Food, wonderful food. A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities. This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers. At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision. The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks. My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage. You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha
Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.
With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.
It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.
Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.
“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.
“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.
“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”
Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.
“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”
He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common
“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”
Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.
Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.
“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.
“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”
Sage Student Bistro
Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”
For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:
“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.
“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”
Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.
“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.
“So I try to push them.”
The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.
“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”
He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.
“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”
Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”
Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.
Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.
Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.
As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”
The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”
Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.
He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”
His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.
Both men agree the collaborative is a success.
Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”
“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”
And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”
The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.
- New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Top 10 Best Jobs For Foodies (collegefeed.com)
- Culinary Arts Club Expose (denobis.wordpress.com)
- How to Grow Your Own Herb Garden (epicahome.com)
- Crops and the Classroom: Milton Hershey School Culinary Students Get Creative With Produce During Pa.’s Peak Growing Season (prweb.com)
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world. The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection. His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year. It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either. My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.
African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard, participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.
Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.
Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.
All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”
Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”
Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”
Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.
“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, ”The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”
Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.
“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that. I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”
He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.
“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.
“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.
“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”
The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”
Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.
“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”
He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”
He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”
Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.
“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.
“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.
Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.
- The African Cultural Renaissance Movement (theiamvibration.wordpress.com)
- Elements of African Traditions and Culture (africa.answers.com)
- African Dance and Drum Festival at Little Haiti Cultural Center Aug. 3-5 (bloggingblackmiami.com)
- Drum Dances (vcharlesworth.wordpress.com)
- Interesting Articles About True African Culture (africa.answers.com)
Omaha is regarded as being an especially giving community. The corporate and foundation sectors here are known to be particulalry generous. As my cover story in Metro Magazine points out, the Omaha Community Foundation is a facilitator and catalyst for philanthropy in the city and the giving that happens through it touches many organizations and lives.
Serving Those Who Serve
OCF is bringing a collective of donors together to make more impact
Since its 1982 inception the low profile but high impact Omaha Community Foundation has been a facilitator and catalyst for philanthropy that improves quality of life and helps local nonprofits best use resources.
Making a dent
Over a 31-year history the foundation has made cumulative gifts of $1.2 billion, including $906 million in grants. More than 1,200 active donors support 3,000-plus nonprofits. Nationally, OCF is in the Philanthropy 400 despite a totally local focus compared to many peer foundations with national giving models.
OCF granted a record $125 million last year and has $654 million in assets. It has ranked as high as fourth in per capita giving among U.S. foundations.
If you’re wondering how an organization that does this much has so little name recognition it’s because new president and CEO Sara Boyd says “we’ve been pretty quiet about how we’ve done our work.” That changed somewhat in 2013 with the May 22 Omaha Gives campaign that brought the foundation into the millennial age. The 24-hour online charitable challenge raised more than $3 million, attracted in excess of 10,000 donors, many of them first-time givers, and benefited 100 percent of the 318 participating nonprofits.
The campaign’s success has other cities inquiring how Omaha did it.
Boyd says Omaha Gives coalesced the foundation’s mission “to increase giving and its impact when we come together as a community.” OCF has three main ways of fulfilling that mission.
“We are here to strengthen the nonprofit community. We’re here to bring people together around issues of importance so that there’s some collective movement as a community towards progress. And then we’re here to grow the resources available for our community in the charitable arena,” says Boyd. “Omaha Gives is one of those unique things that actually touches on all of those.
“We can’t do any of that without our donors and the partnerships we have with the nonprofit community because they’re the ones on the ground pursuing missions to actually make the change happen. We’re an amalgamation of lots of different people. We’re a participatory organization. We don’t exist on our own without the 1,200 or so individuals, families, companies making donations in our community to make it better. When we focus together on different efforts that’s where the ultimate benefit to our community is that much greater.”
A new approach
Omaha Gives provided an accelerated community donor platform.
“The idea was we can come together in one concentrated period of time as a community and really do some pretty amazing things,” says Boyd. “And by coming out in that visible way we can reinforce and demonstrate what it means to participate in a bigger universe of community.”
OCF board member Jennifer Hamann, who championed and helped organize Omaha Gives, says, “It wasn’t about necessarily bringing donors to us, it was really about bringing people to philanthropy.”
Boyd says, “It’s an easy, accessible, low-entry way to support organizations that align with donors’ interests. They learn about more opportunities to give and ways to plug-into the community. The long term goal is that people get more involved, not even monetarily but through volunteerism.”
Part of the appeal the effort held is what Omaha Steaks senior vice president Todd Simon calls “the gamification” aspects that included a time limit, a countdown and prizes. He’s says the fun ways Omaha Gives could engage people “captured our imagination.” It’s why Omaha Steaks provided a $1,000 match to individual donations picked hourly at random for a grand total of $24,000 in matching donations by the company during the 24-hour challenge.
Similarly, American National Bank supported participation prizes to small and large nonprofits netting the most unique donors.
“We wanted to encourage further and deeper giving and saw this as an opportunity to do that,” says American National Bank executive chairman John Kotouc. “This seemed like an exciting way to encourage giving, especially encouraging smaller gifts to bolster the charitable framework we rely on in this community.”
Omaha Gives generates buzz
Boyd says the excitement around Omaha Gives events that many nonprofits held was palpable: “The energy and enthusiasm made me feel like it was bringing the community together in a way I haven’t seen for awhile.”
That excitement extended to The Literacy Center, whose executive director Kirsten Case describes Omaha Gives as “a powerful fundraising tool” to increase visibility and connect with new donors. As with many participating groups, the Center exceeded fundraising expectations.
“Our goal was to raise $2,500,” says Case. “We raised a total of $7,551, three times our original goal. Two thirds was raised through small individual donations The remaining amount consists of matching dollars as well as a participation prize of $1,000 for the number of unique donors that participated. The funds raised are supporting our growing GED program where we are helping adult students move towards self-sufficiency.”
Nebraska Humane Society development and communications specialist Elizabeth Hilpipre says Omaha Gives aligned well with the organization’s heavy online and social media presence. The nonprofit raised $72,000 during the campaign, including a $10,000 participation prize for having the most unique donors among large organizations.
“We are already using those donor dollars to provide medical treatment and care for animals in our facility,” says Hilpipre.
Kotouc says Omaha Gives is just the latest expression of OCF “applying themselves in a creative way to bringing together those who want to give money to those nonprofits with needs. That day stimulated a lot of interest and it spurred others on to make donations.”
Boyd notes that OCF is far more than a transactional organization funnellng monies. Its Capacity Building program, for example, is designed to enhance and strengthen participating nonprofits.
“We take on about 10 organizations a year. Our leadership does a 12-month assessment of where the organization is and what it needs to take it to the next level. It’s a pretty intense, deep, time-intensive program. A lot of analysis goes into it. An organization has to be in the right space for that to work well.”
She says capacity building “is increasingly focused on strategic planning as a way to focus the energies of organizational leadership. If we have organizations that have some longer term thinking behind where they’re headed and a more focused resource allocation attention then we’re going to be better able to help them meet their missions. They in turn will be more effective and the outcome for the community will be greater, So, it’s really an investment in those organizations.”
Additionally, OCF offers fiscal sponsorship, account management services, including planned giving support, and some turnkey marketing assistance.
“Nonprofits are always welcome to call us with questions if they get in a spot or better want to understand an opportunity.”
Responding to community needs
To better meet pressing and emerging community needs OCF is partnering with the United Way of the Midlands and the Iowa West Foundation in doing a needs assessment through Wilder Research.
“It really came out of our strategic planning dialogue,” says Boyd. “We asked ourselves, If we’re bringing people together around specific issues how do we prioritize what the issues are? What we thought we were lacking was the voice of the community. We did a survey and we went out and had conversations in different pockets of the community.
“The best value we add in our community is as a lever. By having the Omaha Community foundation involved in philanthropy in Omaha we’re able to increase what we’re able to accomplish as a community on the back end. That means the kid that needs a flashlight from Youth Emergency Services or the homeless person that needs assistance finding housing stability or somebody hungry not only finding food but meeting with prevention specialists. If we’re doing our job well more of that is happening across the community. We’re part of a chain of organizations trying to affect that positive change.”
Boyd says the success of Omaha Gives is further evidence of the metro’s generosity and suggests “there’s a lot of energy and support around the idea of giving that we can still do more with.”
Learn about giving opportunities at omahafoundation.org.
~ SARA BOYD, PRESIDENT, CEO | OMAHA COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
- The Community Foundation requests nominations for philanthropy honorees in Madison County (al.com)
- Community Foundation of Northern Colorado launches flood relief funds (northfortynews.com)
- Thursday is North Texas Giving Day (star-telegram.com)
Neighborhoods. It used to be the norm not the exception that neighbors knew one another and did things together. A yearning to return to that communal model inspired a pair of Omaha women, Sharon Olson and Beth Richards, to create a neighborhood space that encourages togetherness over a shared passion for people, canning, conversation and community. Their Minne Lusa House in North Omaha has become a popular gathering spot for folks looking to connect and collaborate. Read my New Horizons cover story about these ladies and their special house.
Sharon Olson and Beth Richards
Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Without a grant or loan to assist them, they bought and restored an old, run down house in their Minne Lusa neighborhood for the express purpose of making it a place of social engagement. It’s an expression of their shared love for people, conversation, canning and community.
The tan, stucco structure at 2737 Mary St. is a kind of neighborhood clubhouse where folks come for private canning lessons, public workshops and the every Saturday Morning Brew open house. Groups hold meetings there. Writers, artists and others use it as a quiet sanctuary for creative inspiration and meditation.
The women fixed up the house with the sweat equity of friends, neighbors and local contractors, tearing down walls, gutting entire rooms, replacing the attic floor and making many major improvements.
They’ve done it all with their own money and without the aid of a church or community organization or government program. “And never will as far as I’m concerned,” says Olson, who believes in self-sufficiency. “Why wait until you die and give your money to somebody who doesn’t even care what happens when you can spend your money and do things in a neighborhood that maybe will make a change?”
The cozy home includes a pantry with metal shelving units filled with jars packed to the brim with canned tomatoes, bruschetta, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickled peaches, sweet and dill pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. The pantry has two antique tools used during the canning process – a hanging scale and a pestle and mortar from her druggist grandfather. More shelving units store the pickling spices, flour and other ingredients used in the canning and baking that goes on there.
When truck loads of corn or bushelfuls of tomatoes come in from community gardens and local farms there’s a buzz of activity as folks gather to shuck, peel, chop, boil, spice and can the bounty. It’s a throwback to the canning parties and barn-raisings of yesteryear.
Right-hand gals Diane Franson-Krisor and Diana McIntosh, part of the crew that helped Olson and Richards rehab the house, are regulars at the Saturday brews that feature hot coffee and tea and assorted homemade toppings and spreads to garnish freshly baked biscuits, turnovers and bagels. Richards is the canner and Olson is the baker.
Millard resident Betsy Scott has become a Saturday devotee.
“Instantly I felt welcomed,” she says. “I just felt at home with Sharon and Beth and Diane and Diana. Every week I kept coming back I got more and more excited to come up. It’s all about the apple turnovers and the fresh biscuits with the homemade jelly, it’s about ,’Here, try my tomato jam.’ It brings people together and that’s never a bad thing.”
Scott says the dozens of people who make it to those coffee klatches are attracted like she is to what Olson and Richards embody
“Their passion for community and for the house itself, their love of canning and their love of people. They make every single person feel welcome when they come in and by the time you leave you feel like you’ve known them forever. I think everyone walks away feeling like they’ve made some new friends. It’s kind of like Cheers but without the beer and without Norm.”
Franson-Krisor grew up in Minne Lusa and she cherishes what the project provides.
“I think it’s wonderful because every neighborhood needs a gathering place and they have really changed this area a lot. I’ve been here 52 years in a house on the corner and growing up was all about neighbors communing. That was the thing to do. All the mothers got together and the kids played. And this is bringing it back.
“Somebody referred to Beth and Sharon as the porch ladies, and that’s how it was when we were growing up. The women talked over coffee and the kids played, and that’s what’s coming back because of this place. It’s like we’re all one little family here.”
Because it’s neutral ground, elected officials and public servants come to hear concerns from their constituency. Everyone from Omaha City Council members to the police chief have visited there. It’s a safe house for children and adults escaping trouble at home. When there’s an issue in the neighborhood, whether illegal dumping or unkempt property or illicit drug dealing, residents view Olson and Richards as the go-to resources to contact the authorities. When there’s something that needs organizing, the “old ladies” at the Minne Lusa House are among the first ones people reach out to to get things done.
Richards says, “Some people who are afraid to call the police will call us and say, ‘This is going on on our block, can you help us out?’ Sharon is great politically. She’ll go to public hearings, listen and make her presence known. I’ll tell you right now when (Omaha City Council District 2 representative) Ben Gray sees Sharon he goes, Oh-oh.’ Sharon puts them to the task. They know her. That’s what it takes.”
“You have to be a tough person to be down here,” says Olson.
Both women are strong, assertive, plain-talking, live-out-loud types. Olson can be sarcastic. Richards is more diplomatic. Richards says they’re just enough different to “make it work because there is a balance between the yin and the yang.”
Minne Lusa House
Friends say they personify the do-it-yourself independence, give-the-shirt-off-your-back generosity, puff-out-your-chest pride and glad-to-know-you warmth that characterizes Minne Lusa.
Situated between Miller Park and Florence in a tucked away sector east of North 30th Street, Minne Lusa was formed in 1916 by Charles Martin, who designed a neighborhood with California Bungalow-style homes of wood, stucco and brick. The homes were built in what was a cornfield. A pretty boulevard runs through the heart of the area. Many homes and yards are beautifully maintained. The area’s enjoying a resurgence of interest because its character-rich homes featuring natural wood floors, ample windows, fireplaces, generous porches and detached garages sell at highly affordable prices.
Richards says part of the motivation behind their project is “to get the name Minne Lusa out there because nobody before knew where Minne Lusa was. We’re not Florence, we’re Minne Lusa. We’re here to promote the neighborhood and to get people to know each other.”
The house has hosted an arts and crafts show and may host another this fall. It also organizes the annual Trick or Treat on the Boo-Levard during Halloween. Minne Lusa Blvd. is decorated for the occasion.
Efforts are underway to get Minne Lusa designated a National Register of Historic Places district. Olson and Richards support the initiative because they are so devoted to the neighborhood and generating appreciation for it and what makes it different.
These women of a certain age grew up in a time when tight-knit neighborhoods were the rule, not the exception. Olson, a retired phone company employee, resides in the same Minne Lusa house she was raised in and she does all she can to preserve the sense of neighborliness and community she’s valued there all her life.
Richards, who fell hard for Minne Lusa during 15 years as a mail carrier there, bought a house in the neighborhood and the retired U.S. Post office employee has made the area her home ever since. She’s flipped some homes there and she takes pains to only sell her properties to buyers with the same sense of community she has. Much as Olson did Richards too came of age knowing her neighbors, only not in Omaha but in the small town of Garwin, Iowa she grew up in. The friendly people of Minne Lusa made an impression on Richards because they reminded her of how the people in her hometown related to each other and she wanted to be part of that again.
“I really like the people,” says Richards. “There’s something about the people. I just fell in love with this neighborhood. It’s got a lot of promise, it’s got great homes. When I carried mail here for 15 years I knew everybody who lived between 30th and 24th, from Whitmore Street up to Sharon Drive, and I’d think, ‘Well. it’s too bad these people don’t know these people because they’d really get along.’ And so now I think we’re slowly getting those people to know each other.”
Among those she got to know on her route was Olson.
“Sharon and I talked a lot and we became friends over time.”
Richards says they both joined the Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association about the same time.
Their idea for the Minne Lusa House was to create an open space that draws people together.
“Our goal always was just bringing the neighborhood together,” says Olson. “People don’t talk to each other the way they used to. When I grew up neighbors spoke to one another. You didn’t have to love them, you didn’t have to break bread with them, but you were nice to them and talked to them. We don’t do that anymore. Well, we do on my block. So the goal was always to bring that back somehow.”
For years Olson held a block party on the stretch of Martin Ave. she lives on.
“I thought that was a good way to get everybody to know everybody.”
Richards says it’s just one of many ways her friend “was working” on strengthening neighborhood and community before Minne Lusa House. For both women it’s a personal mission.
“The old neighborhoods are all fractured because we have issues with landlords that own properties that don’t take care of their places,” says Olson. “We have landlords that rent indiscriminately to anyone and then it just ruins a neighborhood.”
Richards says, “That’s one of the things that drew us together because we’re both angry about what the landlords are doing to older neighborhoods and to our neighborhood.”
They don’t take things lying down either. When renters in a neighborhood house were causing frequent disturbances with loud music and late night partying, Richards spring into action.
“I got the landlord’s name and when the neighbors were partying I’d call the landlord at midnight and leave messages, saying, ‘We’ve got a problem here on Mary, we can’t sleep, the cops have been here, and if we can’t sleep you can’t sleep.’ The landlord finally called me to say they were woking on it and finally those people moved out.”
Richards says the landlord promised to be more diligent about who she rents to.
“They’ve got nice people in there now,” she adds.
Olson says the problem of absentee landlords “isn’t just in our neighborhood, it’s anywhere east of 72nd. People can walk in and buy these houses for $20,000 or $10,000 and they do not put a dime into them and then they’ve got people renting that aren’t going to take care of anything. They don’t better your neighborhood, they destroy your neighborhood.” She and Richards say that many inner city vacant lots and abandoned homes are owned by landlords who live out of state and wont let go of the properties except for exorbitant prices.
Meanwhile, taxpayers absorb the costs of cutting overgrown weeds or razing structures. Neighbors are left to deal with the blight, eyesores and dangers that come with empty or unattended properties
“It’s wrong, this whole system,” says Olson.
“We’ve talked to Ben Gray about it,” says Richards. “We’re working on it.”
Opened in 2011, Minne Lusa House has become the very gathering spot and conduit for action the women envisioned
“When this house became available it was primary for us to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if it will work,’ and the means to doing that was canning. Canning brought people in. And as you can see there is nothing here that distracts them,” Olson says, referring to the TV-less kitchen, dining room and living room. The office, pantry and finished attic and basement have no TVs either. “People have to speak to one another and when you’re canning you have to talk to each other or you wont have a very good product when you get done.”
“The canning is fun,” says Richards.”The best part is when somebody tries it and goes, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ That’s reward.”
Franson-Krisor says she’s learned to can, garden and do home improvement projects from working alongside Richards.
Olson fondly recalls a woman who learned to can at the house. “She sent the cucumber relish she made all over the country to her family and was the hit at Christmas, so she’s a memory to me.” Then there’s the mother and daughter team who come. The mother insists on sampling everything while the daughter busies herself canning. Upon leaving, the mother beams about how much “WE’VE canned.” The camaraderie is what she’s really after. A surprising number of young people, including families with small children, come to can.
Two more Saturday morning regulars are husband and wife ministers John and Liz Backus, who live across the street and pastor at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. Lots of laughter and stories ensue.
“Those are things you just can’t put a price tag on,” says Olson.”I think we get more from this then maybe anybody else does. We get to meet all these fun, interesting people. We have a good time with them. We tell people, ‘Don’t come if you don’t want to have a good time.’”
“We’re going to have fun,” adds Richards.
The women didn’t expect all the attention their endeavor’s attracted, including an Omaha World-Herald feature that helped put the Minne Lusa House on the map. As a result the house has become a magnet both for folks in the neighborhood and from well beyond its borders.
“We’ve had people from Council Bluffs, Papillion, Ralston, Gretna come down here for canning lessons,” says Olson.
The way it’s caught on has taken the founders by surprise.
Richards says, “When we started this we didn’t know know where this was going to go. We had no clue. We didn’t see that coming. We were just going to be a little neighborhood house and then slowly spread it through the neighborhood.”
Minne Lusa House captures people’s imagination. Donated boxes of jars and other canning supplies regularly arrive on the front porch. Harvested produce is left for the women to can. Proceeds from the products they make go right back into the house. A Minne Lusa native living in Florida discovered the project and sent personalized coffee mugs.
Olson says, “We have wonderful support.”
She and Richards don’t believe in planning too far ahead or following a strict plan. They just ride the wave and take things as they come.
“Today if you asked us what we would do next year we cannot tell you that. It just falls,” says Olson. “We don’t set goals. I worked 30 years for the phone company. I’m not putting together any business plan. I’m done with that. We fly by the seat of our pants. Too many years of structure, Beth had structure with the post office for God’s sake. We don’t need that. Nobody needs to tell us what to do.”
They’re not sure what the house’s future may be when they’re gone or decide to step down.
“If something happens and we have to shut it down, then we shut it down, there’s no pressure,” says Richards.
Olson can’t see it continuing in its present form or with the same name under someone else’s leadership. “I mean, it’s the Minne Lusa House, it’s unique. If we couldn’t do it anymore and somebody wanted to buy it it couldn’t be Minne Lusa House anymore, at least not for me.”
Richards says it’s possible the house could always return to being a private residence. “We set it up that if we failed we’d probably lose money but we could sell it as a home for somebody to live in.”
The 1918 built home was occupied by several families over its history, the longest period, 45 years, by the Joseph and Clella Frolio family, who resided there from 1961 to 2005. The Frolio children left some indelible marks in the home, such as a pattern of BB gun pellet holes in one basement wall and handprints in another basement wall. Here and there are personal touches by Olson and Richards, including a vintage rocking chair that belonged to Beth’s great-grandmother.
A plaque hanging in the home’s front room details the chronology and names of the various people who dwelled there.
The women hope to create a Minne Lusa museum in the attic to display the photographs and articles they’ve collected about the neighborhood they feel such a kinship with.
The pair don’t like the bad rap North Omaha gets and they see the Minne Lusa House as a touchstone where people’s negative attitudes and perceptions about the area can be overturned.
“It’s a concept you have to change and it doesn’t get changed overnight,” says Richards.
“People go, ‘Oh my God, it’s North Omaha, there’s shootings, I can’t come there,” bemoans Olson. “People will not come down here because they’re scared they’re going to be shot. So when we have big groups of people we always say, ‘Do you know where you are?’ This is The Hood.’ Then they see for themselves what a beautiful area it is.”
Richards says, “We’re bringing people from out of the community into the community, where they find out it’s kind of nice up here. It’s by word of mouth and it spreads.” More than anything, she says, “what we’ve accomplished is that every day neighbors are getting to know each other.”
Keep up with doings there at http://www.facebook.com/minne.house.
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