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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

 

Cover Photo

Aisha, left end, middle row, in Africa and displays of her products

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.’”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.’”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

 

 

After trying mechanized mass manufacturing, she’s back to hand mass manufacturing her products
Mass production of the New Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC Body Lotion!! Do you have yours?
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Aisha at a store display opening

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

 

Photo: Team Sha Luminous heading to Lincoln to knock out the HyVees there :-)!! Wish us luck and throw some prayers out there too! Thanks.
Aisha drives far and wide slinging her shea butter line

 

 

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?’” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

 

 

Photo: Happy Birthday󾔑 Esha I love you enjoy your day!!!!󾦈󾠣󾆕󾠨󾓕󾁀
Her younger sister put together this montage of Aisha for her birthday

 

 

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Patique Collins has got it going on.  She is a high achieving African American woman with an alluring combination of physical besuty, spiritual enlightenment, business savvy, and passion for her life’s calling.  The Omaha, Neb. fitness trainer loves empowering people to positively chnage their lives.  In the short time between leaving a successful corporate career to starting her own buisness, she’s expertly branded her Right Fit company to grow its client base and to garner media attention.  I discovered her through her heady, consistent use of Facebook as a social media marketing platform that gets her name and face and brand out there, not just through the usual promotional methods but through inspiring before and after pictorials and testimonials that demonstrate the difference that Right Fit workouts make and through affirmations she writes and shares to offer encouraging  life lessons.  My profile of Patique is for Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Photo: Excited and Humbled! Right Fit is featured in "Omaha Magazine" ... "Best of Omaha 2014" edition story by Leo Adam Biga! 2014 will bring some new changes, new strategies and new options for you ...Change is Good, GOD is Good and I am thankful!! #Thank YOU

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness gym. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit at 11067 West Maple Rd. jumps with clients.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems from poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

She pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “if you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

 

 

 

 

She’s known to show up at your job if you skip class.

“There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back.

“People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.”

Her gym. like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams. being persistent and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA.”

She keeps things fun with theme workouts, sometimes dressing as a superhero.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins formed the Nothing But Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools she began “testing the waters” as a trainer conducting weekend fitness boot camps..

 

 

 

 

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this now divorced mother of two small children..

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show. Sometimes that can be challenging.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements.

Right Fit is her living but she works hard maintaining the right balance. Family and faith are er top priorities.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), wants to franchise her business, produce workout videos and be a mind-body fitness national presenter.

She believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake and being authentic is one of them. I’m doing what I want to do, I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine.

I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

To Tanzania with Love: Mary Williams to Make Documentary on Alegent Creighton Health Mission in Africa Led by Bob Kasworm

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Good works come in many forms.  So do life transformations.  Former Omaha, Neb. resident Bob Kasworm has always tried doing the right thing.  This devoted family man has been a model employee and he’s also faithfully served his church and his community.  But he took things to a whole other level when after several mission and fact finding trips toTanzania he decided to live and work in that African nation.  He made a life-changing  commitment to Alegent Creighton Health and its onging initiatives in Tanzania in collaboration with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to improve the health and medcal care, living conditions, and opportunties for residents there.  As the point person for the organizaton’s work in Tanzania, Kasworm will be featured in a documentary that former Omaha television reporter-anchor Mary Williams will be making with videographer Pete Soby.  The reporter-videographer team will be traveling to Tanzania in early 2014 to document the project’s efforts.  My Omaha Magazine story about the mission in Tanzania and the planned film follows.

 

To Tanzania with Love: Mary Williams to Make Documentary on Alegent Creighton Health Mission in Africa Led By Bob Kasworm 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in  Omaha Magazine

 

 

Bob Kasworm

 

 

Life-changing work by Alegent Creighton Health in Tanzania, Africa is the focus of a forthcoming documentary from a one-time Omaha television news personality. When former KMTV anchor-reporter Mary Williams and videographer Pete Soby travel to Tanzania in February their main point of contact will be ACH’s man on the job there, Bob Kasworm. whose life has been transformed by the calling he follows in that distant land.

Kasworm, a biomedical engineer and devout Christian, combines career and faith in Tanzania, his home the last 10 years.

“This was never in my plans. I really wasn’t thinking I would ever go to Africa or have a life of service,” he says.

He first visited in 2001 on a Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America sponsored trip. He went to evaluate the potential of Alegent assisting hospitals. dispensaries and public health programs there.

The pull of Africa began then.

“From the very first trip there was never a day and rarely an hour when Africa was not on my mind. Yes, it was the poverty and the need, but it was more than that. Somehow Africa just got into my blood.”

He made a dozen or so additional visits in a three-year span as Alegent committed itself to working with the evangelical church and various health and civic partners in Machame, Tanzania. He cultivated and coordinated the growing relationship between the partners and implemented various initiatives.

The organization’s efforts there include training medical staff at Machame Hospital, developing Machame Nursing School, providing nursing scholarships and delivering medical equipment and supplies. Kasworm leads the Homes for Health program that uses local laborers to build new, cleaner, safer homes for residents.

 

A Homes for Health project

 

At the end of 2004 Kasworm decided to live in Tanzania full-time. He says it was then his wife “realized that what she thought was just a temporary ‘mid-life crisis’ was something I was powerless to resist.”

He’s since learned Swahili well enough to speak it fluently.

Machame Lutheran Hospital, founded some 110 years ago by German missionaries, is at the center of much of Alegent’s work there.

“We have the hospital with about 120 inpatients and many outpatients and clinics. We also have a Clinical Officer Training school and now the nursing school. There are about 20 homes for staff,” says Kasworm.

 

 

 

Neema, the first graduate of Machame Lutheran Hospital  Nursing School

 

 

The campus is on a rare paved road. There’s running water (“usually”), electricity (“much of the time”) and Internet access – though slow.

Progress is plodding but satisfying.

“The most satisfying thing is that in many cases if not for our efforts and involvement many would simply not get help. A child with a club foot would become an adult with a club foot. The nursing student would not have had a chance to study. It is not like you can just go down the street to an alternative. There is no safety net. We do it or it won’t happen. We can now point to a number of successes.

“There is such a shortage of trained healthcare workers that our efforts in education may well be our biggest legacy. If you educate one nurse they will care for thousands over their career.”

 

Machame Hospital

 

Williams, who interviewed Kasworm on one of his periodic visits to Omaha, describes him as a “strong, driven” man who “sees opportunities where others don’t.”

ACH mission integration consultant Lisa Kelly says. “He’s so embedded in that culture now it’s amazing. He’s definitely a problem solver, which is huge in that country. Everything from unloading containers of things we send to fixing machines to keeping a water source going or getting an Internet connection set up, you name it, Bob is the guy who figures out how to do it.

“He has to navigate what’s possible in the developed world with what’s possible there in that culture and that setting. So you have to think of medicine in a whole new way and what he has been able to do is to bridge that gap.”

Williams and Soby are eager to tell this story from a grassroots perspective.

“You can’t really tell the story without talking to the people on the ground who are being helped and that would start with the patients coming through the door,” says Williams. “You cannot tell the story without talking to all the players – the patients, the nurses, the young women who have a fighting chance now.

“We can’t tell the story unless we go past the borders and see how exactly the people live and the challenges they face every day. We’re going to experience that first hand. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

 

Mary Williams

 

Pete Soby

 

 

When Williams left KM3 in 2009 and launched her own marketing and media production company she set her sights on telling stories that engage people’s hearts and minds. From reporting medical news she knew Alegent had compelling stories to be told and she wanted to be the storyteller that shared them.

There wouldn’t be a Tanzania story without Kasworm, whose year-round presence in that county makes the Alegent Creighton mission model unique. Much emphasis is placed on building relationships and making connections through ministry and medical mission trips organized by ACH and the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA.

For Williams, who’s only previous overseas assignment was covering local airmen serving in Desert Storm, this is an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a life changing experience.”

She and Soby expect to complete the 30-minute documentary in the spring.

Kasworm sees the project as another vehicle to foster awareness between Tanzanians and Americans.

“Our experience lets us serve as a bridge between the cultures and reduce misunderstandings. It seems much of our important work has not come from analysis or needs assessment – the work has just found us. I am sure more will present itself.

“As long as the doors keep opening and my health stays good, I hope to continue.”

Joseph Dumba and His Healing Kadi Foundation Make Medical Mission Trips to South Sudan

January 3, 2014 1 comment

Westerners have a long history of aiding developing nations through mission work.  Sometimes though the assistance that Americans or others from the Western world provide can appear to be coming from a colonial mind space and consequently the recipients can be made to feel less than.  That’s why what Dr. Joseph Dumba does through his Healing Kadi Foundation’e medical mission trips to South Sudan is different.  Dumba lives in the States, with his wife and children in Omaha, Neb., where he practices family medicine, but he is a native of the very South Sudan area that his medical mission trips serve.  He was and will always be a Sudanese and he infuses the work that he and his teams do there with cultural sensitivity.  In the following Metro Magazine piece I profile Dumba and the work of his foundation.

 

Journeys

Healing Kadi Foundation

BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Originally published in Metro Magazine

Joseph Dumba and his Healing Kadi Foundation Make Medical Mission Trips to South Sudan

A U.S. doctor brings relief to his African homeland

When Dr. Joseph Dumba leads medical mission trips to South Sudan through his Omaha-based Healing Kadi Foundation, it’s personal. The Methodist Physicians Clinic doctor grew up in the same deprived, war-rabaged area, Kajo Keji County, his mission teams serve. His father, siblings and their families still live there.

His parents were subsistence farmers. As the oldest child he worked the fields before school. He grew up in a mud hut with no electricity or running water. Despite the struggles his folks paid for his and his siblings’ education. Life was interrupted when hostilities between government and rebel forces reached deep into southern Sudan.

Dumba fought in the civil war that forced his family into a Uganda refugee camp. He ended up in a Kenya camp. The war still raged.

When peace came in 2005 refugees returning home found conditions little improved from when they left. Dumba’s persistence to make a better life brought him to America in 1990, where he followed his dream to become a physician. He initially resettled in Tacoma, Wash., where he put himself through college and medical school.

He and his wife, Sabina, a fellow South Sudan native and advanced practice registered nurse, began a family on the west coast. The couple have three children.

Dumba came to the Midwest for his residency. After completing graduate training Alegent Health hired him in 2004 and then Methodist in 2010. The Omaha church he joined soon after moving here, Covenant Presbyterian, did mission trips to Nicaragua he went on. In 2007 he led his first South Sudan mercy mission through Covenant.

He’d long wanted to aid his countrymen. “I was looking for that opportunity,” he says. His resolve grew after his mother fell ill and died in the bush. No doctor was around to treat her. He vowed to help prevent such tragedies. He has by providing care to thousands via the Healing Kadi Foundation he formed in 2009. Its South Sudan clinic opened in 2013.

Last spring, KETV reporter Julie Cornell and photojournalist Andrew Ozaki accompanied Dumba for a documentary, Mission to Africa, profiling the foundation’s work serving what Dumba calls “the poorest of the poor.” The film shows the arduous life of residents who line up to receive care at mobile clinics conducted by Dumba’s team in remote villages. Most patients have never been seen by a doctor before. Women, many widowed from the war and raising children alone, present chronic illnesses from their backbreaking work.

“I think the documentary really did bring some light to how things are,” says Dumba. “It’s had tremendous impact, especially in bringing some awareness.”

He says donations to Healing Kadi are up since the doc aired last year.

The film doesn’t skirt showing how tough things are. Cornell was struck by the contrasts of a country rich in beauty yet beset by suffering and hardship. She says Dumba’s “spirit, calm and sense of purpose” impressed her, adding, “It’s clear that faith guides and directs his life.”

Dumba says everything’s in short supply in South Sudan, even things taken for granted in the States, such as medical syringes and gloves. What’s disposable here is reused there. Nothing’s wasted.

“We’re so far from being able to provide the most comprehensive care but at least we’re there to provide some of the most basic things they don’t have.”

The foundation’s set up a permanent clinic containing everything from x-ray machines to a surgical room. Thousands of dollars in medicines are brought over each trip, much donated by Omaha families and organizations.

In addition to doctors, nurses and pharmacists, the team includes prayer ministry members, mental health professionals, educators, water purification specialists and financial literacy experts.

All the foundation’s work depends upon donated time, expertise, money and supplies. Everyone pays their own way.

“All of us doing this do it on a volunteer basis,” says Dumba.

Healing Kadi hopes to build a roof atop its open-air clinic to better shield patients from the elements. Dumba says the foundation also hopes to construct a patient admitting structure and a hydration station. A longer term goal is building an acute care hospital. Dumba says there isn’t a single intensive care unit in all of South Sudan. The sickest patients must go to hospitals in more developed border nations.

In late March Dumba will lead a seventh mission trip. He and his team. including colleagues from Methodist, will put in grueling hours.

“We work for five days, very intensively, Monday through Friday. They’re long days. We work from sunrise to sundown until we can’t see anything. Then we go back to where we base and there we find patients also needing care, so sometimes we work until 10 or 11 pm. Then we just go to sleep and wake up and start all over again.”

Sometimes I think what did I get myself into because you think you’re making progress and you hit a standstill. But then God opens the door and you move forward.

~ Dr. Joseph Dumba

As the film details, Dumba is welcomed as a hero and his team  accorded great respect. Expressions of gratitude abound.

Dumba says his greatest satisfaction is “people coming to the clinic and saying, ‘Thank you for being here.’ The clinic is delivering care to thousands who wouldn’t have had any care at all. They don’t have anywhere else to go.” He knows the missions are making a difference as more and more people come for treatment.

“The last trip we saw about 10,000 patients, averaging about 2,000 a day, and even with that we’re not able to see everybody.”

Patients are required to pay a small fee or to barter, he says, in order to “empower” the people to be self-sufficient in the future.

He arrives in advance of his team to arrange logistics. As a well-placed South Sudan native, he’s able to cut through red tape.

“I know most of the leaders in the country. It makes things a lot easier. When my team arrives at South Sudan airport the appropriate authorities have already been informed and all the proper paperwork has already been sent ahead so that my team can quickly pass through to start work.”

He says his country’s “very slow” rebuilding can be frustrating.

“Sometimes I think what did I get myself into because you think you’re making progress and you hit a standstill. But then God opens the door and you move forward.”

It’s then he’s reminded how far South Sudan and Healing Kadi have come in a short time. He and Sabina have helped put all but one of his siblings through college and all are productive citizens today.

He’a also reminded how simple health care can be.

“It’s like a relief. You don’t have paperwork there, you don’t have computers, all you do is just take care of patients. You talk to the patient, examine the patient, find out what it is, write down the diagnosis and medicine, that’s it.”

As the film depicts, physically touching patients is a big part of the healing delivered. Dr Jim Steier, who’s been on several mission trips, says, “It’s not only the medicine…it’s the people” that stand out.

Dumba says everyone who goes is affected.

“The doctors who go with me come back with a different perspective.”

Trip veterans return humbled by the experience and grateful for what they have. They think twice before throwing something away or complaining.

Julie Cornell was impacted, too. She senses the film she made affects viewers the same way. She says she finds “intensely satisfying” the film’s “ability to move people, open their minds and call them to action.”
Dumba likes that it paints a vivid but hopeful picture of his homeland’s struggles and of his foundation’s efforts to address some of the needs.

To get involved with the foundation’s work or to make a donation, visit http://healingkadi.org or email info@healingkadi.org.

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

He goes by Beto.  Though middle-aged now Alberto “Beto” Gonzales can relate to the hard circumstances youths face at home and in the barrio because he faced difficulties at home and on the streets when he was their age.  He knows what’s behind kids skipping school or getting in trouble at school because he did the same thing to cover his pain when he was a teen.  He can talk straight to gang members because he ran with gangs back in the day.  He knows what addiction looks and feels like because he’s a recovering addict himself.  His work for the Chicano Awareness Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, and other organizations has netted him many honors, including a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.  Beto is a South Omaha legend for the dedication he shows to saving one kid at a time.  My profile of him for El Perico tells something about the personal journey of transformation he followed to turn his life around to become a guiding light for others.

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales

 

 

Saving One Kid at a Time is Beto’s Life Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.

Gonzales grew up in the South Omaha barrio he serves today as a Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands counselor. He does outreach with truants, many of whom come from dysfunctional homes. He knows their stories well. He grew up in a troubled home himself and acted out through gangs, alcohol and drugs. He skipped school. He only turned things around through faith and caring individuals.

“I was just an angry kid,” says Gonzales, who witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother. Betro’s internalized turmoil sometimes exploded.

“At 17 I almost went to prison for 30 years for assault and battery with the intent to commit murder. Then I got hooked on some real heavy drugs.”

“My mother prayed over me all the time and I think it’s her prayers that really helped me get out of this. I just decided to give my life to the Lord. “

When he’d finally had enough he completed his education at South High at 20.

The Chicano Awareness Center changed his life’s course. A social worker there saw potential in him he didn’t see in himself. Then he was introduced to a nun, Sister Joyce Englert, who worked as a chemical dependency counselor.

“She heard me out,” he says. “I talked to her about my drug addiction, how I couldn’t keep a relationship and all kinds of crap going on. What’s cool about that is she asked me if I would go talk to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol even though she knew I was an abuser. She said, ‘I think it’s important kids hear your story.’ I found myself crying right along with the kids as I shared it.

“She told me I had a passion for this and asked what I thought about becoming a counselor. Well, I’ve done a lot crazy, dangerous things in my life but the most frightening and hardest thing was to tell the truth that I couldn’t read or write that well.”

Sister Joyce didn’t let him make excuses.

“With her help I got a chemical dependency associates degree from Metropolitan Community College, which led me into working in the schools with adolescents dealing with addiction issues, and I loved it, I just loved it.”

He also got sober. He has 33 years in recovery now.

Beto reaching out to kids, ©d2center.org

 

 

Then he responded to a new challenge.

“When the gangs started surfacing I changed my career to working with gang kids,” he says. “That’s been my passion.”

He worked for the center until 2003, when he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Having walked in the shoes of his clients, he commands respect. He uses his story of transformation to inspire.

“I had a faith my mother blessed me with, then I met a woman of faith in Sister Joyce who gave me my direction, and my job now is to give kids faith, to give them hope.”

He says it comes down to being there, whether attending court hearings, visiting probation officers, providing rides, helping out with money or just listening.

“It really takes a lot of consistency in staying on top of them. All that small stuff really means a lot to a kid who’s not getting it from the people that are supposed to be doing it for them, like mom and dad.

“Gangs ain’t never going to go away. The only thing we can do as a society is to find the monies to hire the people that can do the job of saving one life at a time. That’s what Jesus did. He then trained his disciples to go out and share his word, his knowledge, and they saved one life at a time. That’s all I’ve been doing, and I’ve lost some and I’ve won some.”

His job today doesn’t allow him to work the streets the way he used to with the hardcore kids.

“I’m not out there like I used to be.”

However, kids in his Noble Youth group are court-referred hard cases he gets to open up about the trauma, often abuse, they’ve endured. Talking about it is where change begins.

In a high burn-out field Gonzales is still at it, he says, because “I love what I do.” It hasn’t been easy. His first marriage ended over his job. Then tragedy struck home.

“There was a time in South Omaha when we were losing kids right and left and one of the kids killed was my cousin Rodolfo. It’s painful to see other people suffer but when it’s in your own family it’s a different story. Rodolfo was a good kid, I loved him, but he was deep in some stuff. When he got killed I lost it. That was a struggle. I told my employer, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I took a sabbatical, I just had to get away. I did a lot of meditation and praying and it only made me stronger.”

He’s not wavered since.

“I’ve got my faith and I’ve learned you’ve got to hand everything over to God, Don’t try to handle it yourself because you will crumble.”

Beto and family

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark and into the Spotlight

January 24, 2013 3 comments

 

Remember the name Tunette Powell.  She’s come far already in her 26 years and she’s surely going places that will take her even beyond the personal transformation and accomplishment she’s achieved thus far.  My profile of her in The Reader (www.thereader.com) introduces you to someone you will hear about in the future because, as my story details, she is a survivor and a dynamo who’s recently found her voice as a speaker and as a writer and it’s a powerful voice infused with passion and hope.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a best selling author and major inspirational speaker, which is her goal by the way.  It’s well within her reach based on the national championship persuasive speech she made last year and the new memoir she’s written, The Other Woman, about life as the daughter of acrack addict father.  Her speech and book are critiques of the criminalization of addiction.  Her memoir is also her coming out of a dark place and into the light of her own recovery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark and into the Spotlight

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When she dreamed of rap stardom back in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas Tunette Powell went by Short Stack. Today, Tunette will do. After years of search and struggle and a need for attention she fed with men, the 26-year-old Bellevue Neb. resident is more comfortable than she’s ever been in her own skin and with her real identity.

Recently married and the mother of two young children, Powell was not feeling Neb., where her military husband got stationed. Even though she did well in school she counted the days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then came her catharsis. In early 2011 she was on a three-way call with her brother and recovering addict father when she hung up, broke down crying and started writing.

Words flowed as if some Higher Power were writing-her-hand. An experienced journalist and blogger, it wasn’t unusual for Powell to get in a zone writing or even to tackle difficult subject matter but this was different. What poured out of her was intensely personal. For the first she found herself telling in detail her story of being a crack addict’s daughter. She relived emotional pain she’d largely stuffed from early childhood on – of her father’s repeated relapses and arrests.

“With each of his relapses I’d get hurt all over again,” she says.

Over the next year or so she kept working on her story, which is also her father’s story, and it evolved into a full-scale memoir. She ended up interviewing her father, mother and grandmother, who all reside in Texas, to fill in the gaps. When the Speech Communication major was recruited onto the UNO forensics team in mid-2011 she borrowed from her memoir to write a persuasive speech critiquing the criminalization of addiction and advocating for substance abuse rehabilitation.

“Now is the time to separate the war on drugs from the war on addiction. Today you’ve heard the problems, impacts and solutions of criminalizing addictions. Bruce Callis is 50 years old now. And he is still struggling with his addiction. While you all are sitting out there listening to this, I’m living it. Bruce Callis is my father and for my entire life, I have watched our misguided system destroy him.”

She brought a searing passion and gritty street savvy to the staid format that set her apart. It made her feel out of place but it also made competitors and judges take notice. Last April she became UNO’s first forensics national champion when she won for her “It’s Not the Addict, it’s the Drug: Redefining America’s War on Drugs” presentation at America’s oldest speech competition on the campus of Emerson College in Boston. She beat out competitors with years more experience than her.

 

 

 

 

Now her new memoir, The Other Woman, whose title borrows her father’s term for his drug of choice, has been published by WriteLife.com. She’s also a blogger with the Omaha World-Herald social networking site for moms, Momaha, a program director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands and a sought-after motivational speaker, which she hopes to make her life’s work.

None of it seemed possible five years ago. Her mindset then was expressed in a rap she wrote about her father that featured the rhyme, “It’s gotta be a nightmare, it’s gotta be a dream.” But she was still acting out, still afraid to face the truth of what she carried inside.

“Five years ago I wasn’t with my husband yet. I was hanging with people that were OK with me just being where I was, kind of in a slump. I was in a relationship with someone that was already in a relationship. I was working at the San Antonio Express-News as an editorial assistant.

“Then I went two years to the University of Missouri. But college was nothing to me.  I never went to class, I just threw it all away. I was forced to move back to San Antonio. I enrolled in a community college but I never went.”

It wasn’t until she landed in the metro and reluctantly started at UNO she began to find herself again.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to be the student that stood out, I wasn’t going to be the student that got involved in anything, I was just going to fly under the radar and get my degree.”

Instead, she became a star by making the Dean’s List, winning that prestigious national title and being named Most Outstanding Speech Student.

UNO instructors encouraged the same potential they saw in her that high school teachers and San Antonio Express colleagues earlier noticed. She wrote obits, features and a blog for the paper while still in her teens. Then she lost her way. Though she settled down after marrying and having kids, the confidence and joy she once had was gone. Then she unexpectedly tapped something inside her.

“When I moved here I felt the most alone I ever felt in my life. I didn’t want to come to Omaha, I didn’t want to go to UNO. But I decided to just enroll, and it changed my life. Academically, I found I’m a lot smarter than I thought I was. I didn’t know I loved learning. I didn’t know there’s so much passion in me. And I learned I’m a survivor. I thought I was always a very weak person. But I’ve had to go through so many things. Being molested as a kid. Having two ‘C’ sections. Financial struggles.”

Not to mention the havoc her dad caused. He was behind bars most of her formative years. When he went on binges to get his fix he’d disappear for days at a time. One Christmas he sold all the presents under the tree so he could get high. She played caregiver and enabler to him. She endured it all.

“I didn’t see that I just kept getting back up. I’m a lot stronger then I gave myself credit for.”

UNO’s Rita Shaughnessy and Abbie Syrek pushed and nurtured her when she didn’t trust herself.

“I did see the talent in Tunette and in chatting with her I discovered that what she really wanted to be was a motivational speaker. My advice to her was to become a Speech Communication major, and if she wanted to someday go out there on the speaker circuit, she needed to author a book. She’s done both of those things and more. She’s doing everything right,” says Shaughnessy, who teaches Public Speaking Fundamentals.

“Tunette is a dynamo. She’s intelligent and industrious and passionate and driven, but add poetic to that and you’ve got something very special. I knew it when she gave her first speech. She’s using all that’s happened to her in her life to shed light on serious matters, and others will benefit. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Forensics coach Abbie Syrek says, “When I first saw her speak, my jaw dropped.

She was spectacular. My soul was so moved that I thought, I have to have this woman on the forensics team. So I approached her after class and she told me she was a senior who was married with two young kids. If there are three strikes against recruiting a student those are the three. I thought, Well, she’ll be the one that got away…’

“I told my husband if I had her four years she would be a national champion. But Tunette didn’t need four years, she only needed eight months. It’s all heart and hard work.”

And a rare talent.

“She wrote by far the best first draft I’ve ever read from any of my students. She has such a natural grasp for writing. I hear thousands of speeches a year and there are very few that stick with you or that can stir your soul,” says Syrek, who convinced Powell to join the team.

 

 

 

 

Powell’s expressive presentation style lends added power to her message.

“It’s poetic, it has a cadence to it, it has emotion to it,” says Syrek. “There’s something about the way she looks at you that brings you in and captivates you. I watch speeches for a living and I might go as far as to say Tunette Powell could very well be the most naturally gifted speaker I’ve ever seen, and I mean it.”

That she possessed such a powerful gift surprised Powell, who says, “I didn’t know I had that.” She’s grateful others recognized that ability in her, saying. “I needed somebody to believe in me just a little bit.”

To climb as high as she did in so short a time as a public speaker is even more impressive given where she started.

“I was intimidated,” she says. “Forensics is a different world. Predominantly white. Even the other black people spoke the same way the white people did. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t think I could be successful because of that. My voice is a little raspy when I speak loud and my topic was different and the way it was written was different.”

The way she dressed was different too. She wore casual, thrown-together worn clothes in contrast to her speaking peers’ expensive new outfits.

Syrek says Powell struggled learning the conventions of forensics but after assuring her her self-doubts were misplaced the novice began excelling.

“I had to stand certain ways and do certain things. It was so much for me, it was the most challenging thing ever. I wanted to quit after my first tournament. But my coaches just kept telling me, ‘You need to continue because you’re going to change the program,’ which I took to mean that God placed me here to open the minds of people. I learned I really shouldn’t put myself in a box.”

As Powell advanced through state and national competitions Syrek says something unheard of happened: competitors gave the newcomer standing ovations that undoubtedly influenced judges. Syrek say’s this knack for engaging and touching audiences stems in part from the conviction with which she speaks.

 

 

 

 

“She made her father’s story matter to everybody and a lot of that was in the writing, in the way she set it up. It was very dramatic. And she was writing from life experience.”

Drawing on her own past, Powell taps personal feelings and incidents that deeply resonate with others.

“When I think about what I’ve been through I can reach people that others who haven’t been through the same thing can’t.”

Writing’s become her creative and therapeutic outlet.

“It’s in everything I do. I just bleed writing, I cant explain it. I feel it’s so healing, it’s medicine to me, it’s done so much for me, it keeps me going.”

She hardly believes what’s happened since last April. Winning the speech competition. Graduating UNO. Hired to write her Momaha blog. Getting her memoir published. Taking the job with the Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs

“It’s huge.”

Along the way, she’s discovered what she wants to do with the rest of her life – motivational speaking. “That’s what I’m going to do, that’s my calling – writing and speaking. It comes to me very easily. It’s a burdensome joy, it takes everything out of me, but once I’m done I need to do it again. My body replenishes itself and the thoughts come.”

She sees a through-line from her writing to her Christian faith.

“The book was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done. I kid you not, it was one of these things where if I didn’t pray I couldn’t write. When I turned 22 I rededicated my life back to Christ. I started doing the right things. Like my dad wakes up every day and he has to choose to do the right thing, I have to wake up and choose to do the right thing. I’m a high self-monitor because I have to be. If I see myself looking for certain things or acting a certain way I pull myself back.”

She says it took the crucible of writing her book and finding her voice before “I finally started to see this is my purpose in life.” Her father, who’s on parole and strung together five months of sobriety until a New Year’s relapse, is her biggest supporter. “He always reminds me, ‘You’re a born storyteller, you have to do this.’ I think that’s what kept me going.”

He works in a culinary program and eyes opening his own bakery one day. Tunette wants to help him achieve it. Despite everything he did to her and the family she loves him,

“Me and my dad, we’ve got the closest relationship. I speak to my dad every day. It’s been heartbreaking for me because I am so close to him, so even when he had his recent relapse I was the one calling my grandma every hr to see if he came in, I was the one on the phone with his girlfriend, listening to her as she talked about how she’s tired of my dad and all this.

“I’m trying to still be there for my family and not show that I’m so hurt. I love my dad so much but I’m the one who could be hurt the most because I’m the one who’s put so much in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on her book her father fleshed out things she didn’t know before, including  just how unfaithful he was to her mother in the throes of his using. “It was so hard to hear that part,” she says.

“There’s some scenes in the book I couldn’t have written without him because I was not there and he allowed me to interview him, so I played reporter.”

She says she was saddened to learn his father and step-father were both raging alcoholics. She suspects some of what she had him dredge up and some of what she’s written about will sadden him, but in the end, she says, “I think he’s grown from this process. I could see him healing. I think when he reads the book it will make him really strong.”

Just as it’s brought her healing and strength. She can hardly believe where she’s come to. Things looked so bleak only a few years ago and now she’s on her way.

“My favorite quotation is, ‘Attitude is the thing that can change the color of any room.’ I mean, that’s just what I live by.”

She envisions a time, not long from now, when she and her father will present together.

“I think of my dad as a poor man’s Aristotle. Anything I need – a bible verse, a quote, a statistic – Ii call my dad and he’s got it. He has so much knowledge, he has so much to give the world. God let him go through so much so he’ll be able to reach people others can’t reach. He can really get on people’s level and really talk to them. He says he knows his calling is teaching.”

Her father even provided the tag line that ends her award-winning speech:

“The irony here is that we live in a society where we are told to recycle. We recycle paper, aluminum, and old electronics. But why don’t we ever consider recycling the most precious thing on earth – the human life.”

There’s a book release party for Powell’s memoir The Other Woman on Saturday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the UNO Art Gallery in the Weber Fine Arts building.

Visit Powell’s website at http://www.tunettepowell.com. Her Momaha blog can be found at http://www.omaha.com/section/moms. Her book is available wherever books are sold.

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

November 25, 2012 4 comments

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons

 

After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.

The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.

Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.

 

 

photo
Theresa Glass Union, ©New Horizons

 

 

Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.

It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.

At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.

As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.

It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.

Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.

With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.

“The church is central to my family here.”

She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.

She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.

In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.

The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.

 

 

photo
Theresa and her brother James Glass with the children
©New Horizons

 

 

As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.

“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.

On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.

“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The     8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”

In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.

“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”

System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.

“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .

“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”

Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.

“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against.  I get my strength from her.”

The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”

Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.

Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..

“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.

In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”

Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.

Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.

“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”

Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.

Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”

It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”

She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.

“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”

Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”

Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.

“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.

“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”

 

 

photo
Theresa with Amari, Miyonna and Keira
©New Horizons

 

 

Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.

“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”

The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.

“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”

Things stated out different the second time around.

“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.

“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”

The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.

“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”

In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.

Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:

“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.

“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”

Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.

“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”

Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.

“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”

The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.

“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.

It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.

Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”

Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.

Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.

“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.

“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”

Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.

 

 

photo
Theresa, with portrait of her three adult children in background
©New Horizons

 

 

Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.

“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.

“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”

She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.

Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.

“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”

Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.

Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”

The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.

In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”

She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.

“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”

Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.

Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”

Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.

 

 

Theresa and Gabrielle at Think Like a Man premiere in Atlanta
©wireimage.co.in

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is what I hope you find to be a touching and inspiring piece about Budge Porter, a one-time Husker football player left paralyzed after tackling a teammate in a spring practice but despite overwhelming physical challenges his friendly demeanor and positive outlook on life have never left him.  Recently, Budge, his wife, and their two children were the beneficiaries of a campaign to raise funds for a totally barrier-free home that will accommodate Budge and his special needs without looking in the least institutional.  That customized adaptive, accesssible home is nearly complete and the Porters are very close to moving in and enjoying it.  Led by local builder Brad Brown, the Budge Porter Project is entirely dependent on donations, of which there have been many, and now Budge hopes he can help others similarly afflicted like him find the resources they need to ease the burdens in their lives.  My story is in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Budge Porter, omaha.com

 

 

 

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine

 

Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.

What he’s never lost is determination and, remarkably, a positive outlook. It’s what helped him build a successful stockbroker career, woo and marry his college sweetheart and start a family when many doubted he could do those things. He and his wife Diane are parents to three children.

His will has continued carrying him through recent setbacks.

“Every step of our lives we’ve been told this can’t be done,” says Budge. “We have the character between the two of us, working together with great friends and family, to beat all those odds…”

Disappointments are not foreign to us,” Diane says. “There were many hopeless feelings and times of despair through all this, but I think so often what’s saved us is that you get to the point where you’re either going to laugh or cry and we’ve chosen always to laugh. You kind of know in your heart of hearts it’s always going to work out and it always does. It’s like you’ve got to throw it up to God or whatever and just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to work out and we will survive.’”

That indefatigable spirit is what’s motivated friends and well-wishers to build a completely barrier-free home for this never-say-die warrior and his family. The non-profit Budge Porter Project is a volunteer, donation-fueled effort led by Omaha home designer-builder Brad Brown, whose Archistructure has supervised construction of the pottery barn or rustic ranch style home at 13522 Corby Street.

“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him,” says Brown. “You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity. I don”t think it started off that way but it’s led him to a sense of inner peace.

“He’s a very open and caring person. When you’re around him you feel like a breath of fresh air.”

The 1,900-plus square foot home includes an elevator, a therapy pool, a tracking-lift system, ramps and various features built at wheelchair level and wherever possible, subtle and aesthetically pleasing. Those are big-ticket items the Porters could never afford themselves, but donations in excess of $120,000 have purchased them.

Subcontractors and suppliers have given time and materials. Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces owner Sam Marchese donated all the cabinets and countertops. He also co-signed Porter’s home loan and hosted an August 15 fundraiser.

Steve Reeder gifted the lot.

Accepting help doesn’t come easy for Porter, who hails from a long line of orchard and farm owners. They’re a tough, independent lot. His father and grandfather both played at Nebraska. When Budge and brother Scott carried on the football legacy there, the school had its first and only three generation athletic family.

 

Budge and family at the foundation of his new home, netnewsnebraska.tumblr.com

 

 

 

“He feels somewhat embarrassed and undeserving,” says Brown, “because he’s always made it on his own. I told him, ‘This is a hand-up, not a hand-out and it’s something these guys are tickled to give back.’ It makes us all feel so good.”

To customize the home to Budge’s specific needs Brown had to ask personal questions and view Budge in intimate situations. Diane says Kent Pavelka’s public relations company made a video documenting what Budge contends with daily.

“I looked at Kent and Sam and Brad and they were all crying,” says Diane. “They didn’t realize what the simple act of getting in and out of bed is for Budge. He’s so good about downplaying all the stuff that goes with his injury and he doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him. But I’ve often said if people really knew what it takes to be him every day it’d be very hard to keep positive because it’s exhausting. A lesser man would not handle it as well as he has.”

The experience gave Brown a deeper appreciation for Budge’s “courage” and bonded the two men even more.

“We were really good friends but we’re definitely brothers now,” says Budge.

The Porters have always managed dealing with the challenges of paralysis but then Budge lost big in the 2000 stock market crash, which also cost him many clients similarly hard hit. Osteoporosis forced him to retire in his mid-50s and go on disability.

A stretch of the Papio Creek behind the family’s previous home eroded, causing such severe damage to the property the home’s value plummeted. Health scares resulted in long, expensive hospitalizations. Finally, Budge swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy. The family gave up their home. Getting a loan and finding a new place to live proved daunting.

It seemed like more than one family could bear.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” Budge says.

He’s heartened by how others have responded to their plight.

“We’ll never be able to repay all these people other than just to tell them we’re forever grateful. We’re rich beyond compare with friends. We intend to be good stewards of these benefits.”

Budge views the home as “a legacy” for Diane and the kids when he’s gone.

He hopes to inspire and assist others through the Budge Porter Project.

“I would love to see us form a foundation to raise future monies to help others in need along these same lines. There’s a lot of people far worse off than us and we feel for them and pray for them and we just hope they’re as fortunate someday to have the type of friends we’re blessed with to give them a hand.”

Donations may be made at http://www.budgeporter.bbnow.org.

Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

October 31, 2012 1 comment

 

For those of you wondering if all I ever write about is Alexander Payne, here’s a story that shows what I’m capable of outside the whole filmmaking and arts-culture arena.  It’s a profile of Iraq war veteran Jacob Hausman, a native Nebraskan whose battle with PTSD I chronicle.  Thankfully, Jake’s found peace with the help of counseling, prescription drugs, friends, and a lot of work on himself.  The extensive profile is the cover story in the current Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine, whose editors graciously alloted a 12-page layout, which is almost unheard of these days.  Thanks to Jake for sharing his story.  It’s my privilege to share it with all of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine

 

One Man’s Journey into War

Growing up in Beatrice, Neb. Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing the rite of passage known as basic training he finally realized his long-held dream. He made it as an infantryman, too, meaning he’d joined the “hardcore” ranks of the all-guts-and-no-glory grunts who do the dirty work of war on the ground.

By the time his enlistment ended three years later Hausman earned a combat service badge during a year’s deployment in Iraq. He participated in scores of successful missions targeting enemy forces. He saw comrades in arms, some of them close friends, die or incur life-threatening wounds. He survived but there were things he saw and did he couldn’t get out of his mind. Physical and emotional battle scars began negatively impacting his quality of life back home.

Headaches. Ringing in the ears. Dizziness. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Irritability. Depression. Anxiety. Certain sounds bothered him. He felt perpetually on edge and on high alert, as if still patrolling the hostile streets of Mosul or Fallujah. With his fight or flight response system stuck in overdrive, he slept only fitfully.

A relationship he started with a woman ended badly. He lived in his parents’ basement, unemployed, isolating himself except for beer-soaked nights out that saw him drink to oblivion in order to escape or numb the anguish he felt inside. No one but his fellow vets knew the full extent of his misery.

With things careening out of control Hausman sought professional help. Hardly to his own surprise, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone who’s endured trauma is prone to develop it. Sustained exposure to combat makes soldiers particularly vulnerable. Not all combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD but nearly a third are.

What did surprise Hausman was learning he’d suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TIB). In retrospect, it made sense because the Stryker combat vehicle he was in absorbed an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast that knocked him unconscious. Studies confirm ever stronger charges like that one caused many more such injuries as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. Injuries of this type often went undetected or unreported in the past.

So it was Hausman became a casualty among returning veterans. Some estimates put their numbers with PTSD and/or TIB at a quarter of a million. Statistics alone don’t tell the story. In each case an individual experiences disruptive symptoms that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. The suicide rate among this group is high.

The scope of this health care crisis has strained VA resources. In some locales benefit claims are months behind schedule. Nebraska’s VA system has largely kept pace with demand. Hausman’s own claim was expedited quickly. He was found to be 90 percent disabled.

Six years after starting a VA treatment regimen of counseling and medication to address his PTSD issues, along with physical therapy to mitigate his TBI symptoms, his life’s turned around. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bellevue University. He’s gainfully employed today as a veterans service representative at the Lincoln VA. He also does outreach work with vets. He recently married the former Kendra Koch of Beatrice and the couple reside in a home in Papiliion.

They adopted a Lab-Golden Retriever mixed dog, Lucy, from a rescue animal shelter. Kendra’s an animal lover like Jacob, who with his mother Gayla Hausman and his friend Matthew Brase own and operate the foundation Voice for Companion Animals.

Throughout his active duty Army tenure Jake carried inside his kevlar helmet a photo of his favorite adolescent companion, a chihuahua named Pepe. Not long after Jake’s return from Iraq the dog took sick and had to be put down.

Jacob and Kendra are seriously considering starting a family.

Emotional and physical challenges persist for him but he has tools to manage them. No longer stuck in the past, he lives one day at a time to his fullest and looks ahead to realizing some dreams. Contentment seemed impossible when he was in the depths of his malaise. His is only one man’s story, but his recovery illustrates PTSD and TBI need not permanently debilitate someone.

He’s certainly not the same Jake Hausman who joined the Army a decade ago. “I came back a completely different person. I had so much life experience,” he says. Good and bad. If nothing else, it matured him. His views on the military and war have changed. He’s not bitter, but he is wizened beyond his 28 years and he wants people to know just how personal and final the cost of waging war is. He also wants fellow vets to know the VA is their friend.

Soldier Boy

Like a lot of young people, he had a romantic view of soldiering. He saw it as a ticket out of his small town to find thrills and see the world.

“People live in Beatrice for a hundred years. It’s like my grandpa lived here, my mom lived here, and I’m going to live here, and I didn’t want that for myself. I struggled at school, I didn’t succeed, I was in trouble with the law, I didn’t have a bright future. And the Army at least promised adventure, intrigue. I just thought, Gosh, I want to be part of a story that can be told from generations to generations. I wanted to be part of something greater than myself.

“I didn’t feel connected (before). I mean, I was social, I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and I really craved that. I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and that (the infantry) really gave it to me.”

You might assume the catalyst for his enlistment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you’d be wrong. Long before then he’d made up his mind  he would enlist as soon as he could. He wanted it so bad that he was only 17 when the Army took him with his parents’ written consent. He completed high school early.

“Since I was like 5 years-old I wanted to be a part of the infantry. My mom’s father was in the infantry during the Korean War, and that’s why I ultimately joined. So I was always allured by the infantry because they’re the hardest, the best, the whole thing. I was beyond motivated.

“The struggle, the fight, well that’s all true.You actually get to experience those things and it’s not pretty and glorified. What I always tell people is that in combat and war no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate, it’s pure survival instincts, and when you’re in those situations you’re not doing it for the flag you’re doing it for your friend to the left and right of you.”

He couldn’t know the hard realities of war before experiencing it. He only thought about the excitement, the camaraderie, the tradition.

“Well, I got all those things, and I got a little bit more than I bargained for.”

You’re in the Army Now

His service almost got shelved before getting started. Weeks before leaving for basic training he was behind the wheel of his car as friends imbibed from open alcohol containers when Beatrice police pulled them over. Already on probation for underage drinking violations, Hausman “freaked out” and fled the scene. He later turned himself in. Authorities could have used the pending charges to prevent him from going in the Army. A probation officer became his advocate.

“She went above and beyond for me,” he says. “She saw something in me and just really pushed for me and got it dropped. Two weeks later I left (for basic). About three years later when I came back I told her what that meant to me and who I am now because of it. If it wasn’t for her this story would have never happened.”

So off he went for the adventure of his life. Rude awakenings came early and often at Fort Benning, Ga. for this “spoiled only-child” who’d never done his own laundry.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.”

Mental and physical toughness are required of infantrymen and he had no choice but to steel himself for its rigors.

“You adapt fast or you suffer,” he says, “and I was one who adapted fast. The infantry is so hard. There’a lot of hazing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Hazing and all, he says, “I thought basic training was the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why it was powerful for me is that it was all about the mission, there was no individualism, we we’re all a team. I really loved that.

“My master’s is in leadership, where the focus is on what can you do for the team, and that’s what the infantry is. No matter if you show up with a shaved head or dreadlocks, you get your head shaved. No matter if you’re clean shaved or you have a beard, you get your face shaved. It’s just part of it. They strip you down to your very bare minimum and it’s all about coming together as a team, being a man, learning how to get along with others and learning different cultures.

“You’re talking about someone who as a kid had one black person in his class and now I had blacks, Hispanics, Jamaicans in my barracks. I’d never dealt with that. I learned so much from other people, it was fantastic. They treated me like everyone else, I treated them like everyone else.”

Infantry training is largely about endurance.

“The whole infantry thing is walking and running while carrying a 50 to 75 pound rucksack,” he says. “Can you walk a long ways with all that weight?”

Before making it into the infantry, one must pass a final crucible. Hausman recalls it this way: “They have this legendary walk that’s like 25 miles of water, hills and so forth. It’s like your final capstone test at the very end. You know you’re an infantryman if you pass this thing. It’s hell on earth. I had to duck tape my thighs so they wouldn’t rub together. You walk through a river and your feet are wet. One entire foot was rubbed raw. I mean, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.

“It’s just a whole mental thing – can you get through the pain? It was so great getting that done. I was so proud.”

He then joined his unit in Fort Lewis, Wash. to await deployment. He says everything there was even more intense than at Fort Benning – the training, the hazing, the brotherhood, the partying. He felt he’d truly found his calling.

“I became very good at being an infantryman. You really felt a part of the team, you bonded. I mean, you just had a lot of brothers.”

He says the drills he and his mates did in the field, including playing realistic war games, made them into a cohesive fighting force.

“We were a killing machine.”

 

 

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Desert War

A downside to barracks life, he says, is all the alcohol consumption. “Drinking is the culture, I’m talking excessively. In the military you’re drinking hard liquor and you’re just drinking till you curl up. That’s the path that started going bad for me there.” But a substance abuse problem was the least of his worries once in Iraq in 2003.

His company was assigned to the new Stryker Brigade, which took its name from the 8-wheel Stryker combat vehicle. “Something in-between a Humvee and a tank,” Hausman describes it. “After Somalia our brass decided we needed a vehicle which could put infantry in the city, let us do our thing, and get us out fast.”

It carried a crew of six.

“We built cages (of slat armor) on the outside to stop RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).” The cages proved quite effective. However, Strykers had a problem with rollovers, a defect Hausman would soon experience to his horror.

“We had a lot of good intelligence from special forces initially. Every day we would kick someone’s door down and take out a terrorist. We’d either arrest him, kill him, do whatever. We killed a lot of bad guys.

“Once the intelligence stopped we kind of ran out of operations to do.”

Then his squad’s duty consisted of doing presence patrols  “It basically was to show the Iraqis we were around, but in all reality it was walk around until we got shot at so we could kill people.”

Draw fire, identify target, engage.

Hausman was a specialist as the squad designated marksman. “I had an extra weapon – a snipe rifle. I’d go out with the snipers and we’d do recon on special missions,” he explains. “We’d take fire here and there but we’d maybe only get in a firefight every three weeks.”

He was part of a Quick Reaction Force unit that responded within minutes to crises in the field. That sometimes meant coming back from a long operation only to have to go right back out without any sleep.

“Once, we got into an 18-hour firefight when we were called to secure two HET vehicles hit by RPGs and abandoned by their transportation team. It was a residential district in Mosul. We got there and RPGs start blasting and IEDs started popping. It was just an ambush. The enemy had us surrounded 360 degrees . We were pinned down taking gunfire. This was life or death. At a certain point you’re not thinking, it’s pure survival animal instinct.

“I turned the corner at a T-intersection and there were muzzle flashes from windows. There were four of us versus about six muzzle flashes. It was just who could kill who fastest. A guy came across the roof and I fired my 203 grenade launcher, BOOM, dead. A squad member got shot and paralyzed. Another got wounded by an RPG, his intestines spilling out. He was EVACd out.”

He says in situations like these you confront the question: “Are you really committed to killing another human being? And I have killed another person.” Despite today’s automatic weapons, he says, “you’re still seeing a human being face-to-face, you’re still pulling a trigger on someone, you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.”

In the aftermath of such intense action, he says, “you’re hiked up, you can’t sleep.” Indeed, he “couldn’t let down” for his entire nine months in Iraq. “You just can’t let your guard down.” Even on leave back home he was so conditioned by threats that “driving back from the airport,” he recalls, “I was looking for IEDs on the road, scanning the roofs for snipers.” When he could finally release the pent-up stress he slept three straight days.

A Tragic Accident

As bad as firefights got he says “the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life occurred about a month after I got to Iraq.” It didn’t involve a single gunshot or explosion either. It was his turn operating the Stryker. His team, followed by another in a second Stryker, were on a muddy backroad near Sumatra heading to do recon. A ravine on their side of the road led to a canal. Suddenly, the road gave way and both Strykers overturned into the canal. The ensuing struggle haunts him still.

“We’re upside down, water starts running in, it’s miserable cold. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s over.’”

He recalls hearing his father’s voice telling him not to panic.

“I don’t know how I got the hatch open, I just muscled it and the water rushed in. I took a deep breath and went down in it. My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, Is this how I’m going to die?

I escaped from the bottom somehow and got on the side.”

Only to find himself trapped again. He began swallowing water.

“I looked up and I could kind of see the moon. I started clawing, clawing, clawing and gasping for air. I made it. I gathered my thoughts, climbed on the vehicle, and saw one of my buddies had gotten flung out .We went to the back,” where they found their mates trapped below, desperate for escape. “We were all fighting to get the hatch open. It was just terrible. We get the hatch open and everyone’s there.”

A roll-call accounted for all hands. Except in the rush to get out a team member got “trampled over” and drowned.

“We got his body out and did CPR but it was five minutes too late.”

Hausman was “really good friends” with the victim, Joseph Blickenstaff.

The driver and squad leader in the second vehicle also died. Hausman was friends with the driver, J. Riverea Wesley. Staff sergeant Steven H. Bridges was the squad leader lost that day.

Assessing what happened, Hausman says, “It was chaos, it was tragedy. That really shattered me for a while. I won’t let it ruin my life, I’ll go swimming and stuff, but it was just traumatic. It is hard to deal with – getting over it. There’s some parts of it I will never get over.”

The Aftermath Comes Home

War being war, there’s no time or support for processing tragedy and trauma. “It was shove everything inside, shut up, move forward,” says Jake. Those unresolved feelings came tumbling out like an “avalanche” when he got back home in 2004.

“I was just a train wreck. I was miserable, destroyed. My emotions ran wild. I couldn’t sleep. I was just so anxious. I couldn’t take deep breaths, I would sniff, just like a dog panting. Like a 24-hour panic attack. You’re uncomfortable being you every second of the day. You’re not in control and that’s what you’re afraid of. Just freaking out about stuff. I was so afraid at night I would get up nine or 10 times and check the lock on my door. The nightmares are incredible.”

Excessive drinking became his coping mechanism. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink to keep his demons at bay.

“You’re in a vicious cycle and you can’t get out of it,” he says.

“At one point I contemplated suicide because I was like, What is the point of living when I am this bad, this miserable? Is it ever going to get better than this?”

His family saw him unraveling.

“Mom and dad were worried, deathly worried, but they didn’t know how to handle it.  They didn’t know if it was a stage or my turning 21. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

“Usually in this population patients turn to drinking or to other substance abuse and the number one reason they tell me they do it is because they can’t sleep or to fight off nightmares,” says Omaha VA social worker Heather Bojanski. “They don’t want to come in for help, they don’t want medication, and drugs and alcohol are easy to get a hold of. They’d rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face there is a problem.”

Jim Rose, a meant health physician’s assistant with the Lincoln VA, says recovery has to start with someone recognizing they have a problem and wanting to deal with it. “If they’re still reluctant to accept that as a problem then it makes it very difficult. Help’s out there but it is difficult with this group who by nature tend to be more self-reliant and have the world by the shoulders, and then to have something like this happen kind of turns things upside down.”

There’s no set timetable for when PTSD might present in someone.

“They’re all on a continuum,” says Bojanski. “Two veterans can come back who have seen and been through the same exact thing and one will seem perfectly fine and the other may immediately start struggling. That all depends on a few things – what was going on in their life when they came back, how much family support they have. It’s all going to depend on them and their family and what’s going on and how honest they are with themselves.

“If they come back and they have great family support and their family’s in tune and really watching them, then they’ll do well. But if nobody’s really paying attention and they’re just doing their own thing and they start isolating and drinking, then those are big issues to look at and people really need to encourage them to come in.”

Hausman says, “There’s a threshold of stress. It’s going to come out eventually if you don’t take care of it. For me it came out real early. I was a boy, I was not equipped for getting used up in the war machine.”

Rose says PTSD tends to be suppressed among active duty military because they’re in a protective environment around people with similar experiences. But once separated from the military it becomes a different matter.

“They feel isolated and the symptoms will probably intensify,” he says. “It’s usually a couple years after discharge people reach a point where they just can’t cope with it anymore and something’s going to happen – they’re going to get in trouble or they’re going to ask for help, and that’s when we see them.”

That’s how it was for Hausman, who concealed the extent of his problems from family and friends and tried coping alone.

“I didn’t want to burden them with that, My friends, they thought it was just old Jake because I’m a partier, I’m gregarious, so they enjoyed it. But they didn’t see the dark side of it. They didn’t understand the mega depression and anxiety. When I was drunk I could shield it.

“But there’s usually one of two people in your life that know you. Robert Engel is probably my best friend to this today. He was in my unit. He lives in Kansas City (Mo.).He recognizes when I’m down, I recognize when he’s down. We kind of pick each other up. He’s seen me at my lowest point but he accepts me for who I am and I accept him for who he is and we sincerely care about each other.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Help

“When I decided I wasn’t going to kill himself I resolved to figure this out,” says Jake. “I started reading spirituality, I started studying psychology.”

Most importantly, he sought help from the Veterans Administration. He and a fellow vet in Lincoln, Mike Krause, talked straight about what he needed to do. Like any vet seeking services Hausman underwent screenings. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

The intake process works the same for all vets.

Bojanski says, “We sit down with each of them individually and decide what level of care they need.” In the case of Hausman, she says, “He came to the VA and we started to treat him and then when he started to take medication he stopped drinking and it was like an eye opening experience to him that, Oh my God, I’ve been suffering all this time. He started to go to groups, he talked to other people and realized, Wow, I’m not the only one suffering. Other people he knew from his unit were going.”

Rose says the medications commonly prescribed for PTSD are “a mixed bag” in terms of effectiveness. He emphasizes “there is no medication that cures these symptoms, but we have got things that can help people lead better lives, including anti-depressants  and anti-psychotics.” To supplement the meds he says “we try to steer people to cognitive therapy counseling.”

A holistic mind-body-spirit approach has worked for Hausman.

“That’s why exercise is important, counseling is important, and you have to supplement it with medication,” he says. “It’s not just a one trick pony, you can’t just throw some meds at someone and expect them to get better, you have to do all those things.”

Rose salutes Hausman and anyone who embraces recovery. “It’s a fairly lengthy process and it involves commitment. It’s not a passive act. Jake’s a testament to people that if you really want to get through it you can.”

Lincoln VA substance abuse counselor Mary Ann Thompson admires him for getting sober and “remaining clean and sober and productive.”

Bojanski sees a new Jake, saying, “He has a much better outlook on life. He’s very proactive.”

More than most, Kendra Hausman appreciates how far her husband’s come: “I’ve seen a lot less anxiety. Overall, he’s more calm, more level-headed, he’s able to handle situations better. He doesn’t get as angry or as worked up about small things like he used to. He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now but I’m so proud of him for moving forward. He’s very determined. Once he puts his mind to doing something he’ll get it done no matter what. He’ll figure out what he needs to do, just like he did with his school and career.”

Jake himself says, “I’ve come a long ways. Life us so much better.” What he’s realized, he says, is “there are just some things you cannot willpower, you just have to get help from people. I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me. And that’s what I’ve learned -– you have to ask for help, you have to be willing to get help. The VA is there to help people. They’ve helped me so many times.”

Bojanski says the VA’s more responsive to veterans’ needs today.

“The VA realized we did a lousy job welcoming Vietnam veterans back home, so when this war started we wanted to be proactive and make sure we welcomed our veterans home. We didn’t want them to have a stigma with mental health, we wanted to make sure everything was in place. So we created these clinics (OEF or Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom or OIE) where we work very hard with veterans. It’s very confidential, so not everybody in their unit is going to find out. We have an ER open 24 hours a day.

“It’s not like it used to be when you just had to soldier on or if you reached out for help it wasn’t confidential.”

She says there isn’t as much stigma now about seeking mental health care.

“It’s getting better, we’re still not where we need to be, but I will say the armed forces, the Department of Defense and our population in general are changing their views about that. We also do a lot of outreach, a lot of speaking to communities to make sure people are aware it’s OK to get help.”

Hausman does outreach himself as a way of giving back. He says when he addresses audiences of freshly returned vets he commands their attention.

“They believe in me because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m working for the VA. I’m 90 percent service connected, I’ve got a combat infantry badge. Seeing them is like seeing my reflection. I’m motivated to get them right before they take the wrong path. Someone got me over the hump and I want to get them to that point, too. I want to help veterans get the services they need. It’s just so rewarding.”

 

 

 

Jacob,, Kendra and their dog

 

 

The War that Never Ends, Moving on with Life

His PTSD still flare-ups now and then.

“Recently I had a little struggle for a while but I didn’t fall back into the past because I’ve got good people in my life today.” He says he has combat veteran friends who still struggle because “they don’t have the support system.”

He accepts the fact he’ll always be dealing with the effects of war.

“There are some things I would change but it’s made me who I am even with all the disabilities and struggles and everything I face. I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace. There’s some breaking points where you feel sorry for yourself and you have little pity parties but then again I look around me and see what I have – a great support system, a wonderful wife. It’s made me stronger.”

Finding Kendra, who works as a speech pathologist with the Omaha Public Schools, has been a gift.

“She is the light of my life, she changed my life. Her enthusiasm for life is just  breathtaking. She’s smart, beautiful, loving. She’s the greatest teacher in my life. She doesn’t need to understand everything I go through but sometimes I need her to help me get through it.

“I was going through a low point and she said something to me that no one else could say to me without offending me: ‘You got through war, now you can get through this, so suck it up.’ From her that meant a lot. She knows me at that fundamental level to tell me what I need to hear sometimes.

“We’re really good together.”

Flareups or not, Jake’s moving on with life and not looking back.

If you have a concern about a veteran or want more information, call 402-995-4149. The VA’s local crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. For the latest findings on PTSD, visit http://www.ptsd.va.gov/aboutface.

Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus

July 17, 2012 3 comments

Like a lot of institutions for higher learning Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. offers students, faculty, and staff various international outreach opportuntiees that follow under service learning immersion trips.  Some of Creighton’s most enduring such programs operate through its Institute for Latin American Concern or ILAC, which focuses on the Dominican Republic.  The following story I wrote a few years ago for El Perico newspaper provides a primer on some of the experiences available to the Creighton community there and the give back participants engage in with the native population.
Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

In the mid-1970s a pair of Cuban exiles who became Jesuit priests assigned to Creighton University saw a need to increase North American awareness of developing nations in the region. Revs. Ernesto Fernandez-Travieso and Narciso Sanchez-Medio formed the Institute for Latin American Concern.

The program originally focused on raising consciousness through immersion experiences in the Dominican Republic, a nation of physical beauty and abject poverty. As ILAC’s evolved, its mission has, too. Creighton students and professionals venture there to provide medical-health services and to engage in cross-cultural exchanges.

Creighton annually sends 500 volunteers. Teams of medical surgeons, dentists, specialists, ophthalmologists, nurses, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists and students visit different times of the year. A water quality control team and a law team also go. Area high school students visit, too. The groups vary in size.

Creighton physical therapy program director Julie Ekstrum said the trips offer “a profound experience. Personally, I can’t help but be impacted by the amazingly generous and warm people. Professionally, it challenges me to think more creatively about how I do physical therapy and care for people by making do with fewer resources.”

Ekstrum has been to the D.R. eight times.

Holly Fuller, ILAC director at Creighton, first went to the D.R. as an undergrad.

“I just absolutely fell in love with the experience, the sense of community, and the friendliness and willingness of the people to be open and to take you into their family,” said Fuller, who now spends three months a year there. “It’s very rarely I feel lonely — there’s too much going on.”

Fuller said she applied for her present job in response to “a calling” she felt to address the needs of people beset by unemployment, chronic disease and subsistence living. “I just can’t imagine sitting around hoping that somebody else is going to fix it.”

Holly Fuller

Over time, ILAC’s presence in that poor Caribbean island nation that shares the same land mass as Haiti has increased. The ILAC center, La Mision, near Santiago in the northern reaches, has been built-up into a complex housing clinics that serve rural campos residents. ILAC clinics also operate in remote mountainous territories.

A major thrust is educating Dominicans about preventative care. Village leaders are trained to conduct basic screenings.

“Without the cooperadores and promodores we would not be able to do any of the programs that we do in a legitimate fashion,” said Fuller. “They are one hundred percent our liaison to the different communities. The Dominicans are the experts in their own culture and in their communities, so we really do rely on them. That’s really the only way you can make a successful, sustainable long term program. There’s also mutual collaboration — they share their gifts and talents with us and we share ours with them.”

Dominican native Radalme Pena directs ILAC activities in the D.R., where he heads the nonprofit NGO Centro de Education Para La Salud Integral or CESI that CU’s affiliated with. In an e-mail, Pena, said Creighton visitors “are openly accepted” by Dominicans because of the school’s long-term commitment there. “Creighton students and professionals contribute to the lives of Dominican rural families in a number of ways,” he said. “First, many groups that come to the country help change the infrastructure of rural villages by building schools, homes, aqueducts and bridges” and by serving medical missions at the ILAC Center and in outlying communities in the Cibao Valley.

“Finally,” he added, “these groups contribute to the spiritual development of Dominican communities” through “an intercultural exchange rooted in basic Gospel values and Christian faith.The cross cultural exchange…breaks down stereotypes, builds bridges and creates a world less fragmented and more unified.”

“What ILAC does is kind of two-fold,” said Fuller. “We provide quality health care to people who don’t normally have access to it, but what we really do is help transform Creighton students’ lives. Part of that transformative process is exposing students to the reality of living conditions that most of the world experiences and developing in students a responsibility for being be a part of the solution rather than sitting on the sideline.”

Creighton Public Health major Leah Latenser has made two trips to the D.R. and is prepping for a third this summer. In an e-mail she described how she’s been impacted: “I gained significant perspective on my responsibility as a citizen of the world to stand up for the justice of all people.”

During her visits she worked on a clean water project and an aqueduct, supervised a rural health clinic and assisted women’s groups. For Latenser, Third World poverty is no longer abstract. “Each one of these stories now has a face, a name, and they are a member of my family,” she said. “It makes these issues much more real and urgent.”

When the Haiti earthquake struck in January, ILAC’s Holly Fuller went to the D.R. two days later and helped assist a series of Creighton medical teams that cared for injured refugees over the next month in the southern border region. She’ll be back in June to facilitate CU’s summer program, when 75 students and 20-some professionals go. Three thousand Dominicans are expected to be served.

Pena said as the D. R. has exported the materials and technical knowledge necessary to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure, “bilateral cooperation and relations have improved greatly.” Creighton relief efforts have played a role in the recovery and healing.

For more information about ILAC programs, visit www.creighton.edu/ministry/ilac/ or call 280-3179.

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