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Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

December 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Native Nebraskans’ own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.

 

 

 

Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.

Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.

Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.

A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.

“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”

Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.

 

 

 

 

She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.

“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.

Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.

“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.

“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”

 

 

 

 

Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.

“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.

Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.

“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”

She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”

She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.

“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”

Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.

Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one  the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.

“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”

Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.

University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”

Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.

“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.

Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.

“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.

“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”

She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera  She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”

Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.

Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.

“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”

 

The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.

“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”

Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.

It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.

Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.

 

 

 

 

After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,

“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”

Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.

Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.

After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.

“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”

Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.

“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”

Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.

Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”

In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.

 

 

 

Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”

She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.

“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.

“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”

Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.

“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”

 

 

 

 

Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.

“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”

About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”

Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.

“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide  now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=vanessa+ward

Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=color+blind+love

 

 

Josh Dotzler

 

 

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.

Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.

He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”

“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”

He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”

 

 

 

Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”

Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.

“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”

Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”

Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.

This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
Better Together

 

 

“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”

That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”

He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.

Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.

“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”

He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”

Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.

 

SpringCleanup

 

“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.

“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”

Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a  two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.

“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.

“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”

Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.

Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that

 

Basketball group

 

Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”

Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”

Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Andrew and Tete

 

Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.

“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”

Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.

Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.

“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”

 

 

 

 

Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.

“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.

“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”

Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.

“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”

But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.

“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.

It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”

Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.

“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”

 

 

 

 

He says a good day on the job can mean many things.

“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”

Making progress in any area satisfies him.

“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.

“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.

“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth.  God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”

Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.

“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”

Visit http://www.abideomaha.org.

Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

October 24, 2014 1 comment

The set-up for the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert sounds like the kind of heartache country music sagas that Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette made famous with its single working mom protagonist living, as the title goes, paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet.  But Gilbert ‘s situation mirrors that of millions of American women facing real struggles.  This story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) riffs off the documentary, whose Oct. 28 Omaha Film Streams screening will be followed by a panel discussion, to look at what some local single mothers contend with in getting by.

 

 

 

Katrina Gilbert

 

 

Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

In the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” a woman declares her personal autonomy. Not needing to find validation in another is a liberating thing worth celebrating in song.

Life imitates art whenever a poor single mother breaks free of the shackles of fear, self-doubt and shame that hold her back, say women who’ve been there and now help others out of that trap.

Ericka Guinan was a single mom trapped in a cycle of despair before finding the courage to seek guidance from women who’d been in her shoes. Today, she’s the self-sufficiency programs facilitator at Heart Ministry Center, 2222 Binney St., where she helps women like Aja Alfaro, a young single mom of two, find the confidence to move toward their dreams.

Since graduating from the center’s Pathway program Aja’s turned her life around. She works as a SNAP outreach specialist at Heart Ministry, assisting women apply for food stamps she needs herself. Guinan’s been there, too. Each woman’s gone through the wringer of bad relationships, no work, low pay, food and housing insecurity, unpaid bills, creditors and feeling like there’s no getting out from under.

The stress facing many single moms is the subject of the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck showing at Film Streams Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. The film, executive produced by Maria Shriver, follows a year in the life of Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga, Tenn. certified nursing assistant and mother of three. Gilbert’s trouble making ends meet and finding financial stability are emblematic of many women.

The free screening is a collaboration between Film Streams, the public advocacy group Coalition for a Strong Nebraska and Women’s Fund of Omaha, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of local women.

Guinan will be part of a post-show panel discussing issues raised in the film. Joining her will be Women’s Fund executive director Michelle Zych, Coalition director Tiffany Seibert Joekel and Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook. Alfaro will be there, too.

Joekel says barriers to single parents, especially women, include difficulties affording high-quality child care, unfriendly workplace policies, inability to access high-quality, affordable health care and limited educational opportunities.

Zych says Women’s Fund studies find stark economic disparities among Omaha women, particularly single mothers of color.

“Katrina Gilbert’s story is just one example of how women often live paycheck to paycheck. We expect the audience to learn more about poverty in Omaha and what efforts are being made community and statewide to ease this burden for families,” Zych says.

“It’s not easy living paycheck to paycheck,” says Alfaro, who knows from first-hand experience. “It’s hard, it’s a struggle.”

Alfaro’s made progress toward independence.

“It’s still hard but I’m getting there. Things started changing a lot just this year, when I finally got my own place for the very first time at the end of January.”

Alfaro’s steady income though sometimes makes her ineligible for certain benefits even though her earnings are barely above poverty level and she hasn’t reached self-sufficiency. It’s called the Cliff Effect and it plays havoc with the working poor. Tanya Cook introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would help some working parents continue qualifying for child care subsidies well beyond current limits.

Despite roadblocks to aid, Alfaro’s hopeful for the first time about the future. She plans resuming nursing studies.

“There is hope if people can get connected to the right resources. Once people have hope they can do things they never thought they could,” says Julie Kalkowski, co-director of the Financial Success Program through Creighton University’s Financial Hope Collaborative. The program works with single mothers for a year to undo old habits.. “We ask our clients to do small, actionable steps – little changes that add up to real money. Once people start to feel like they are moving forward they are willing to do things they have been too intimidated or overwhelmed to do, like calling creditors. We also offer debt consolidation loans.”

Guinan agrees hope is essential before women buy into changing their lives. At Heart Ministry she says “we let each women define her own pathway to success,” adding, “We ask what are your dreams, where do you want your life to be and then we try to figure out what we can do to help her get on the path to that. We have a therapist that meets with them once a week. We have a lot of resources and relationships within the community they can access. “

She says setting boundaries, getting an education, budgeting, building healthy relationships and having a positive support network is key.

It’s all about removing obstacles and Guinan says “a lot of the obstacles are in our head because we have a big fear of doing something new or of failure or of success. We a lot of times don’t believe in ourselves.”

She says overcoming negative self-talk and taking responsibility for one’s life is necessary for success. Guinan lived it all out herself – the self-pity, the denial, the hitting bottom before asking for help.

“I was lucky enough to meet several strong, healthy women just far enough ahead of me to relate to my struggles yet offer solid solutions and advice. I think I trusted them because they were sharing their own person struggles with me. I related and saw myself in their stories yet they obviously had overcome so much.”

Aja Alfaro’s found a similar sisterhood at Heart Ministry. Its self-sufficiency programs help women navigate out of tough situations by matching them with mentors, enrolling them in classes that address financial planning, parenting and life skills and plugging them into school or training programs.

Women who’ve gotten their lives together like Guinan share their own stories – struggles, successes and all – with young women like Aja, who says Guinan and a mentor, Nancy, have taken her under their wing. “I needed to learn how to get on my own two feet to take care of my family and they’ve helped me to come pretty far. They helped me start college and get this job. I think the biggest thing was learning how to care about myself. I’m more focused now on me and my kids.”

Empowerment helps but working a low wage job won’t cut it. It’s why Cook supports a minimum wage hike and advocates women explore training programs for well-paying nontraditional jobs in high demand like welding and traditional career-track jobs in health care fields.

“A disproportionate number of women work at a wage level that could not support a family without public assistance. Nebraska’s behind the power curve in terms of offering a fair, living wage or the kinds of opportunities that allow families to work themselves out of poverty.”

Cook says financial literacy “is very important” for women who don’t know how to manage money. “The way many families are compelled to live whatever money comes in goes right out to some emergent or past-due need, so they don’t learn to save.”

Ericka Guinan calls for more services: “I believe we need more job training, quality childcare, affordable and safe housing options, mental health and mentoring for single mothers.” She says women’s voices must not be lost in the process. “In the Pathway Program we strongly believe each woman has valuable experience and feedback to offer.” She says lawmakers need to hear from more mothers about the tough choices they must often make, such as buying food versus meds.

Creighton’s Kalkowski says, “One of the things that has always amazed me is how brave so many working parents are to keep getting up every morning even though their situation is bleak. Most of us have no idea how desperate so many families are.”

Guinan says no matter how hard it gets, single moms have a knack for making do. “We’re survivors.”

For advance tickets, email molly@filmstreams.org. For more on the doc, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

September 29, 2014 1 comment

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

 

 

 
Two of a Kind

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.

Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.

He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.

She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.

Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.

Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.

He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.

Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.

For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.

 

 

Vic Gutman

Idealist, Go-getter

Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.

“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.

He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.

“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,

At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.

“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”

He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.

“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”

Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.

“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”

The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”

Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.

He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.

In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.

“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”

Visionary, Dreamer
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.

“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. “

Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.

“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”

She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.

In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.

 

 

 Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes

 

 

“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”

Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.

The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.

“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”

“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.

Serving Youth
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.

“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”

He despaired at what he found in that arena.

“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.

“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”

He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.

“Some of their stories broke my heart.”

The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.

“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”

Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.

“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”

All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.

He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.

“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”

This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .

“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”

At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.

After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.

“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”

She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.

“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”

She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.

Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”

Transformation
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”

Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”

The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”

Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.

“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.

Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.

Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.

“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”

The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.

Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.

“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”

“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.

Colleagues
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.

“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”

She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.

“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”

Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.

“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”

“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.

Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.

“We were ragtag,” she says.

“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”

“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.

As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”

“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.

When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.

“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.

By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”

Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.

“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”

The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.

Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”

Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.

“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”

He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.

Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.

Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.

“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.

“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”

When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”

Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.

“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”

She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.

“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.

“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”

When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.

Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

 

 

 

Dreams
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”

Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.

Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”

“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”

Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”

Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.

“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”

Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.

Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.

“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.

“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”

The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?

“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”

 

 

JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project the Metro’s Next Big Thing

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal.  We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas.  In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level.  As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.

JOURNEYS: African Safari

 

JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing

 

Who ARE these people? Susan Baer-Collins and Carl Beck retire

 

 

 

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.

The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.

The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.

The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.

“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”

Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.

 

OUT ON SAFARI

A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.

Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.

“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.

The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”

Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”

 

BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER

As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.

Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.

“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.

 

EVOLVING EXPANSION

Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.

It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.

“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.

“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”

 

EVOLVING EXPERIENCE

Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”

“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”

Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.

“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”

He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”

 

EVOLVING AWARENESS

Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.

“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.

“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”

Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”

“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a  lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”

Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”

Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”

The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.

“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”

Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”

A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.

Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”

Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.

 

SHARED TRUST

Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.

“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”

Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.

“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”

Being a well-run venue helps.

“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”

No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”

“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”

Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.

“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”

~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO

Cover Photo

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs


After my Aisha Okudi story last week I promised another story of inspiration and transformation and here it is, my new Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story profiling Schaiisha Walker, a young woman whose journey finding normal after foster care led her to a Nebraska program called Project Everlast.  It provides young people leaving or having already left foster care with much needed support.  Schalisha had found herself on her own at 17, sometimes homeless, dropping out of school to support herself, working as many as four jobs at one point, going from couch to couch until she got a place of her own.  It’s only by the grace of God she survived that experience.  She’s now employed as a Project Everlast youth advisor.  I came to do this story about her because I attended a performance by actor-spoken word artist Damiel Beaty last winter at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and before he came on Schalisha appeared on stage to introduce him.  Her heart-felt words as well as her poise and grace struck me to the core.  She shared how deeply Beaty’s work, much of it drawn from his own harsh childhood, resonated with her, especially his message that one can rise above and overcome anything.  She’s a model for that herself.  You go, girl.

 

 

 

 

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs

Project Everlast provides support for young people as they age-out of the system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty.

Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to not only introduce Beaty but to deliver a personal message about the hundreds of foster care youth who age or drop out of the system each year in Nebraska. These young people, she noted, can find themselves adrift without a helping hand. She knows because she was one of them, Walker was at the Holland representing Project Everlast, a statewide, youth-led initiative that assists current and former foster care youth to smooth their transition into adulthood.

This former ward of the state has successfully transitioned from life on the edge to the picture of achievement. Her story of perseverance is not unlike Beaty’s own saga. In his work he often refers to the crazy things his drug addict, in-and-out-of-prison father exposed him to. The performing arts saved Beaty by giving him a vehicle for his angst and a platform for expressing his credo that one can rise above anything.

Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.

She says, “My mother was extremely young (15) when she had me and she was unable to care for me properly. I was about 2 when I went in the (foster care) system and I was 4 when I was adopted.”

Separated from her six siblings, things happened within her adoptive family that prompted her to leave and go off on her own at 17. She finally found a safe haven at Everlast, where she got the support she never had before. She served on the youth council that helps formulate the organization’s programs and policies and she shared her story with the public in speaking appearances.

She now works as a youth advisor with Everlast, a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation program. Introducing Beaty wasn’t the first time she’s been the face and voice of Everlast and the foster care community. She appeared in a documentary about the project and she’s been featured on its website.

“This is truly an organization with people committed to the work,” she says. “Our job doesn’t stop when we leave the office. It’s like a family, I really mean that.”

This fall she’s starting school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she hopes to earn a social work degree.

“I’ve always wanted to help children in need. It’s really natural for me. I was fortunate to get a job here (Everlast). I love what I do and I do it with my heart.”

That night at the Holland she stood tall, black and beautiful invoking Beaty’s poetic testimony to share her own overcoming journey and the role she plays today as a mentor for otherwise forgotten young people.

Reading from Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” she exhorted, “‘We are our fathers’ sons and daughters but we are not their choices. For despite their absences we are still here, still alive, still breathing with the power to change this world one little boy and girl at a time.’ The words struck me to the core. They convey the passion I have for using my experience to help young people with a foster care background struggling and feeling alone as I did…

“For many years I let my past keep me from my future but now I use my past to help others. Let me be the voice for those that have not found theirs yet.”

Having walked in the shoes of the young people she engages, she understands the challenges they face and the needs they express. It’s almost like looking in the mirror and seeing herself five-six years ago.

“It’s a powerful identification. Struggling with unhealthy relationships, a feeling of being alone or having no one to turn to or looking for a job and not knowing what’s the best decision to make – I see that on a regular basis. I see myself in a lot of these young girls, especially when it comes to the unhealthy relationships. I see so many young people who just want to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is they get in the wrong crowd. Looking back, I was in some very scary situations.

“I’m glad I’m at a point now where I can offer advice from having been there and making the wrong decisions and now making better decisions. Now I can use my life experiences to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me, I don’t want this to happen to you, I want to help you.’ I feel I’m like an older sister or a mother to them.”

 

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

 

 

 

Just as she’s a mother to the kids she serves, Everlast associate vice president Jason Feldhaus is a father to her.

“He’s very much like a dad to me,” Walker says of him. “You might as well say he is my dad. I talk to him a lot. That’s a relationship that was built. He was in my position when I was in youth council – he was my youth advisor.”

Feldhaus says there “was just something different about Schalisha from the very beginning.” He explains, “She was very organized, very committed, very mature. Even early on she just always seemed dedicated to something bigger to help make things better for people. The young people she works with bond to her and so no matter where their life is in flux they still keep coming back to Project Everlast and I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to connect to them.”

Walker says the disruptions that can attend life in and out of foster care, such as moving from family to family or being separated from siblings, “can be very traumatic” and adversely affect one’s education and socialization. The more links to stability that are missing or broken, she says, “the more difficult it is to keep your life together.”

Everlast grew out of an Omaha Independent Living Plan initiated by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to address resource needs and service gaps faced by foster youth. Foundation director of strategic relationships, Judy Dierkhising, who oversaw Everlast during a recent transition, estimates that of the 200 youth aging out of foster care in Douglas and Sarpy Counties each year 40 percent don’t have an adequate plan or support system in place. That’s not counting individuals who get lost in the system as Schalisha did. In Neb. youth age-out of the system at 19.

Until Everlast, Dierkhising says, “there were not a lot of services or programs dedicated to that transitional living piece that helped young folks look for housing, job and education opportunities.” The project bridges that gap by connecting young people to partner agencies, such as Youth Emergency Services, that offer needed resources.

We provide young people access to those services they need to live independently, to grow into adulthood, to have engagement with the community, to be successful educationally, to be connected to health care, et cetera. A number of young people we work with don’t have anybody else there for them. We help them to help themselves and hopefully to find some permanence in their life. We’re here to empower them, with whatever it takes, to know they can have an impact on the world and that the world isn’t doing it to them.

“We’re not trying to save them, we’re assisting them to be successful, just like Schalisha. She is a tremendous role model and advocate for how there is a way to survive this and to thrive.”

In the immediate years following the break from her adoptive family Walker had no one to formally guide or mentor her, which meant she had to figure out most things for herself.

“The experience with being adopted was very difficult and I ended up being on my own. It was very difficult, very lonely. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. I had to drop out of school to work to support myself. I was working four jobs at one time. I had no choice because I didn’t have the support of a family like I should have. I didn’t have the support of friends because all my friends were still in high school.

“I ended up staying with some friends until I was able to have an apartment on my own.”

She says unstable housing is a major problem for foster youth once they leave the system.

“Homelessness is not uncommon. It is an ongoing issue. There’s a young man I work with who ever since he aged out was couch surfing. He now has a steady job and a safe place to live in. It’s very scary not having a safety net or a stable place to call home and that is a reality for many of these young people. It was a reality for me as well. In my case, I couldn’t go back to the home I was at. Just having a place to call your own where you feel safe and that you can go to every night can make a huge difference.”

 

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 Young people at at Project Everlast event were recognized for getting new jobs, moving into their own apartments, procuring scholarships and graduating high school. Schalisha served as an emcee for the program.

She says Everlast introduced her to youth and adults she could trust and count on to help her navigate life. Through its Opportunity Passport program she built her financial management skills, The dollars youth save are matched by donors. The program enabled her to retire the beater of a car she drove to buy a newer model vehicle.

“What I found was people that really cared about your success, people who really listened and wanted to be a support for you. It was like a relief finding people who had been through what I’d been through and I could share my story with. That was very powerful.”

Having that safety net is much healthier than going it alone, she says.

“That feeling of being alone and not being wanted can tear you apart. Having to make some of the decisions I did is something no child should have to go through. The experiences I had and some of the difficulties and struggles I dealt with is why I’m so passionate about making sure no other young person feels alone or feels they have no support and no one to turn to.”

She says the young people she works with all have different stories but they’re all trying to improve their life, whether going back to school or landing a job or finding a secure place to live or leaving an abusive relationship or getting treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

“Any step forward is a success and makes my job worthwhile. That’s why it’s really important for me to be here doing this work.”

After dropping out of South High she earned her diploma through independent studies and lattended Metropolitan Community College.

Drawing on her own experience of never having her birthdays celebrated as a kid, which she says is common among foster youth, she created the No Youth Without a Birthday Treat initiative.

“What I like to focus on is giving them normal experiences they might not have had. It’s to make sure they have a cake or a pie or cookies or muffins, whatever they’d like, for their birthday because it’s a special day for them and I want them to feel special. To give that young person their first birthday cake and to see their joy is amazing.

“At Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a big event with a dinner and presents.”

 

She also makes sure young people experience arts and cultural events they may not otherwise get to enjoy. Until she was asked to introduce Daniel Beaty, Walker herself had never been to the Holland. Judy Dierkhising took her there a few days before the program and Walker was awed by the space. Though Schalisha had spoken to groups before, she’d never addressed an audience the size of the gathering that night for Beaty’s one-man show, Emergency. It was different, too, because this time she was communing with someone she regards as a kindred soul and whom she also considers “amazing.”

“Daniel Beaty is such a talent. His poetry is electrifying – it gives me chills to hear him speak and to watch him perform,” Walker says. “I’d never seen him in person, so to see him live was a whole other experience. I’d never seen anything like that before. It blew my mind. I’ll never forget that performance. It was such an honor to introduce him. It was so exciting and I was really nervous.”

Reiterating what she told the audience that evening, she says Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” deeply resonated with her.

“When I first heard that poem I cried. A lot of my passion comes from my experience. The reason I’m in the field I’m in and do the work I do is because of the experiences I had. His words that we are not our parents’ choices really touched me, really spoke to me. So did his story and the things he overcame and the struggles he went through.

“It made me believe that no matter what you come from you make your future. You don’t have to be a product of what you came from, you don’t have to be what people expect you to be, you can be so much greater. That is what is so amazing to me about him.”

Topping it all off, she says, “He was so nice to me. He’s so cool and laid-back and down-to-earth. He has this presence about him that screams awesomeness without him being cocky.”

One of the things she admires about Beaty – his resilience overcoming steep odds – is what she admires in the young people she serves.

“The resilience they have to overcome is amazing. They didn’t want to be in these difficult situations and they’re motivated to do what they need to in order to get out. So many of these young people are talented and smart. They have dreams and goals and aspirations.”

She recognizes the same drive in herself pushed her to excel.

“I wanted to show that despite the circumstances around me that I still could succeed. I just have a real fire and passion to not fail and to not become a statistic and to show other young people they can make it. It’s been a lot of work.”

When she takes stock of her journey, she says she sees “someone who’s overcome a lot,” adding, “I see someone I’m proud very, very proud of, but even now I still struggle accepting that and saying that because some of the emotional scars are still there.”

She’s motivated to pay forward what was given her, she says. “because young people are counting on me to be there for them.”

Visit http://www.projecteverlast.org.

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Northeast Omaha is often portrayed as an exclusively African-American district and while it’s true that it is the historical center of the city’s black community and it’s where a large number of the metro’s black population still resides, it has always been and continues to be a mixed race area that sees much interaction between black and white folks.  Increasingly, Asians and Hispanics are part of that blended dynamic.  Trinity Lutheran doesn’t have much diversity in its pews for its main Sunday services though it does host chapel services for a Sudanese congregation.  But its social justice conscious husband and wife ministry team of pastors John and Liz Backus take the lead in making sure the church actively engages with the diverse community around it.  They bring very different styles to the pulpit but at the end of the day they are all about love and welcome, service and community, faith and action.  My New Horizons profile that follows fleshes out these two very human servants of God and charts the paths they’ve taken to do the good work they do and to lead the exemplary lives they live, warts and struggles and all.

 

 

Cover Photo

 
New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

The husband and wife pastor team of John and Liz Backus minister to an old-line Swedish-American parish in Omaha, Trinity Lutheran, at 30th and Redick Streets. But their real mission is tending to the church’s impoverished mixed-race neighborhood beset by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and sexually transmitted diseases.

Upon arriving in late 2008 they found a parish little engaged with its community and desperate to retain a shrinking membership. Under the couple’s leadership Trinity’s stabilized its numbers and added new members. The church adopted nearby Miller Park Elementary School and its predominantly African-American student body. John runs a reading program there for 2nd graders. Trinity conducts neighborhood cleanups, participates in Crossroad Connection Prison Ministry, supports the North Omaha Summer Arts Festival and partners with Omaha North High School.

The pastors continue the church’s hosting of the Ruth K. Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy. They’ve deepened relations with the Blue Nile Sudanese congregation that worships in Trinity’s chapel. They’ve taken a personal interest in Trinity’s long partnership with a sister church in Tanzania the couple visited in 2010.

 

 

Children at the Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy

 

Social justice and multicultural inclusion come natural to the couple, who are adoptive parents of children of color.They support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. Everyone’s welcome at Trinity.

They live three blocks from the church in an old California bungalow-style house they extensively restored. Their home is an extension of their ministry as they host garden parties and meetings there. They also embrace efforts like the Minne Lusa House across the street.

“We’re glad to be in partnership in caring for the neighborhood,” John says. “We’re doing amazing things at Trinity and now we’re getting the community to do amazing things with us. The first step in redevelopment is recognizing that if you’re not involved in the community you’re just a dead body that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. I’m determined to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Trinity.

“Lutheran churches are often self-insular. But the building at 30th and Redick is not there just to hold services or to be a social organization for us. The church is to be a hospital in a sick place, to be a gathering place for God’s people to go out of the building and do God’s work. It’s not about how many more posteriors can we place in a pew, it’s about are we being faithful to the call of Christ when we walk out the door.”

The Backus’s are among few ordained spouses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They say what makes them stand apart from other clergy couples is that they pastor together. Married in 1976, they’ve been co-pastors since 1982. Trinity is their third shared “call” after pastoring stints in Kansas City, Mo. and in Minnesota

“it’s really just a way of life,” says Liz. “We can play on our strengths and we have the other person to talk things over with. It’s been good for us because we can do what we want to do. I was senior pastor in Kansas City and I’m not now, and it’s John’s time to run with it, and that’s good, too.

“Why would you want two of the same people?”

Depending on who’s leading Trinity’s 10:45 a.m. Sunday service, worshipers will either get his high energy flamboyance or her subdued solemnity. His charismatic stage presence was honed during 10 years performing with the touring gospel quartet, The Fishermen.

Despite their differences they stand firm in solidarity about their shared passion to serve others.

“When we’re really wrong we’re really wrong together but when we’re right it strengthens us,” Liz says.

But there’s no getting around they do come from two markedly different backgrounds.

Ordained ministry was his goal from as far back as he can recall while Liz only felt the call after meeting him. Three years older, John entered the seminary while she was in college. Liz soon followed his path.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was a little kid I would run up to grab the pastor’s leg when he was trying to preach, and my parents would usually catch me but not always, and I’d scream, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.'”

He grew up outside Chicago. She grew up in rural Indiana. Both came from interfaith families. The only reason he became Lutheran is that his German-American father, who came from an abusive home, found refuge in that church as a boy and remained faithful to it.

“There was this Lutheran family down the street that would take my dad to church. Anything to get him out of the house was good. He loved the church. It was a place of safety for him. He loved his pastor and he wanted to be a pastor. There was no money for him to go to school so he left school in the 8th grade and went on to become a railroad machinist. But he always wished he’d been a pastor.”

John says things got so bad for his father as a boy that he “was kicked out of his house” at age 8. “He walked from Chicago to the suburb of Downer’s Grove and moved in with an aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s who I always knew as grandma and grandpa growing up.”

John was born in Chicago but his family moved to the suburbs when he was a child to escape the harsh legacy of his Italian-American mother’s gangland family and their link to infamy.

“My mother’s father was a driver for Al Capone in Chicago. I know that when Al Capone went to jail and my grandfather needed a job he voted for a certain mayoral candidate a number of times in one election and as a result got a job driving a garbage truck for the City of Chicago.”

He says the story goes that “when my grandfather died a gentleman came to the funeral and put an ice pick in the corpse’s shoulder to make sure he was dead.” Backus says quite a few older relatives on his mother’s side worked as mob functionaries. Some died in prison.

“My mother’s brother is either still in prison or he’s died now. He was a minor league leg-breaker.”

Dysfunction ran through his clan.

“You know in all of your good mafia dramas one person will turn to another and say, ‘You are dead to me,’ well, I watched that play out in my extended family over and over again. My maternal grandmother was angry my mother married someone who wasn’t Italian. That dismissing another human being doesn’t solve the problem because you just fight it out with someone else. That is something my beloved Elizabeth has taught me – that you need to just see things through.”

John’s grateful his folks survived the chaos and made a deliberate decision to move from that environment. Still, Backus is mindful he’s inherited a dark side that if he’s not careful can overtake him.

“That past is true and it’s woven into who I am. It’s so long ago now and yet when someone really angers me my first thought is, What do I need to do this person to get my way? How bad do I need to beat them? That’s horrible and I’m not afraid of confessing this. That’s not who I want to be and so that’s who i choose not to be.”

His love of singing is a byproduct of his parents, who moved the family to Neb., first to Lincoln and then to Elmwood, when he was a teen because of his dad’s railroad job,

“My father loved to sing hymns and my mom was a rook ‘n’ roller – Elvis Presley, roller skates, poodle skirts. She sang rock ‘n’ roll all the time. And I always liked to sing.”

At one point the man he most admired, his father, who taught him to fix anything, was ready to disown him. In 1972 the Vietnam War and military draft were still on. Backus, then 18, held genuine pacifist beliefs and had already applied to seminary, but the real reason he didn’t want to serve is that he feared the obesity he battled then – he weighed nearly 300 pounds – made him an easy target.

“I knew if I got sent over there I’d be dead. I knew some people who’d gone and died. At that time the deferments were all gone.”

 

 

Exterior and interior images of Trinity Lutheran

 

He joined other war opponents in a public protest that culminated in them burning their draft cards. He served a few days in jail for his action and was put on the military’s undesirable list. He’d considered more drastic action. “I was prepared to run. I figured I’d head north (to Canada).” He says his dad disapproved, telling him, ‘If you go you can never come back. But if you stay I will do everything I can to help you.”

Backus gets emotional explaining why his dad reacted so strongly.

“My father was an Army infantryman in the Second World War. He never talked about it but at the end of every month he woke up screaming. We found out later he was in the group that took Peleliu.”

The small Pacific coral island, now known as Palau, was occupied by Japanese forces embedded in trenches, caves and tunnels. Enemy positions could only be rooted out by men on the ground and by so-called “tunnel rats.”

“My father was a tunnel rat. The island was supposed to be occupied in a week but it took months. There were heavy casualties. So it was very difficult for him to see his son refuse to serve his country.”

Father and son reconciled and when John was ordained no one was any prouder than his old man.

“He loved it, he was so happy I stayed with it.”

By comparison, Liz says she comes from “a normal” background minus all the drama or rancor. When the liberal, long-haired John swept into her life it caused a rift between the young lovers and her parents. Her folks ran a printing company in Maryville, Indiana. They expected Liz to complete college and start a career before getting involved with someone, and then preferably with a well-off, buttoned-down fellow.

Spirituality fascinated her from the time her father took her to guitar masses at the Catholic church they attended during her childhood.

“I was always interested in church. I loved the liturgy, I loved a lot of things about it. But I knew I didn’t want to be a nun, so there wasn’t really a place for me I didn’t think.

“I was exploring all kinds of things.”

She aspired to a career in journalism but one year studying it at Indiana University convinced her she wasn’t cut out for it. She was still in high school when the singing group John was in came to town. She joined other area youths to campaign for a man running for congress, Floyd Fithian. The candidate’s nephew was The Fishermen’s lead singer and so the quartet, Backus included, drove to Indiana to lend their support. The youth volunteers were boarding a bus to go canvassing when Backus noticed a lovely coed.

He remembers, “I literally grabbed Floyd by the arm and said, ‘Do you see that girl who just got on the bus?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That’s Liz Danko,’ and I said, ‘Put her with me.’ And 300-plus letters later, because we lived 500 miles apart, we moved into the same town, Dubuque Iowa, where she was in college and I was in seminary, and a year later we were married. I asked her to marry me the third time I saw her.”

“An unusual courtship,” says Liz. “Yeah, we do not recommend it,” John says, “because you look back and it’s romanticized but at the time it was really hard.”

Among the difficulties was gaining her parents’ approval.

“My father and John had a lot of arguments having to do with his pacifist leanings. The rest of my family loved John but you know parents have such a high stake in everything.”

Then there was their resistance to her being a pastor’s wife.

“My parents thought a pastor’s wife was too hard of a job, that you don’t get any notoriety, you’re not a person in your own light, you’re in somebody’s shadow, you’re on their coattails. They worried, ‘You’re going to marry this man, get pregnant and quit school.'”

John understood their misgivings. “Elizabeth has always been brilliant, an incredible student, great grades. Her dad and mom looked at it as she’s bound to do great things and I’m going to ruin it.”

“They were so upset,” says Liz,

It didn’t help matters, she adds, that “John was cocky and arrogant” and I was young.” Against her parents’ wishes the couple got married after her second year of college. “Not a real happy day but they were coming around.” All was forgiven when her parents saw none of their fears realized. Liz finished school as planned, then after embracing Lutheranism went on to seminary and got ordained. Instead of playing second fiddle to her husband she became his equal partner.

“John and my father got to be really good friends,” she says.

Women ministers were still a new reality in the Lutheran Church and thus Liz was one of only a few females in her seminary class. John’s father was delighted to have a second preacher in the fold.

“His respect for our profession was deep and he was very happy when Elizabeth entered ordination.”

They feel they made the right decision to enter ministry, though there have been doubts and struggles along the way.

“I think at first I was trying to save myself but I learned you can’t. What keeps me going is when the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I just had a baby,’ and they are so happy and they want to tell me. Or they call and they say, ‘My father is dying,’ and they are so sad and they want to tell me. I get to live the heights and the depths of people’s lives and just stand with them and be there with them through all of it.

“It’s an incredible joy and what tells me it’s right is that I’m 60 years-old and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. It’s great.”

Liz says, “I think at first I just was so drawn to the mystery. The call is such a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with people. I think I can make a difference sometimes. Like you can be in the right place at the right time and that’s really humbling and captivating.”

 

 

John, Liz and their granddaughter Presley

 

Their first assignment together was in Lanesboro, Minn. When they adopted children from Korea and Thailand they introduced the only people of color into an otherwise all-white community.

“Everybody loved them,” Liz says. “Being the pastors’ kids they were aware they were treated really nicely but increasingly they felt they were the only people of color. They were big fish in a little pond. Also we didn’t feel we could afford to stay. We couldn’t have sent them to college making what we did. That was really the only reason we moved. It was a wonderful way of life.”

It was there the couple began their advocacy for LGBT rights. The church sometimes moved more slowly then they wanted but they’re pleased by the progress it’s made.

“When we first started speaking out about this in church assemblies it was just a matter of we need to let gay and lesbian people in our churches,” John says. “It’s ended up in this wonderful place we are now where persons who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered can have life partners and be pastors in this church. It took a long time to get there.”

“Gay-lesbian rights has been very important to us,” says Liz, who was active in groups that lobbied to get women bishops.

In Kansas City the couple brought already progressive St. James Lutheran Church into the reconciling or affirming movement  It was a congregation in turmoil after the previous pastor resigned in the wake of accusations he had inappropriate sexual relations with members.

John says the unsavory situation “left the congregation divided and angry.” “Some of our predecessor’s strong supporters had left but some of stayed and that was part of what we dealt with,” Liz says. The couple set about healing the wounds and doing things the right way.

“One of the strengths of being a married couple is that we have good boundaries,” she says. “We were real intentional in what we did. We didn’t tell an off-color joke. The two of us were always present when somebody was in the office. We kept doors and windows open.”

Before their arrival in 1995 it was a church that talked social justice but they encouraged members to begin practicing it in their own backyard. The couple found a real home in that church community and in the neighborhood they resided in. But in 2007-2008 things changed.

“The work got more difficult,” says John. “Our leadership had always been greeted well. All of a sudden we realized things just weren’t going the way they should. We decided if we didn’t get good results at the next (parish council) meeting then it’s time to leave. The meeting went very badly. We would find out later a relatively small group of individuals had committed to having us removed. It’s much easier to get a pastor to quit then to get them removed.

“That group of people was making life difficult for us. I don’t know their reasons but I know they wanted us gone and worked very hard to make sure that happened. What was most painful for us is that no one came to us and said, Do you know what’s happening? We had the sense no one had our back.”

Feeling it was time to exit gracefully rather than subject the church to another upheaval, the pastors stepped down, though they hoped their self-imposed exile would be temporary.

“We thought, We’ll let them sort this out and let them get back on their feet,” says Liz.

But as time went by the severing became permanent. Stunned, John and Liz felt they were through with the ministry. They gave away all their theology books. That meant finding new jobs, only the timing couldn’t have been worse because of the economic collapse. John tried selling cars and digging ditches. Liz worked at a Panera’s.

“We just couldn’t make a living,” says Liz. “Things just did not work out.” “I applied for 200 jobs,” says John. “It was a very difficult year.”

They vacationed in Yellowstone to clear their heads and unburden theirs hearts. Upon returning home John announced: “I cannot be without a church.” So they searched for pastorships all over the nation. Omaha’s Trinity Lutheran, dedicated in 1922, proved the right fit for this pair with so much to give. They were just what was needed to awaken this somewhat sleeping, struggling urban parish.

 

 

John Backus and Matt Kong

Pastor John and Matt Kong talking social justice

 

He says the Lutheran Church recognizes “there are all these inner city ministry sites that have dwindled for 50 years and are incredibly important places for ministry to take place,” adding, “Often because of financial resources or not knowing what to do they’ll put someone there, a first year seminarian, who’s not ready to tackle the challenges that we as an experienced couple have tackled.” He says he believes “there are ways to make those congregations not just survive but thrive and we’ve already taken the first couple steps toward that at Trinity.”

They acknowledge the way they left K.C., where they expected to retire, hurt them, but they’re grateful to have their new ministry home.

“I think I’m broken now because of St. James,” Liz says. “Probably every other day we have a discussion about why things went wrong there. I mean, this is not over for us. I feel really bad about we were unable to take them to the next step.

“But I also think there is a call here (at Trinity) and that while all this has messed me up I’m not as afraid as I was. We have a steadiness and a wisdom and we’re not afraid of failing. And we have an energy and a drive that just may be what these people need.”

John says, “In eight more years it is our intention to have the parish so ingrained in missionary service that Trinity will be a teaching congregation. My passion and goal is that people can come out of seminary to Trinity and be taught how to do street ministry by a faith-filled congregation.”

The couple see a neighborhood and parish believing in themselves again and feeling good about the difference they can make, a sharp contrast to the hopelessness they found.

He’s encouraged by the generosity people are displaying and the progress beige made. A woman donated copies of The Littlest Lion to every 2nd grade student at Miller Park Elementary. An anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $500 and a note that read. “I like what you’re doing at Miller Park, use this.” Miller Park’s gone from one of Omaha’s lowest achieving public grade schools to one of its highest. Parishioners donated boots to prison inmates on work release.

“That’s God’s physical presence in our life today,” John says. “God doesn’t have to be anything more than that to me because God is alive and active in that gathering of people to love one another.”

Liz says, “We just abide and we keep doing it day after day.”

For a list of services and events, visit trinityomaha.org.

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