the center just celebrated its 10th anniversary. An $800,000 renovation replaced the roof and filled in the pool to create more programming space. Four years ago the organization opened Hope Skate, an attached multi-use roller rink/gymnasium that gives a community short on recreational amenities a fun, safe haven.

In the last year Hope’s received grants from the Kellogg Foundation, the Millard Foundation and Mutual of Omaha to expand its life skills and educational support services. Additional staff and more structured programs have “taken us to a whole new level,” said founder/executive director Rev. Ty Schenzel.

Clearly, the 50,000 square foot, $1.2 million-budgeted center is there for the long haul. Hope serves 400 members, ages 7 to 19. Most come from single parent homes. Eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced price lunch at school. Hope collaborates with such community partners as nearby Conestoga Magnet Center and Jesuit Middle Schools, whose ranks include Hope members. University of Nebraska at Omaha students are engaged in a service learning project to build an employability curriculum. Creighton med students conduct health screenings. Volunteers tutor and mentor. Bible studies and worship services are available.

Some Hope members work paid part-time jobs at the center. Members who keep up their grades earn points they can spend at an on-site store.

Per its name, Hope tries raising expectations amid limited horizons. It all began a decade ago when two Omaha businessmen bought the abandoned boys club and handed it over to Schenzel, a white Fremont, Neb. native and suburbanite called to do urban ministry. He was then-youth pastor at Trinity Interdenominational Church., a major supporter of Hope.

Ty Schenzel

 

 

 

He first came down to The Hood doing outreach for Trinity in the mid-’90s. He and volunteers held vacation bible studies and other activities for children at an infamous apartment complex, Strehlow, nicknamed New Jack City for all its crime. He met gang members. One by the street name of Rock asked what would happen to the kids once the do-gooders left. That convinced Pastor Ty, as Schenzel’s called, to have a permanent presence there. In a sea of hopelessness he and his workers try to stem the tide.

“What we believe is at the root of the shootings, the gang activity, the 15-year-old moms, the generation after generation economic and educational despair is hopelessness,” he said. “If you don’t think anything is going to change and you don’t care about the consequences then you lose all motivation. You have nothing to lose because you’ve lost everything.

“Our vision is we want to bring tangible hope with the belief that when the kids experience hope they’ll be motivated to make right choices. They’ll start to believe.”

Schenzel said what “differentiates Hope is that the at-risk kids that come to us probably wouldn’t fit in other programs. The faith component makes us different. The economic development-jobs creation aspect. The roller rink.”

He said former Hope member Jimmie Ventry is a measure of the challenge kids present. Older brother Robert Ventry went on a drug-filled rampage that ended in him being shot and killed. Jimmie, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law, had a run in with cops and ended up doing jail time. Schenzel said, “One day I asked Jimmie, ‘How do I reach you? What do I do to break through?’ And the spirit of what Jimmie said was, Don’t give up on me. Don’t stop trying.” Hope hasn’t.

Schenzel said results take time. “I tell people we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, which I think is what Jimmie was saying. We’re now in our 10th year and in many ways it feels like we’re still starting.” Hope Youth Development Director Pastor Edward King said kids can only be pointed in the right direction. Where they go is their own decision.

“It’s one thing when they come here and we’re throwing them the love and it’s another thing when they go back to their environment and the drug dealers are telling them not to go to work,” he said. “We’re here telling them: You do have options; you can make honest money without the guilt and having to look over your shoulder; you don’t have to go to prison, you can graduate from school — you can go to college.

“We provide hope but the battle is theirs really. When you don’t believe you can, when everything around you is hopelessness, it takes a strong person to want to make the right choices.”

 

 

 

 

Chris Morris was given up as a lost cause by the public schools system. Hope rallied behind him. It meant long hours of counseling, prodding, praying. The efforts paid off when he graduated high school.

“The Hope Center helped me in a positive way. Just having them around gave me hope,” said Morris.

King said several kids who’ve thought of dropping out or been tagged as failures have gone on to get their diploma with the help of Hope’s intervention.

“It took a lot of hard work for people to stay on them and to push them through,” said King. “We’re so proud of them.”

The kids that make it invariably invite Hope teachers and administrators to attend their graduation. That’s affirmation enough for King. “It’s the thing that keeps me coming back,” he said. “When I hear a guy talk about how coming here keeps him out of trouble or makes him feel safe or that he enjoys hanging out with my family at our house, that lets me know we’re doing the right thing.”

For many kids the first time they see a traditional nuclear family is at a Hope staffer’s home. It’s a revelation. Staff become like Big Brothers-Big Sisters or surrogate parents. They go out of their way to provide support.

“Our staff go to kids’ games, they connect with them on the weekend, they’re involved in the lives of the kids. Pastor King’s house should probably be reclassified a dormitory,” Schenzel said.
King comes from the very hard streets he ministers to now. Like many of these kids he grew up fatherless. He relates to the anger and chaos they feel.

“It breaks my heart to see the killings going on. I couldn’t sit back on the sidelines and not do anything. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be here. I know what it’s like to have resentment for not having a dad around. A lot of the young men don’t have a positive male role model at home to be there for them, to discipline them.”

Hope educators work a lot on discipline with kids. Positive behavior is emphasized –from accepting criticism to following instructions. Hope slogans are printed on banners and posters throughout the center.

 

 

 

 

There, kids can channel their energies in art, education, recreation activities that, at least temporarily, remove them from bad influences. A Kids Cafe serves hot meals. King supervises Hope’s sports programs. “If we can get them involved in our rec leagues, then it’s less time they can be doing the negative things,” he said. “There’s nothing like the discipline of sports to keep a guy in line. We get a chance to teach life skills to the guys. “

Ken and Rachelle Johnson coordinate Hope’s early ed programs. An expression of the couple’s commitment is the home they bought and live in across the street.

“For me personally it’s not a job, it’s a ministry it’s a lifestyle, it’s our life.” Rachelle said. “We love being around the kids in the neighborhood. The kids deal with a lot of abandonment-neglect issues. They all have their own story. We wanted to say, Here, we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere, because it takes a long time to build relationships.”

Relationship building is key for Hope. Staff work with families and schools to try and keep kids on track academically. Programs help kids identify their strengths and dreams. To encourage big dreams teens meeting certain goals go on college tours.

“Increasingly we want to create this culture of connecting our kids to higher education,” Schenzel said.

Optional worship services are offered but all members get exposed to faith lessons through interactions with staff, who model and communicate scripture.

“Here’s our mantra,” Schenzel said: “You can only educate and recreate so long but unless there’s a heart change through a relationship with the Lord it’s putting a Band Aid on wet skin.”

Hope strives to have about 100 kids in the building at any given time. “Much more than that feels a little bit like a daycare. We don’t want to be a daycare. We want to do some transformation,” he said.

Schenzel sees “little buds of tangible hope going on” in what he terms Omaha’s Ninth Ward. He and residents wonder why “there’s seemingly an unholy bubble over north Omaha” preventing it from “getting in on the growth” happening downtown and midtown.” Those frustrations don’t stop him from dreaming.

“We would love to do mini-Hope satellites in the community, maybe in collaboration with churches, as well as Hope Centers in other cities. We envision an internship program for college students who want something to give their hearts to. We could then exponentially impact more kids. We want to create cottage industries that generate jobs and revenue streams. Some day we want to do Hope High School.”

Keep hope alive, Pastor Ty, keep hope alive.

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

June 4, 2011 5 comments

Dick Holland is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha philanthropist has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

 

Holland Performing Arts Center

 

 

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

 

 

Dick Holland

 

 

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ‘em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes, but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be.

“I guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

 

 

Dick Holland with his late wife, Mary

 

 

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

 

 

 

 

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha’s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

June 4, 2011 4 comments

Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make.

 

 

The new, redesigned Child Saving Institute

 

 

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.

The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.

The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.

Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.

The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.

 

 

The drab, old Child Saving Institute

 

 

There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.

Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.

“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”

Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.

Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.

He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.

“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.

 

 

Mary and Dick Holland

 

 

The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.

CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.

The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.

“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”

She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.

“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”

“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”

The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.

“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.

Such links can pay big dividends.

“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”

CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.

“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”

One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.

“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.

“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.

When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.

“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.

“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”

The playground became his sweet challenge.

“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.

 

 

 

 

He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.

Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.

That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.

She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”

For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”

Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.

“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”

It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.

“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”

Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.

“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”

The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.

“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”

For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.

Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”

Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.

Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

He said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”


Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

June 4, 2011 8 comments

It’s fun to do stories that try to place an establishment, in this case a cafe, with a neighborhood, in this case a near downtown urban swath on the edge of of rebirth and oblivion. The Perk Avenue Cafe in Omaha opened as a humanitarian mission and community building experiment for activist owners John and Jennifer Cleveland and it was my pleasure to try and convey that within the context of the couple’s own personal experiences and beliefs as born-again Christians. They minister to the neighborhood through the food and coffee they serve, the cozy gathering spot they create, and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who comes in.  The story appeared in the Omaha City Weekly, a newspaper that is no more.  To be honest, I’m not sure the cafe is still open.

 

 

Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha City Weekly

Perk Avenue Cafe fits the road-less-traveled crowd coursing Park Avenue, an off-the-beaten-track artery linking immigrant south Omaha with transitional midtown with mainstream downtown. From its modest 1107 Park Avenue digs in a mixed use district ranging from stately old homes to shoddy rentals and open air drug-sex deals to revitalization efforts, the cafe’s that rare spot where urban families, adventurers and fringe dwellers all feel welcome. Beyond its free-trade coffee, made-from-scratch pies and home-style breakfast-lunch menu, Perk’s real mission is as a community center — an extension of proprietors John and Jennifer Cleveland’s well-practiced beliefs.

Neighborhood activists residing in the area, the married couple opened Perk Avenue in the fall of 2003. The brick building was home to a vending business before sitting vacant. The property, like other nearby lots, was plagued by addicts and prostitutes. Veterans of missionary work abroad and social service work in Omaha, the couple bought the site and then surveyed neighbors about what should be done with it. When the consensus said it should be made-over into a community gathering spot, the husband and wife team renovated it for that purpose.

By day, Perk Avenue is the prototypical laidback coffeehouse/diner whose counter-hugging patrons warm up over coffee and conversation. The Clevelands, a mellow combo whether dishing out their low-priced food or their well-articulated social advocacy, are a main attraction along with their four chatty children. “Our children are a big part of this,” Jennifer said.

 

 

 

 

Tim Siragusa, an actor and waiter who walks to Perk Avenue for his “pre-yoga double-shot of espresso” said, “I’ve just been charmed by the owners. John and Jennifer brought a nice communal space into this part of town that wasn’t here before. And I think one of the things that keeps neighborhoods vital is a coffee shop. A place where everybody can come in the morning and get their coffee and chat over the paper. And their delightful children have no problem speaking with the customers.” Or joining in with artists who variously perform music and give readings there. For an Omaha Public Library Program, Siragusa read Farenhite 451 at the Perk.

With time, the couple’s vision for Perk Avenue has broadened. For example, on some nights the Clevelands, in concert with Mosaic Community Development, hold Spanish and English classes as “a bridge builder” to bring together the neighborhood’s disparate peoples.

On Friday nights, the joint jumps to live music by folk musicians or grunge bands. Other nights, it becomes a venue for parties and receptions. The commercial kitchen is an incubator for food entrepreneurs like Bob and Mary Brown, who use the premises to sling up half the cafe’s menu in addition to their own catering business dishes. Whether hosting meetings of the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association, which John Cleveland has headed, or reaching out to street denizens, the couple use the Perk Avenue as a base for their “holistic approach” in addressing the social, economic, political and spiritual concerns of an area Cleveland said is “on the edge — it could go either way.”

Being change agents is an intensely personal thing for the couple, born-again Christians whose own lives bear witness to the transforming power of faith and love. The product of a broken home, John was “a self-styled Satanist” and “chief sinner” waging a one-man war against God before his conversion in 1986 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Omaha. He describes being taken into the fold as an “adoption,” adding, “It was a family, it was a place of purpose and belonging.”

“I hated God, and that He could somehow reach into my heart and make that kind of life change in me,” said Cleveland, “it made me believe there was nobody on this planet beyond His reach or His help. I felt a real deep conviction and compulsion, and a real called mission, to do something.”

He met Jennifer there. After attending bible college together they made an early 1990s Christ in the City International missionary tour — first, to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then to Medellin, Colombia to work. Arriving in drug warlord Pablo Escobar’s last year in power, the couple started their family in the poor, violent land, where John ran a program training Colombian youth to help orphans, drug addicts and AIDS victims. It was a fulfilling but trying experience.

“It was hard on our family. There were bombings and kidnappings. Like a war zone. My second day there, a 10-year old prostitute approached me. She didn’t want my help. Nothing they taught in bible school prepared me for that. It was like hell on earth for some. We were in constant danger. It was terrifying at times,” he said.

John recalled one hairy confrontation with armed guerrillas. “We were coming back from the coast with a team of Colombians. We had a ton of people in the Toyota car I was driving. We pulled into this military checkpoint and we knew something was wrong because there was nobody there. It was a ghost town. So, we kept going and at the crest of the next hill we were stopped by two guerrillas. Apparently they’d come down out of the hills and done an operation and were now retreating. This one came up to my window and started asking questions. What had we seen? Where were we going? Who were we with? Where were we from? His questions started getting more specific to my being an American.”

This was in a time and place, Cleveland said, when if it was assumed “you had any value, they would kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Well, we’re at that point when, all of a sudden, the guy can’t talk. He’s choking on his words. The other guy is freaking out because it’s taking too long. They’re exposed. And the guy who can’t talk finally gets so mad he just waves us off, like, Get out of here. So, we tear off and everybody in the car is like, Oh, my God, it’s a miracle. On the other hand, I’m hyperventilating, going, I just about died — God, what were you thinking?”

Of their time in Colombia, he said, “We were so young. Freshly married. A new family. There were a lot of things we should have done differently, but that’s OK. We made it through and learned a lot from it.” Once back in Omaha, John tried working in the for-profit arena, but was “miserable.” He said, “I love people and I felt we could apply some of the principles of community development we learned in a foreign land to what we do here locally.” He joined the local office of Christ for the City, heading a program for Lutheran Family Services called Strong Urban Neighborhoods. He now works at Turning Point, a youth-centered organization.

The Clevelands were drawn to the area bounded by Park Avenue, the Ford Birthsite and Field Club for “its cultural diversity.” Immigrants from Latin America and Africa settle there for its affordable housing.

 

 

 

 

Plus, John said, “We wanted to use our Spanish. We felt a real affection for the Hispanic community. And we wanted to live in a community we felt we could contribute to, and this neighborhood was perfect. My big emphasis in ministry has always been community development. Getting community ownership, finding community solutions to problems and sustainable solutions locally.” And “breaking down barriers,” like in the language classes offered at Perk Avenue that help diffuse differences. Participants range from immigrants trying to master English to city inspectors and landlords needing to communicate with Spanish-speaking business owners and tenants to teachers from nearby Liberty Elementary School, where three of the couple’s kids attend, looking to breach the divide with newcomer pupils. In the process, he said, “perceptions  change and dialogues start, and I don’t know where else that would happen.”

With so much diversity intersecting the area, Cleveland wants Perk Avenue viewed as a safe haven for everyone, even the late night street walkers he shoos away but also assists when they appear battered or cold or disoriented. “We want a place where people from Field Club can rub shoulders with people from down here and where everybody thinks it’s theirs. We’ve tried to make this a melting pot.”

On a recent morning, customers included a middle-aged contractor, a thirtysomething Hispanic laborer, a senior couple, actor Tim Siragusa and young artist Leslie Iwai, who discussed bible passages with companion Jonathan Starkey. Iwai welcomes what the Clevelands are doing. “I think it’s a light in a dark place. It brings order to a location that’s had a lot of oppression. It’s establishing something here — like grass growing through a crack in the sidewalk. We didn’t need another bar.” Starkey agreed, adding, “It’s good to see a healthy establishment.”

Cleveland said the neighborhood seems to be turning the corner. He’s helped lead efforts to combat dealers, addicts, pimps and hookers. “It’s frustrating, because you want to extend help and you want to see life change, but in the meantime I’ll settle for relocation. There’s a sense of righteous indignation of — you know what? — this has got to stop. There’s enough people in this neighborhood who are to that point that it’s starting to make a difference.” He’s also encouraged by a new development that’s renovating a former illicit drug-sex den into Boston row houses.

The couple hope Perk remains a community resource long after they’re gone. “It’s not ours. It’s not about us. It’s about the destiny of this neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time, I believe, before people start owning it. There’s great potential here,” Jennifer said.

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