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.
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.
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.”
- Drugs, gangs blamed for Okla. City homicide spike (sfgate.com)
- Child grows into woman before abuser is sentenced (omaha.com)
- Alleged gang leader arrested at Garfield High School (q13fox.com)
- Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark and into the Spotlight (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Gang prevention-intervention efforts run the gamut. One that’s drawn lots of attention is Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. program founded and directed by Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has serious cred on the mean streets there for helping gangbangers find pathways to employability. I wrote this article in advance of a talk Boyle gave in Omaha a couple years ago. His experiences working with gang members and getting many to give up that life are told in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle‘s Homeboy Model
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The gang intervention efforts of a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles have grown into Homeboy Industries, which provides mostly Latino participants work and life skills training, counseling and, most importantly, opportunity for hope.
The much profiled program has many communities, including Omaha, looking to its founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, for guidance in dealing with their own gang issues. Boyle, an acknowledged expert in the field, will be in Omaha Feb. 24 to discuss the successful therapeutic and employability approach his nonprofit takes and how it may be a model for Omaha.
From 1 to 4 p.m. at Creighton University‘s Harper Center Boyle will consult with community leaders engaged in gang intervention, prevention and workforce development efforts. At 5 p.m. he meets with Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha City Council members. At 7 Boyle will deliver a public lecture and sign copies of his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at Metropolitan Community College‘s South Omaha campus, in Room 120 of the Industrial Training Center, 27th and Q Streets.
Rev. Howard Dotson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Omaha, invited Boyle after hearing him speak last year in L.A., where Dotson also did gang intervention work. One thing Boyle says he’s learned from 20-plus years dealing with gang bangers is that “just like recovery in alcohol and drugs,” where “it takes what it takes to finally stop getting high,” it’s the same for gang members leaving The Life. “It can be the death of a friend, the birth of a son, a long stretch in prison. Like in recovery you don’t have to hit bottom, but maybe it will take that.”
He says gangs are not a crime issue but a community health issue like other social dilemmas (homelessness, addictions, prostitution).To address the complex problems gang members present he says Homeboy offers mental health services, along with employment opportunities, life coaching, “plus every imaginable curricular thing, from anger management to parenting — you name it, we have it.”
The program operates businesses that employ gang members, including a bakery, a cafe, a silkscreen shop, a merchandise store and a maintenance service. More than a job Boyle says Homeboy provides an avenue for “healing to take place.” Enemy gang members work side by side to break down barriers.
“Once they have a real palpable experience of community then it will shine light on the dark corners of gang life,” he says. “They realize how empty and hollow all that had been in the past. The community trumps gang.”
He says suspicion and animosity dwindle amid shared goals and cooperation.
“Their common interest is that they want to work. Before too long they become fast, wonderful friends. It’s one of those things you can actually take to the bank — it’s going to happen. They’re going to bond in a way they’ve never known in their family and they’ve never known in their gang certainly.”
Boyle says the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of Homeboy is why cities like Seattle and Wichita adopt some of its methods. Some observers credit Homeboy and community policing with helping dramatically reduce L.A.’s homicide rate.
“No nonprofit in L.A. County has a greater impact on the public safety than this place because we engage so many gang members,” says Boyle, who estimates “all 1,100 known gangs in the county have had somebody walk in here at some time or another.”
“I would say what makes us unique is this therapeutic model — attachment repair and a secure base is what we call it. We try to help people engage in their own healing so they can re-identify who they are in the world. Then they can go out in the world and the world will throw at them what it will but it won’t topple them because they’ve had this palpable experience of community and the chance to figure out who they are. It works.”
Dotson’s convinced Boyle and Homeboy have something to offer Omaha.
“To get jobs and to get rehabilitation for kids coming out of correction is the best way to stop the bullet.,” says Dotson. “You need to invest in these kids. If you give them a sense of hope and a sense of agency and some of that unconditional love many of them never got, then you reduce the gang problem.
“As church and community we have to meet people where they’re at and Fr. Greg and the people who support Homeboy understand that.”
South Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention specialist Alberto Gonzales says the need for a Homeboy model here is greater than ever in light of recent cuts. Funding for anti-gang work he did in local schools has been eliminated. The Latino Center of the Midlands has disbanded its substance abuse counseling program.
“Where’s the Latino community going to turn to?” says Gonzales. “People need a place they can go to where they can cry out, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, I need help.’ These programs are definitely a must.”
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ex-gang members work to stop gang violence in L.A. (cbsnews.com)
- Tomas Mournian: HOMEBOYS: Cholos, BiLatinMen, & Gay Gang Bangers @ OUTFest 2012 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Boundless Compassion (ehflaw.typepad.com)
- Gang members give warning signs, solutions to keep kids out (wcnc.com)
Psychiatrist-Public Health Educator Mindy Thompson Fullilove Maps the Root Causes of America’s Inner City Decline and Paths to Restoration
America’s inner cities are sick. Have been for a long time. They’re long overdue for a sweeping public health approach that gets to some of the root causes of their decliine over the past 40-some years. North Omaha (really northeast Omaha) is a case in point. It’s long been in need of a transformation and one finally is underway after years of neglect, half-starts, spotty redevelopment, counterproductive urban renewal efforts, and rampant disinvestment. Psychiatrist and public health educator Mindy Thompson Fullilove has done much research, writing, and speaking about what’s happened to drag down inner cities and what’s needed to bring them back and I wrote the following piece on the eve of a presentation she gave in Omaha. I interviewed her in advance of her talk. I did attend her program, and though I didn’t do a followup story to report what she said I can tell you she covered many of the same points she made with me in our session.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared iin The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The low standard of living found in segments of Omaha’s inner city mirrors adverse urban conditions across America. Poverty, low test scores, unemployment, gang violence, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and STDs, distressed/devalued properties all occur at disproportionately high rates in these sectors.
Psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a public health educator at Columbia ((N.Y.) University, studies the causes and consequences of marginalized communities. A pair of talks she’s giving in Omaha next week, one for the public and one for health professionals, will echo local efforts addressing economic-educational-health disparities, infectious diseases and inner city redevelopment.
By training and disposition Fullilove looks for the connections in things. Much of her research focuses on linkages between the collapse of America’s urban core and the corollary decline in health — physical, psychological, emotional, environmental, economic — endemic there. She blames much of the blight on fallout from late ‘40s through mid-‘70s urban renewal projects.
Many longtime Omaha residents rue the North Freeway for driving a stake through the heart of a once cohesive, stable community. Hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses were razed to build it. Critics say this physical-symbolic barrier divided and damaged an area already reeling from late ‘60s riots that destroyed the North 24th St. business district, which only hastened white flight.
These interrelated phenomena, Thompson Fullilove believes, caused widespread carnage in cities like Omaha — displacing families, disrupting lives, rupturing communities, dragging down quality of life, property values, self-esteem and hope. In her view urban renewal was part of policies that “destroyed neighborhoods” — as many as 2,500 nationwide by her calculation — in the guise of progress.
The kind of severing of neighborhoods that occurred when freeway projects cut through the heart inner cities
“Many of the ways in which we built at that time involved demolishment of a neighborhood,” she said by phone. “There were these very large projects put in so that the old grid of the city was fused into sort of super blocks and huge things built on them like cultural centers or universities that made a fundamental change in the flow of the city. A lot of these projects were really not very thoughtful and didn’t work. So we’re living with the aftermath of very bad urban development, much of which is now coming down and being replaced.”
Witness the sprawling Logan Fontenelle public housing project that came down a few years ago in northeast Omaha. In the early ‘70s, large tracts of land dotted with homes and businesses in far east Omaha were cleared for airport expansion. Anytime people are forced to move from their home it’s a major stress that can dislocate them from family, friends, jobs, neighborhood, community.
“Displacement is always accompanied by violence,” said Thompson Fullilove. “When people are displaced they need help to get back on their feet but if there’s never any help then things can get worse and worse. You get anger, hostility, and then people, instead of being able to solve problems, are just trying to survive.”
She said when people live outside social networks-support systems, epidemics like AIDS, STDs or gun violence emerge and grow entrenched. Often she said, people displaced from their homes also get displaced from blue-collar jobs. “People have no way to make a living and no social network to fall back on, so it’s really a double whammy,” she said. The results? “Terrible crime as people try to do work in the underground economy.” Thus, the drug trade thrives, gangs go unchecked. Some observers say Omaha’s African American community is still hurting from the packinghouse/manufacturing/railroad jobs lost in the ‘60s-‘70s.
She said today’s info service-high tech economy leaves many workers behind. “You have to get people to learn skills, you have to get people more education and you have to be inventing what they’re going to work at, and all these require a stable, engaged city as a center of exchange not a city of haves against have-nots,” she said. “Until cities are places of development, we’re in bad trouble as a nation.”
A term she uses to describe displacement’s trauma, “root shock,” is also the title of a book she authored examining how the ripple effects of urban renewal impact whole swaths of cities and persist long after the bulldozers leave.
“It has a ripple both in time and in space,” she said. “So tearing up a neighborhood has ripples for a whole metropolitan area and it also has ripples over time for generations of people who live in that area. Also, when you demolish a big area it creates a ripple of destruction on the other side of the area you demolish — you also decrease the value and the stability of the properties. And as those properties decline in value and really fall apart the properties next to them fall apart, and then the properties next to them fall apart. So you can actually take a drive in a place where there was urban renewal and find the leading edge of the destruction, typically a couple of neighborhoods over from where the urban renewal was done and, sometimes, even further.”
She said the decline extended to downtowns.
“Many neighborhoods demolished for urban renewal were near downtown or part of the downtown,” she said, “so demolishing a lively neighborhood which added to the strength of a downtown shopping center contributed to the collapse of many American downtowns, which are only slowly coming back.”
Like a disease introduced into a larger host, she said as urban decline spread it compromised the health of entire cities.
“It installed something that was dysfunctional in a critical part of the landscape of the city,” she said, “Although we think of all the terrible things that happened to the African Americans who actually lived in many affected neighborhoods, the worst consequence is that we made our cities weaker, so the whole nation lives with that grievous error. Cities are important for our nation because they really are the economic engine. So undermining the cities the way we did weakened our whole economic prosperity. You might say one of the seeds of this current economic crisis is in the destruction of our cities.”
From her perspective, America hasn’t corrected these problems — “what we’re doing instead is continuing to use versions of the same process.” She said even where a city center may enjoy a renaissance “it’s being rebuilt with the goal of attracting people from the suburbs to come back to the city.” That’s gentrification. “So the goal is not to make the city a welcoming place for all people that might like to live there. As opposed to figuring out how do you make a city which is a place of exchange, you’re making a city a place of exclusion,” she said, “and that’s just as destructive as urban renewal.”
She notes there‘s not yet widespread understanding among policymakers, developers and stakeholders of processes that diminish-threaten public health. She’s hopeful conferences like one she was at earlier this month in NYC, Housing, Health and Serial Displacement, “really open up this conversation, because I think if we’re going to have exciting cities in the United States it requires really a new approach to how you build cities, not just pushing people out.” She and her husband, community organizer and sociomedical sciences expert Robert Fullilove, work with urbanists on strategies for sustainable, inclusive, built environments.
Through the couple’s think tank, Community Research Group, they study and advocate holistic, public health approaches to urban living dynamics that view cities as ecosystems with interdependent neighborhoods-communities. What happens in one district, affects the rest. If one area suffers, the whole’s infected.
“You can’t undermine stable living conditions in a neighborhood or a community without bringing down the quality of life of everybody in the area, and it’s a very large area that then gets affected,” Thompson Fullilove said. “The foundation of health is good living conditions. Health is sort of our ability to enjoy our lives.”
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s Small Box Businesses Fight the Good Fight By Being Themselves (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Demolition is Not Enough: Design After Decline Author Brent Ryan on Redevelopment in Philadelphia (pennpress.typepad.com)
- Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Returning citizens. It’s a term used to describe men and women exiting the prison system to restart their lives on the outside. America’s propensity to incarcerate large numbers of offenders results in a huge prison population and this means a constant turnover of individuals going into and coming out of confinement. Many are repeat offenders. Keeping folks from going back inside is a major focus theses days of national, state, and local programs because the expense of imprisonment is so high and penal facilities are so overcrowded and then there’s the social cost of people who leave prison and are unable to function as productive citizens in the free world. The fallout of incarceration and the criminalized underclass has far reaching effects. It impacts families and jobs. There are emotional, psychological, physical, and economic consequences that can last generations. The emphasis today is on preparing folks getting ready to leave prision to cope with the real world and providing them programs and services once they’re out to help them find their way in that world. A place to live. A job. Counseling. A support network. Some of these efforts are by large organizations and others are by small ones like Compassion in Action in Omaha, whose founder-director Teela Mickles is the subject of this profile. She’s one dedicated lady fighting the good fight. You’ll also find on this blog a story I wrote about a larger returning citizen effort, the Transformation Project, and profiles of individuals who’ve come out of prison to lead transformed lives, including Morris Jackson, Servando Perales, and Aisha Okudi.
Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Teela Mickles is a self-described “goodie two-shoes” who’s never so much as gotten a jaywalking ticket, yet much of her life is devoted to assisting current and former prison inmates. Her work with our throwaway society‘s discarded is done as a certified Assemblies of God minister and as founder/director of her own community nonprofit, Compassion in Action, which offers pre-release and reentry services/programs.
This one-woman band prepares individuals transitioning from prison back into society. CIA operates two transitional homes in northeast Omaha, one for women and one for men. Volunteers interface with clients and their families, some as pen pals, others “adopting” inmates’ kids while mom or dad is away in prison. She works with an array of professionals in carrying out her missionary work.
She also does a program, Sister to Sister, that steers at-risk girls away from bad choices by exposing them to positive life skills and education/career opportunities. Additionally, she hosts a public access television show, Living the Life, and writes a column in Go-Ahead Entertainment Magazine.
Her work with offenders extends from pre-sentencing to sentencing to incarceration to pre-release to reentry to reestablishment. She attends court hearings, writes letters of support and advocates for inmates who “consistently work” her program. She lets the parole board know she has a place for parolees once they’re out. Once an individual is released, she works with parole and probation officers to ensure her program supports their mandates and that participants comply. Along the way, she hooks up participants with clothing, housing, transportation, jobs, et cetera.
Above all, she remembers she’s dealing with human beings, not statistics. It’s why she and others in the field now call clients “returning citizens” rather than ex-cons.
“We became weary of tagging them with the life-long stigma of ex-felons or ex-offenders,” she said. “That just drags out their sentence, which they have completed during their incarceration. ‘Returning citizens’ puts things into perspective with regard to the importance of community support and acceptance.”
Just getting the public to think about people with records and mug shots as parents with kids who need care, she said, is hard to do. So is finding volunteers to get involved in the lives of kids whose parents are locked up or piecing their lives together on the outside. Too often, she said, society is judgmental about people who’ve run afoul of the law, discounting or dehumanizing them.
Teela’s holistic approach is all about “embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.”
Although never in trouble with the law, she knows something about overcoming hard times. Personal trials she endured led to a conversion that brought the healing and insight necessary to do the prison ministry she’s followed ever since.
Spend any time with her and you fall under the spell of her serene demeanor, her colorful turns-of-phrase, her devotion, her deep knowledge and her abundant compassion, which is more than a title but a genuine expression of her heart.
Little in her early years suggested the path she’d follow, except she always exhibited energy and empathy to serve others. She developed a strong sense of self in the 1950s and ’60s amongst her close, proud, large extended African-American family, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual reunion in Omaha is attended by hundreds of relatives from around the nation. A famous “cuz” who comes in for the gathering is actress Gabrielle Union, whom Teela’s had interact with Sister to Sister participants.
Growing up in South Omaha, North Omaha, and the hills outside Council Bluffs, Teela was raised Catholic. She was a good student often showing off her fine singing voice in school and church. As a young woman she sang in nightclubs. She still occasionally sings at special events. She married early and became a mother of five children, all, like her, musically inclined. She was busy in church, school, community — serving as a Girl Scout, Cub Scout, Brownie leader, room mother, liturgical director. She seemed a contented stay-at-home-mom in a stable, happy relationship.
Behind closed doors though she suffered in “a turbulent marriage” marked by “a lot of violence and abuse.” Despite the dysfunction, she said, “I was determined to stay, to stick with it, because that’s all I knew how to do.” Co-dependency prevents domestic violence victims from fleeing. She finally summoned the courage to leave when her oldest daughter revealed her father, Teela’s husband, violated her.
“I took my five kids and never went back to that house, and was homeless for almost three months behind that.”
That wrenching break with the safe and familiar came in 1982. Her children then were ages 12 and under. Adrift, with five hungry mouths to support, her marriage over, Teela didn’t know where to turn for help.
“Because of that situation I didn’t trust anyone — mother, father, sister, brother. I trusted no one with my children. I didn’t trust me because I hadn’t a clue what had been going on, so that was on me. I felt empty and pointless. I felt like such a failure. I figured I failed my husband, I failed my children. I became a topic of gossip among my close family, so I felt like I was a bad daughter, bad sister, bad everything. I had these little kids, they’re looking at me going, What are we supposed to do? I had no clue. I was a single parent, I had never worked outside the home except for six months prior to my leaving. This whole thing was brand new.”
Scary, too. Faith became the pathway for rebuilding her tattered self.
“Even though I was a very religious person, I did not have a personal connection with God to where I felt like I could really live a life free of all this pain. I had this burn inside of me to find this God. It was a quest and the Lord did surround me with a lot of different individuals who would become significant in leading me down that path.”
She found solace and direction at Trinity Hope Four Square Gospel Church, where she attended a Pentecostal revival service and felt the call.
“I did become born again after nine months. That changed everything. The experience was a total transformation mentally, spiritually, physically, and God really impressed upon me I did count, my life did matter.”
That epiphany is the core of the empowering, faith-based message and curriculum she delivers to those coming out of prison. Not unlike a 12-step recovery program, she tends to broken people by giving them the tools and principles for rebuilding themselves and their lives in healthy ways,
Her own crucible came in 1983, when her life went from chaos to clarity. “My born again experience gave me such a peace. I had an understanding and an awareness I was not alone.” Doors began opening her to new opportunities. She got a job with a realty company, managing rental properties, including Section 8 housing. When a five-bedroom unit became available she and her kids moved in. Then, as if by providence, she landed a better job at a company seeking a black Christian woman.
The church she belonged to at the time sponsored a small choir that visited prisons to proclaim the Good News. As Teela always did, no matter what congregation her family attended, she enlisted her kids to perform.
“I have very gifted, talented children. My kids sang, they danced, they were the bomb.”
And so she took lead of the choir and of a youth group she formed to bring scripturally-based music to inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women near York, Neb, and the Youth Rehabilitation & Treatment Center in Geneva, Neb. More visits to more venues followed.
“We went to different substance abuse rehabilitation centers, we went to different churches, we just kind of toured and shared the songs, shared the testimony. That’s how that door opened,” she said.
At the invitation of corrections authorities she began conducting monthly chapel services for the captive audiences in York and Geneva. These are hardened characters. She didn’t pretend she knew their life but she was sure she had something to offer because of the hell she’d been through and the healing she’d found.
“I had enough pain and enough gain that they complemented one another. I was raw enough that I didn’t make any assumptions of what I was stepping into. I knew that God was able to heal and that He’s open for everybody, and I knew that most people didn’t know that. I didn’t and I was a goodie-two-shoes, so how could someone that had a rough life know that?
“I’ve never done drugs or alcohol, I don’t even have a traffic citation, I just had a bad marriage but I’m acquainted with pain and the kind of pain you can’t get relief for from a person. I was still in a process of healing myself and it was amazing how the Lord knitted us together. They (clients) think I bless them but they’ll never know what a blessing they are to me. And that’s how ministry works.”
Some of Teela’s success stories:
Teela feels her ability to relate to ex-offenders lies in her “sensitivity to the value of each person and helping them understand they are valuable in spite of what took place to have them go there. Their issues started before they got in prison.”
Nebraska Department of Corrections Deputy Director of Programs and Community Services Larry Wayne was warden at the York facility when he first met Teela. He’s impressed by how she helps inmates improve decision-making, problem-solving, conflict-management skills from a faith-based approach. “What drives her is her faith,” he said. “You can’t really know Teela unless you know that aspect of her and how she’s motivated.”
Though she mainly works with women she also assists men. She’s visited the Douglas County Corrections center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Tecumseh Correctional Institution. She said in all the countless visits she’s made to prisons and jails she’s never been afraid, even when the lone female among a large group of male inmates and guards. Her fearlessness, she said, is a direct result of her faith and of the compassion she has about this population.
“I believe when God calls you He prepares you. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. Once I saw the people they were just people. In fact, my heart just broke because it was almost like, there’s another side to this story. The person that would act the worst, all hateful and mean and I-dare-you-to-touch-me or I-dare-you-to-get-over or I-dare-you-to-make-me-feel-anything, is the one I would hurt the most for because it’s obvious they hurt the most and had built up all these walls. What he or she was attempting to portray was not who they really were.”
The dignity she shows inmates is returned.
‘The men have always offered me the upmost respect. I have felt more respect and more protection walking across the (prison) yard then walking in some churches. When a man looks at me a certain way another man will check them, ‘No, you don’t look at her that way and you don’t think whatever it is you’re thinking.’ There’s just this aura of respect I’ve always received. I’ve never had any fear.” Besides, she said, “I present myself as untouchable in terms of any game playing. I say, ‘I’m here because I care and my care is for real, so don’t play with it,’ they haven’t.”
Invariably, she said, individuals caught up in the penal system carry a hurt they’ve buried deep inside. Behind bars or on the outside survival dictates they show no weakness. Part of her job though is breaking that wall down so clients can feel again.” That healing, she said, has “gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.”
“We’re constantly after validation — validate to motivate to educate. Most people want to educate first — but what’s your motivation to be educated? Well, if you see yourself as a valuable person, your goals and behavior and objectives might be totally different. That’s always the goal we’re going after.
“I don’t tell anybody what they have to do, I just present options and I turn a light on, and if they’re open to explore that light they will. If they’re scared and it’s just way too much truth for them to digest they’ll back off, but always with respect.”
She said “once a person begins grasping the root causes” of why they act out in harmful ways, “they can create their own options.”
She used to spend more time in prisons before she inadvertently crossed the line.
“Aa woman I visited in prison gave me a mother’s prayer card for her son, who was in another prison, and I mailed it to him. I didn’t know it was wrong. You would have thought I busted the system. They shut me down, I couldn’t go in any correctional facility. My heart was so hurt because the last thing I would do is break any rules.”
This happened before Teela formed CIA. The inspiration for it came after her banishment, when she received a flood of cards and letters from inmates saying how much they missed her. “All of a sudden I’d been taken away from them,” she said. The correspondence had a similar refrain — individuals got out of prison only to reoffend and wind up back inside. The recidivism alarmed and saddened her.
One woman’s letter particularly touched Teela. “I had already walked her out of prison and helped her get some clothes and connect with her kids, I thought she was doing OK, only to find out she’s back in prison for the fourth time. She wrote, ‘I’m sick of this and this and this, I believe I’m institutionalized.’ That’s when I broke at my job and started crying. I thought, I can’t help these ladies, I’m not doing enough.”
It was obvious something more was needed to sustain people on the outside. Right then in her cubicle the concept and name for Compassion in Action came to her. On a yellow legal pad she outlined CIA’s mission based on the woman’s laments.
“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”
Her new ministry got its start via a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s family support program to provide parent education to women in prison. She conducted six to eight-week classes that met twice a week, with some 20-30 women per class.
“We had some really good results,” said Teela, who designed the curriculum.
Around this time she got downsized at her job and she used her severance pay and an education grant to continue working in prisons and to better inform herself about the population she served. “I had to learn and understand more than I did,” she said. “I got a chemical dependency counseling associate’s degree from Metro (Community College). I was 47 and it was my first time in college. I had a fun time and I graduated with honors. It’s easy to do when you know what you want to be when you grow up.”
Practicums at the Santa Monica and New Creations transitional living programs gave her “a glimpse” of what CIA would evolve to.
Compassion in Action transitional home
When the parent education grant funding ended she continued teaching classes with support from churches. But shorter inmate stays and tighter prison security meant less access, rendering the program impractical. Her curtailed prison privileges didn’t help.
But “a bigger vision” awaited. It began to be realized in 2000 when she obtained a former Uta Halee residence on Florence Blvd. to serve as CIA’s All the Way Transitional Home for Women. She recruited volunteers and matched them with clients according to volunteers’ interests and the women’s needs.
Last year she obtained a house for CIA’s first men’s transitional living program. In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
She insists CIA homes are not half-way houses but “places for transition for residents to get themselves prepared for independent living.” That includes making residents employable. “I network with ENCAP (Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership). They have a program for former felons to prepare them for employment,” said Teela.
She said CIA’s sterling reputation has traditionally gotten clients “right in the door” for jobs “but in this horrible economy,” when folks with degrees compete for the same entry level jobs as people with records, “it’s not working now.” She said the ladies currently in residence at All the Way “are frustrated they can’t find work. They’re way behind on their resident fees. It’s a financial strain on us as well.”
Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever get out of prison.
“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release,” said Teela. “We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”
She said renewing family ties can be a sensitive thing because of abuse that occurred. That’s why reconciliation can take time and the focus must first be on recovery.
Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she said.
It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of prison.
“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” said Teela. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.”
That changed expectation, she said, “has helped.” It’s more realistic because in the end people do what they want to do. “You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison,” she said. “No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”
She does have her success stories and she said they all share something in common.
“Everyone that’s succeeded has a real, genuine, personal relationship with God,” noted Teela. “Their gifts and their plans had to be spiritually connected, because they tried everything else and it didn’t work. Once they recognize this is the part that makes it happen and they stick with it, they succeed.”
That was the case with All the Way’s first resident, Andrea. “We worked with her prior to her sentence, during her sentence, then when her sentence was complete she was here,” said Teela. “She had a plan, she stuck with her plan. She got a job at Creighton Medical Center. Now she’s living and working in Kansas City, and having a house built.” In another case, Teela recruited and trained a family to adopt Tracie and her three sons. While Tracie was incarcerated the family took her boys to visit her and the family did various activities with the youths. The family remained engaged with her and the boys until she was free and reunited with her sons. “In that match,” said Teela, “we crossed everything — racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic barriers.” As Teela likes to say the adoptive family got to see the other side of the story — that “Tracie’s a great mom, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Tracie’s earned a college degree while working as CIA’s program manager. She’s now pursuing a master’s in health and human services.
Lataunya is another shining example. “She had such little belief in herself and she accomplished so much. She got a great job, she got her own car and a three-bedroom apartment, then her own home. She was pardoned by the mayor, and now she’s trying to work as a professional in the field. An amazing woman,” said Teela.
Two men recently helped by CIA are doing well on their own. Allen manages a store at the Westroads Mall and Pierre is working and raising his three sons, who stayed with him at the men’s transitional home. It’s not often residents have their children with them in transitional homes but exceptions are made if circumstances warrant it.
Nebraska State Penitentiary
The impact her work makes isn’t always readily apparent. Like the revelation a female physician made to her.
“Twenty years ago this woman was a 14-year-old troubled youth in Geneva who had been in and out of foster care. She remembered me coming there and the ministry I shared. She stated her ‘relationship with God and sports’ turned her life around. So here she was 20 years later, my doctor! You can’t imagine how I felt at that moment.”
For a long time Teela felt she was doing her work in isolation but recent developments have encouraged her she’s not alone. “One of the exciting things happening now is the community finally is becoming more involved in the reentry piece,” she said. A driving force, as she sees it, is the federal reentry initiative. “It opened the door to invite the community in so that law enforcement and corrections were introduced to the other side of the story.”
In line with her own work, she said the new emphasis is on “trying to keep people out of prison by trying to accommodate their reentry needs.” It only makes sense, she said, because “it’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community. Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community’s connecting to the fact these are people. Prior to that it was cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em. Now they’re being asked to hug-a-thug.”
The shift took some doing. “It went from one dynamic to the other and it was an education for everyone. Now everybody’s on the same page. There’s better communication between the state, county and city agencies, plus the different community groups.” Now, entities and organizations that had little to do with each other before are working together and CIA is playing its part.
She and others are working on putting more “faces in places” — having more community members visit prisons to educate inmates on things they can do to better prepare themselves for life on the outside, whether getting a GED or working a recovery program. She said in lieu of specific options many inmates cop the attitude, “I don’t see the point, I’m just going to do my time and get out of here.”
Teela trains others to serve this population. “I avail myself as a resource person or consultant in the area of pre-release, reentry and transition. We’re on the front lines with the background we have. We’ve been doing this for so long.” Society’s focus on these issues, she said, can’t come soon enough given “the prison population is growing and getting younger and the situations are becoming more difficult.”
Metro College community liaison Tommy Wilson is leading community Table Talks on reentry services and she said Mickles is one of the first persons she called to participate. “I’m very impressed with what Teela does and she does so much with so little. Teela knows where the gaps are, she’s been there, she knows what needs to be done with this reentry piece. She brings a lot of valuable resources to the community,” said Wilson, who’s accompanied Teela behind bars, where she said her reputation precedes her. “Everybody knows Miss Teela does this or Miss Teela does that — she can tell them how to get some housing or some transportation.”
Larry Wayne said Teela’s “integrity” earns her credibility inside the walls and on the street, because she’s earned the trust of people who’ve been let down before. “She’s walked a mile in their shoes, not in prison necessarily, but she’s faced up to challenges that look a lot like what they’re struggling with.” He said ex-offenders respond to her “unconditional love” and her “being there for them. They know she will follow through with them. She has a proven track record and that carries a lot.”
Networking is vital to what she does and that means attending many meetings. She also makes several presentations a year. Then there’s this Church Lady’s weekly bible study, worshiping at Sunday services — she’s an equal opportunity church-goer who explores different places and styles of worship — and monthly Christian Business Women’s Association luncheons. She estimates she works 60 hours a week. No two days are alike. Her son Mark helps her run CIA’s behind-the-scenes operations. Her other children have helped, too. But beyond a part-time office staffer and a small corps of volunteers it’s Teela’s baby. Volunteers and funds are harder to come by these days, she said. The needs are many. But Teela just keeps on trucking along.
“Somehow we make it,” she said.
She looks forward to a day when there’s more community awareness of the population she serves and their needs. She’s sure if basic values of self-worth and respect for others were more widely taught at an early age her caseload would be cut to a fraction because fewer would end up imprisoned. That’d be just fine with Miss Teela.
The organizations that make a difference in a community of any size are legion and I am always struck by how little I know about the nonprofits impacting people’s lives in my own city. I often find myself assigned to do a story on such organizations and by the time I’m done I feel I have a little better grasp then I had before of what goes on day in and day out in organizations large and small that serve people’s social service and social justice needs. One such institution is the Latino Center of the Midlands, which I profile here along with its executive director Carolina Quezada, who came on board last year in the midst of a tough time for the former Chicano Awareness Center. She and I are happy to report the organization is back on track and that’s good news for the community it serves.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Carolina Quezada took the reins of the Latino Center of the Midlands last August in the wake of its substance abuse program losing funding, executive director Rebecca Valdez resigning and the annual fund raiser being canceled. Despite the travails, Quezada found a resilient organization.
Overcoming obstacles has been par for the course since community organizers started the former Chicano Awareness Center in 1971 to address the needs of underserved peoples. Its story reminds her of the community initiatives she worked for in her native East Los Angeles. She never intended leaving Calif. until going to work for the Iowa West Foundation in 2009. Once here, she found similar challenges and opportunities as she did back home.
“I’ve come full circle. I see so much of what I encountered growing up in L.A. which is parents with very low levels of education wanting their kids to succeed, graduate high school and go to college but often no plan to get them there.,” she says.
“South Omaha is like this microcosm of East L.A. The moment I drove down 24th Street the first time I thought, This is like Whittier Blvd. I felt an instant connection. There’s so much overlap. This sense of close relationship with the grassroots, the sense of community, and how the organization has its beginnings in activism, in that voice of the community. It’s so indicative of how nonprofits in Latino communities have their base in the grassroots voice and in services and issues having to do with social justice.”
Forged as the center was in the ferment of unrest, she’s hardly surprised it’s persevered.
“I am pretty struck by how the agency continues to respond,. It’s always been responsive to what that emerging need is. I think it’s just an inherent part of its DNA.”
She acknowledges the center was rocked by instability in 2011.
“Currently we are in the process of trying to strengthen that stability. Last year was a very difficult year for the agency. There was a transition in leadership, there was funding lost. The agency was still operating but in a very low key way, and I give credit to the board members and staff in making sure the doors remained open. Their passion continues to drive what we do every day.
“One of our greatest core competencies is that love for community and that connection to our people. When people come through our doors they are greeted by people who look like them and speak their language. It’s their culture. I’m very proud the Latino Center keeps that piece very close to its heart.”
She says in this era of escalating costs and competition for scarcer resources, nonprofits like hers must be adaptable, collaborative and creative “to survive.
“There is much more a need to be strategic. It’s not just about being a charity. Now it’s about being an institution that takes on a lot more of the business model and looks at diversifying funding sources.”
In her view Nebraska offers some advantages.
“Because the economy is better here the environment for nonprofits is a little better. You have funders who are strong, engaged, committed and very informed. I think a lot of it has to do with the strength of their foundations and the culture of the Midwest. People really care about getting involved and building community.
“Last year was very tough. Not having the annual fundraiser really hurt the agency. But there’s been some renewed investment in the organization from funders. There is a very strong interest in collaborating with Latino Center of the Midlands from other organizations and funders and community leaders.”
Omaha’s come to expect the agency being there.
“Because of our 40-plus year history people know to come to us. We get a lot of walk-ins. We convene large groups of people here on a regular basis because of the wide array of classes we offer. We are still making an impact in parent engagement and basic adult education. We work with parents having a difficult time getting their kids to attend school on a regular basis.
“But we also deal with all sorts of other issues that come through our doors. We get requests for assistance with immigration, other legal issues, social services. We do referrals for all sorts of things. We’ve also started inviting partners to come offer their services here – WCA, OneWorld Community Health, UNMC’s Center for Health Disparities, Planned Parenthood. So we become a very attractive partner to other organizations that want to partner in the Latino community.
“We cannot do our work well if we’re not building strong partnerships with others.”
She says she and her board “are formulating some specific directions we want to take the organization in” with help from the Omaha Community Foundation‘s capacity building collaborative. “We have to look at those support networks for how we build capacity and we’re very fortunate to count on the support of the Community Foundation. We’re working with their consultants to look at our strategic initiatives, fund raising, board recruitment, programs and projects. We’re looking at where our impact has been and what the needs are in the community.”
She feels the center is well poised for the future.
“We realize we have a lot of work to do but there’s a lot of optimism and energy about where the agency could go.”
Best of all, the annual fund raiser returns July 23. “I’m so happy it’s going to be back,” says Quezada. Check for details on that and ongoing programs-services at http://www.latinocenterofthemidlands.org.
- Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni Immerses Herself in Community Affairs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jose and Linda Garcia Find a New Outlet for their Magnificent Obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- “Paco” Proves You Can Come Home Again (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- African Presence in Spanish America Explored in Three Presentations (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- PBS WIll Air New Documentary On Latinos (huffingtonpost.com)
The following profile I did on Abe Sass reminds me that extraordinary individuals are all around us. He’s married to a dynamo named Rivkah Sass, one of the most honored public librarians in the nation and because of her much feted work in that field she is obstensibly the star of this couple. But as I found out and as I hopefully succeed in sharing with readers like you Abe has a story worth knowing and celebrating too. He’s packed a lot of living into his life and because he’s pursued such a wide range of interests and experiences he’s brushed up against all sorts of historic people and places and events that I trust you will find as compelling as I did.
Abe Sass, A Mensch for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
When your wife is a force of nature named Rivkah Sass, a recent national librarian of the year honoree and a much-in-demand public speaker, it could be easy to get overshadowed. The Omaha Public Library director’s dynamic personality can take over a room. Abe Sass doesn’t mind. In fact, he loves the attention Rivkah gets. You see, he’s not only her husband, but her biggest fan.
“Rivkah has an incredibly difficult job and I really believe she’s already changed the world in Omaha. She is committed,” he said.
There’s no real chance of him being lost in her limelight though. He’s every bit as accomplished as she and cuts a larger-than-life figure in his own right. A veteran psychiatric social worker, Sass has worked in several hospitals, he’s consulted school districts and he’s maintained his own private practice. No longer a full-time therapist, he volunteers his services to clients these days.
Sensitive and empathic as he may be, he’s no shrinking violet. He’s a charismatic presence at library activities and events with his warm smile, quick wit, hearty laugh and earthy demeanor. His six-foot-plus height and full beard help him stand out from the crowd, as does his animated demeanor, which flashes from dramatic whisper to basso profundo boom, all spiced with expletives and dollops of Yiddish.
This son of militant, immigrant garment workers in New York grew up a progressive thinker and activist. He was a rank-and-file soldier in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. He was at the historic march on Washington, D.C. in 1963 when Martin Luther King. Jr. articulated his dream for universal brotherhood. He was a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. He took part in his share of demonstrations on behalf of equality and justice.
He’s never lost his social conscience or political fervor, either. He’s remained engaged wherever he roosts, from the tenements of lower Manhattan to the halls of academia to the psychiatric wards at hospitals in California, Washington and Oregon. In Omaha he’s a familiar figure wherever ideas are exchanged, whether a community forum or a book reading or an art opening.
He often conducts therapy sessions in the mid-town home he and Rivkah inhabit. The couple’s place is an expression of their passions. They’re both lovers of literature, art and discussion. They place high value on friends and family. They do puppetry. They tell stories. They champion the underdog. They support causes. They entertain guests. Fittingly, their home is adorned with books, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, puppets, photographs of loved ones, mementos, keepsakes and campaign buttons emblazoned with liberal slogans, such as “Fight Racism” and “Swords and Plowshares.”
“Everything we do and have done is on our walls,” said Sass, gesturing to the overflow of objects about him in his living room.
He noted a small figurine of a black girl holding a book in one hand and a globe in the other, “which really fits who Rivkah is and who I am,” he said. The figurine is perched at the edge of a table atop which are also an old camera, a pair of cut-outs from artist Wanda Ewing’s black pin-up series and a button that reads “Black Power.” Sometimes there’s a button with a black hand, a brown hand and a white hand coming together that says “Let Us All Be Good Neighbors.” Taken together, he said, the display “is almost like a snapshot of a world that is and a world we could have. In many ways that represents to me where we need to go and, unfortunately, where we haven’t always been.”
Sass traces his humanist bent to his growing up poor in the Chelsea slums of New York City. He never knew his father, an artist, a presser, and Communist Party member who a year after Abe was born in 1938, went to Europe to try and rescue family only to be “swallowed up in the Holocaust.” His mother, Sylvia, endured “a miserable working life,” but sought much more for herself and her only child.
“She gave us a cultural life,” Sass said, “and so on Fridays she and I would go to the Cooper Union Forum to hear lecturers speak and on Saturdays we would go to all the museums in the city, particularly the free ones. In her own gentle, quiet but militant way she was saying, We all need to have certain basic things, rights and freedoms. She’s the one who taught me if there are people on a picket line they’re there for a reason, because they need better working conditions, better salaries, better benefits, and ‘we don’t cross picket lines.’
“All of her contemporaries were militant Jewish garment workers and wherever there was a rally there we were. I was just a kid, but everything they did made crystalline sense to me. It’s through her I met Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. We would go to places where they were singing. We had a dear friend who was a wonderful militant woman. My mom and I would go with her to like a fraternal gathering place, where they would have speakers, singers. Seeger would come. Robeson would come. It was really cool. One of the major moments for me is when Robeson shook my hand and I felt, wow.”
He said he gained an awareness beyond his years “when we marched in the May Day Parade for working people and we’d get hit by rotten eggs and cabbages and comments like, ‘Go back to Russia’ or Dirty Commie.’” If all the protests he’s been a part of — from fair housing to sane nuclear policy to immigration reform– have taught him anything, he said, it’s that “there are people in this world that just don’t get it. I’m not a pessimist but I believe many people just don’t see there’s a big picture, and I believe one of the things we suffer from — all of us — is we only focus on ‘me.’ It’s dangerous…Unless we really see and feel connections we wind up with a perspective that’s very constricted and myopic.”
Action, not apathy. “We have to reach out and do something for people who need an assist up. It’s like that powerful saying, When they came for him, I didn’t say anything, when they came for her I didn’t say anything, and then when they came for me, nobody said anything. It’s still the same. It hasn’t changed,” he said.
The “cruddy” area he came from offered some valuable lessons on human relations and social conditions. Being the only Jewish kid on his block gave him a sense for what minority really mean.
“We lived in a terrible apartment building on West 18th Street,” now the trendy art neighborhood of New York, he said. “It was a little, dinky three-room apartment. I lived there through my 20s. It was tense and tight and loud and crazy. When you’re Jewish and you grow up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood you’re an oddball by definition. I was more of an oddball because my aura was a softer aura and the softness not only came from enjoying the sanctuary of the orthodox synagogue I grew up in, but also” from being a reader and an art lover among street kids.
“The kids I was desperately trying to fit into I really had a hard time with, because they were busy kicking other people’s asses and that really was not something I felt comfortable with. And when it came to like stick ball and football and all that shit, nuh-uh, it was like, ‘Oh, get out of here, Abe.’ I was totally useless.”
To survive, he had to find his own schtick.
“Everybody had their thing on the block. You gotta have something to get a rep, OK? My rep was on Sunday nights, when we’d gather on a stoop and I would tell stories to these same kids…just make ‘em up out of my head…and I had them, because I could weave a tale, and I loved it. I shined in that moment.”
At PS 11 Elementary School and at Charles Evans Hughes High School he mixed with Jews, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Greeks, Asians and practically every other nationality-ethnicity. “It was a potpourri of people,” he said. “You talk about a spectrum, it was all there.”
He fondly recalls the summer camps for “underprivileged children” he attended, and later was a counselor at. They further exposed him to a multi-cultural stew.
“My best friends were always Puerto Rican kids, black kids, Asian kids. I used to drive my poor mother crazy because every summer I’d come home from camp talking like I’m a kid from Harlem. She would say, ‘What kind of talking is this?’”
Counselors at camp, he said, “were usually (university) psychology or social work students. They were there because they had a desire to be there to help kids. Every summer I looked forward to it. When I became a counselor it was a joy for me to help a kid who was going through shit clear out and get away from it and say, Bye-bye shit, I don’t need you anymore. I knew I wanted to do this.”
He credits a camp director with giving him sound career advice. At the time, Sass was weighing what to do after high school. Though he felt called to be a teacher-counselor, he felt stymied by his lack of funds.
“He said, ‘Abe, you’ve got it. If you want it, go for it. The money will show itself. Don’t hold back ‘cause you don’t have the money.’ I totally trusted him and he was right. He was absolutely right. I was lucky enough to go to City College, which didn’t have tuition, and then Columbia University gave me a full tuition scholarship.”
Going from the lower Manhattan ghetto to elite Columbia was quite a leap.
“I was a lucky guy. I was just so happy. I was in fat cat city. That was the best training I could of had and it has helped me right through till now. There just happened to be a confluence of forces that brought these dynamite people to Columbia during those years.”
Above all, he said, he learned “you’ve got to start where your client is. I mean, it sounds glib, but it’s very important to really hear what this person in pain has to say before you lay any agenda out, before you take your freakin’ notes, before you say, ‘Well, where were you born?’ and all that kind of social history bull shit.”
For him, the core of where the therapeutic focus needs to be was brought home by a case study of a subject with “a mouthful of rotten teeth.” Sass posited, “What would it be like walking around day after day with a pain in your head? Is that going to throw you off balance? Yeah. So, we were like back to Abraham Maslow. Basics, man. I have met a lot of people who have spun their wheels with a lot of therapists and they still haven’t dealt with the basics, and it’s sad.”
University life also fed his activist and culturist sensibilities. The Cold War was at its peak. Vietnam was just getting hot. The civil rights movement already underway.
“In college I hung out with The Beats and we were all counterculture,” he said. “We didn’t see the way it was going as the way it needed to go. We felt there was a world out there of creativity, art, exciting ideas and some of that meant taking a stand and a lot of that meant looking at the fact there are a lot of people who are not free, who have less opportunities than we do. So I started into that and my mother, of course, was very proud of that.”
He participated in sit-ins, some to show support for the activists down south “getting their heads plunked.” He was tempted to be a freedom fighter himself in Jim Crow country, and once “I was all but on my way,” before something came up.
He and a friend did go to the nation’s capital for the famous MLK-led ‘63 mass March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We both felt this would be an important thing to do,” he said. “Several of our friends were going…We drove there. It was wild because all these cars were on the road and people were waving at each other. I mean, we all knew where we were going. It was an amazing experience.
“We first gathered at the Washington Monument, where there were singers and all kinds of speakers, and then we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a hot day and…every once in awhile somebody would pass out, but we were all so tight the person would be lifted up with hands and gently moved to the outer perimeter, where medics and assundry volunteers were set-up. It was like pre-mosh pit.”
The impact of the huge, unified crowd, estimated at 250,000, and of the speakers, capped by King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” oration, was “very, very powerful.”
Last month Abe accompanied Rivkah to D.C. for the American Library Association Conference. He retraced the march he made as part of that great procession 44 years earlier. By the end, he had a Mr. Sass Goes to Washington experience.
“I wound up one late afternoon walking the exact same path. It was hot. I went straight to the Washington Monument. It was very spiritual. Half-way between it and the Lincoln Memorial there’s ‘a Kodak moment’ spot where there’s a little display with a photo of the wading pool that day in ‘63 with all those people.
“I continued on to the Lincoln Memorial. I went up where his Gettysburg Address is engraved on one wall and I don’t know what possessed me, but I started saying it out loud. I know it pretty much by heart. And this group of tourists came over and we’re all looking at it together as I’m reading it out loud and they’re like, right there with me, and I just kept on going.”
He’d had some practice with the speech. Back at PS 11 he was selected to portray Lincoln for a school assembly. On his nostalgia trip back to D.C. all those years later, he didn’t stop with “Four Score and Seven Years Ago…”
“When I was done, I turned and I walked to the wall where his second inaugural address is engraved, and this same group of people followed, and I read that out loud. They were right there with me again. The greatest thing was I called our daughter and I told her where I was and I told her how much I loved her.”
Sass said when his daughter Ilana was a young girl she’d have friends over the house and invariably get down from a shelf the book, The Negro Since Emancipation. The back cover has an image of demonstrators in the ‘63 march and there’s the young Sass towering above the throng. His daughter would proudly proclaim to her pals, “That’s my dad.” “It was very special,” Sass said.
The melting pot experiences Sass had the first half of his life gave him an enriched perspective he carries with him to this day.
“I love my roots, I really do. I treasure them. I feel really good about having been introduced to so many wonderful ways of thinking. The weird thing is, even though there were many aspects of it that were very, very uncomfortable, I’m so glad it happened that way. Because thinking about who I am now I really feel like I viscerally can feel, for example, what people in parts of Omaha feel when they’re talking about the kind of shitty conditions they’re living in and have been living in for years and there’s no f___ing excuse for it. There really isn’t.”
Not long after moving with Rivkah to Omaha about four years ago, he attended a north Omaha town hall meeting at which Mayor Mike Fahey and his cabinet responded to issues confronting the inner city. Sass said an older woman pointedly asked how it is the cracked streets and backed-up sewers area residents like her knew as kids are still in disrepair decades later, and, how come residents out west don’t have these problems. No real answers were forthcoming. The gap between black Omaha and white suburbia apparent in the void.
“It’s hard to even try to say what I was feeling as I sat there,” Sass said. “Here we are in 2007 and there’s all this stuff about segregation…The struggle goes on, and you can’t be blind to it. You really can’t be blind to it.”
The poor, old working-class woman kvetching about inequality reminded him of his mother, each asymbol of the proletariat struggling to get by.
“She would go the shop and sit behind a sewing machine all day long busting her chops,” he said of his mom. “And she worked and worked and worked, and when she was 62-years-old she was wasted. It’s very, very sad.”
He was reminded, too, of when he went to California in the mid-’60s, fresh from Columbia, and found an unfriendly climate. En route, he stopped for gas at a roadside filling station, where, he said, “this guy and I got to talking.” When Sass mentioned he was heading for Napa, he recalled “the man saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it, there are no niggers in Napa.’ Holy shit, I just about fell down. Could not believe it. That’s one of the things that propelled me to join CORE.”
Once there he was dismayed to discover a form of red-lining being practiced whereby “realtors in the area were knocking on doors and saying, ‘There’s a black family moving in down the street from you — you might want to sell your house now because its value is going to diminish.’ That was going on when I got there,” he said, “so I got involved in the opposite campaign.”
He threw himself into resisting city plans for razing an established residential neighborhood built during the war for shipyards workers and their families and building high-priced condos in its place.
“A lot of the people who lived there were going to get displaced,” he said. “We (CORE) got involved in a big campaign to stop that. We had rallies, marches.
“Also, we started a freedom school in a storefront and kids would come in and we’d help them with whatever their issue was. Helping people connect with their community is very powerful.”
Wherever he saw discrimination he tried meeting it head-on.
“Not too long after I got to Napa I went for lunch with my friend Frank, a black psychiatrist. We were in this local-yokel place. We ordered and we waited. People came in after us and were served while we’re still sitting there. We asked what’s going on and the wait staff said, ‘We’re out of what you ordered.’ So we said, How about such and such? And they said, ‘We’re out of anything you’ll order.’ We really got pissed off and like two days later a shit load of us showed up, black as black can be, man. I was one of the few white guys in the group.
“We were sitting there and we weren’t moving until we got served. We said, ‘If you don’t have it today, we’re coming back tomorrow.’ They just shit in their pants. And the name of the game was they changed their policy. But not because they’re kind-hearted. It’s the pocket book. It’s money.”
He noted another incident that happened when he lived in an apartment complex. Black friends of his from CORE came over and went for a swim in the pool. When they jumped in, the whites jumped out. The next day, Sass said, he found his car’s tires slashed. He had to insist the police treat the matter as a hate crime.
“It’s sad and it’s funny and crazy and pathetic and angry…all that stuff,” he said.
He knows how hard it is for people to change attitudes and behaviors. He’s spent the better part of his life helping people try to do just that. “When somebody is going through a terrible emotional crisis my job is to help them create a revolution within themselves because what they’ve been doing is not working for them. If the revolution is successful they move on and it’s like a different world.”
Abe and Rivkah have endured their own crises, including the loss of a son.
In order to grow and to conquer our fears, he said, we must take chances. “So frequently what we do — all of us — is let ourselves be preoccupied with the fear of what will happen. It holds us all back….A piece of what I do is to help people see that right now is what we have,” he said. “I think my gift somehow is to guide people through hard times. It’s an art. I think you’re either born with this gift or not of allowing someone into your skin and your getting into their skin, safely, without being made to feel violated.”
When he was In California he worked with his share of people whose substance and lifestyle excesses caused them to “freak out.” He’s done his own experimenting and, he said, “it’s given me a better understanding of what people go through.”
Since coming to Omaha he’s worked with individuals, couples and families on a pro bono basis. He and Rivkah volunteered as puppeteers, storytellers and Sunday school teachers in the Pacific Northwest. He’s performed at synagogues. He, Rivkah and a mutual friend formed the Rosebud Puppet Theater. He does much the same today at local day cares. The puppet characters are drawn from Jewish folklore and include Schlemiel and Lyzer the Miser.
As it takes a mensch to know one, he’s hooked up with some of Omaha’s most righteous folks, including Holocaust survivor Rachel Rosenberg, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, community watchdog Ben Gray and early childhood education pioneer Evie Zysman.
“There are people here that are very committed to justice and to fairness and equality. I just wish there were more of them and they had more clout and money,” he said.
He and Zysman, a former social worker, both hold degrees from Columbia’s School of Social Work. He adores her. “Hey, if I can be like Evie Zysman when I get to be her age, I’m home free. She’s a pistol, an absolute pistol. Formidable, incisive, cutting, sharp.” These kindred spirits don’t go in for the superficial chatter of the cocktail circuit. They prefer “Intense and meaningful dialogue,” he said.
He and Rivkah also count among their friends such local artists as author Timothy Schaffert, painter Wanda Ewing and sculptor Littleton Alston.
Like always, his friends are a rainbow coalition. Whatever one’s race or religion, he said, differences melt away “when you do things together. You become kind of like each other,” he said. Welcome to the wonderful world of Abe Sass.
The real stalwarts of any community are those unsung toilers who do the right thing day in and day out in jobs that most of us take for granted will get done. Francisco “Paco” Fuentes is a laborer in the youth services field in my hometown of Omaha and in an era when parents entrust more and more of their children’s time to teachers, coaches, and volunteers it’s vital that the people working with our youth are dependable and effective, and as a former master sergeant Paco is someone who runs a tight ship at the South Omaha Boys & Girls Club he leads, ensuring that his staff has the best interests of children at heart just as he does.
“Paco” Proves You Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
South Omaha Boys & Girls Club unit director Francisco “Paco” Fuentes has won numerous awards for his youth development work, but he never gave a thought to serving kids until he returned home from the U.S. Air Force in 1998.
During a 20-year military career the South High grad moved often. He rose to the rank of master sergeant. His first civilian job after getting out was at the Omaha World-Herald, where he was a quality control technician. He had no complaints about how he was treated or paid there, but he couldn’t imagine making it a career.
“I call it my groundhog job. It was the same thing every day,” he said.
Then one Sunday Paco’s friend Alberto Gonzales mentioned the South O Boys & Girls Club was to undergo an extensive renovation. Fuentes was glad the club he devotedly attended as a boy was getting a serious makeover. Then when his friend told him the club was seeking a Spanish-speaking director with management experience, his interest piqued. He liked the idea of leading a facility that featured lots of programs and activities and involved multitasking.
Gonzales put in a good word for him to Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands head Tom Kunkel that night and the next day Paco found himself interviewing with Kunkel at the club. Being there for the first time since he was a kid released a flood of nostalgia in Fuentes.
“I was just overwhelmed with feeling. It was like, I remember this place. I had so many good memories from this club. Walking through it again it was like, Wow, this is home. By the time we finished I really, really wanted this job.”
He got it of course and 10 years later he’s never once regretted the decision.
“I love this job. I get up and I can’t wait to come to work. I think about this job all the time. It’s just a perfect fit for me because it’s a challenge. Every day is different. I can’t predict the next five minutes in this job and I guess I kind of like that.”
The depth of his feelings for the place and for the organization can best be understood by his own childhood experience. Born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, he came to America with his family as a toddler in 1960. He and his three siblings grew up in “humble” circumstances. He struggled in school with reading and writing, he said, in part because his parents had practically no grasp of English.
He credits the Boys & Girls Club for supplementing the education he didn’t get at home or school and for providing a safe, nurturing haven for him to realize his potential. In classic pay-it-forward style, he and his staff do the same for kids today.
“Starting at age 8 I came every day. That first year I had a routine, I would go to all the different areas, including a small library,” he said. “I would open up one of the big picture books, look through it, then run off. One day I was about to run off and the librarian, Miss Pat, stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me, but is your name Francisco? Boy, you come in every day, you must love to read. Could you read for me?’ I didn’t say anything. ‘Well, how about I read for you?’
“I came in every day after that. She would stop whatever she was doing and read to me, and that grew into us reading together. Of course, she guessed right away I could barely read. She would help me with my words. More and more I started to read to her. Well, after awhile she got me to enter this weekly spelling bee. She gave me encouragement and I finally won. I’ll never forget : she pinned a first place ribbon on my chest and got on the intercom to congratulate me. I could hear kids clapping all through the club. I was just so happy.
“Miss Pat not only literally taught me to read but she gave me a love of words. The lessons I learned here have served me my entire life, so I love this club, I love the mission. I can see myself in a lot of these kids. It just is really gratifying work.”
The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs is “to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, healthy and caring citizens.”
Fuentes said given the dangers that exist now that didn’t when he was young, the need for clubs like this may be greater than ever. In response to that new, harsher reality, he said, his friend Alberto Gonzales teaches the Street Smart program at the South O club. The program addresses things like peer pressure, bullying, tobacco cessation, drug awareness and gang prevention.
“When you look at what’s going on, ” Fuentes said, referring to the rash of youth and young adult homicides in Omaha, “I truly think prevention is always better than intervention and suppression. If we can get to these kids at a young age and help them with moral values, skill sets, education — that can only be a good thing.”
Rather than think of other youth-community facilities or agencies, like the new Kroc Center for example, as competitors, he said, “they are our allies. We want to work with them. We do work with them. Our competitors are the gangs and anybody else that would want our kids to go in a negative direction.”
He said his club saw steady growth between 2000 and 2008 but that membership and attendance has flattened out some since. Blame the economy.
When he took the job a decade ago, he said, “I knew I had my work cut out. Our clientele was predominantly Latino, Spanish-speaking, but that didn’t necessarily reflect in the staff, so through attrition I made sure we had bilingual staff in all of the areas, especially the front office. Very basic stuff. I don’t want our kids to be tolerated, I want them to be celebrated, so I wanted staff that reflects our clientele.”
He said personnel changes, programming innovations (his club won a national award for programming in 2006), the $2.5 million renovation and networking helped make the club a more attractive option for kids and families.
“There was a lot of outreach, a lot of partnership,” he said. “I went to a lot of meetings, I joined a lot of committees and from that a lot of dynamics, give-and- take and working with the community came about.”
He said peak time at the club might find 25 separate activities happening at once, running the gamut from Homework Help lessons to art classes to DJing to board games to career development sessions to basketball, football, soccer and softball. He said the 30,000 square foot center gets lots of use.
Still, his club could serve more. “I wish we were at capacity. I wish there were more facilities,” he said. More kids will likely come through the doors this summer if the indoor pool, which has been closed a year for renovation, reopens as planned.
Fuentes, whose bright, toy-bedecked office is nothing like the spartan quarters he kept in the Air Force, enjoys being a role model to kids and a mentor to staff. Most of his staff are young enough to be his children. A husband and father of one, he never had an “inkling” he’d wind up in youth services, but he’s content to make this his last job if it should work out that way. His open-door policy has kids streaming in and out of his office all day.
As different as the 2000s are from the 1960s, some things have never changed at the club and he intends to keep it that way.
“The main thing I loved growing up here is that all of the kids were the same, whatever happened in this building was accessible to every single kid. It was all free, too. That still holds true. Kids from all walks of life, once they pass through those doors, they’re all the same. This is the great equalizer.”
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I don’t go to a lot of theater, but I go to enough to have a good sense for what good theater looks and sounds like, and one of the better amateur productions I’ve ever seen was the Creighton University staging of the Tim Robbins play, Dead Man Walking, from some years ago. It’s hard to go wrong with this gripping material, but then again I’ve seen enough strong source material mishandled that I know anything can be done badly. This was a case of fully realizing a play’s potential. The play, like the movie Robbin wrote and directed, is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her transformative experience counseling a death row inmate that basically began what’s turned into her nationwide crusade against capital punishment. I see now that Dead Man Walking has been adapted into an opera as well, which doesn’t surprise me because the dramatic moments and thematic concerns and emotional upheavals in the story certainly lend themselves to such expressive treatment. I hope the opera is staged one day where I live, Omaha, which is also the home to Creighton University, a Jesuit school with a fine reputation for its professional colleges. Its liberal arts offerings, including theater, ethics, social entrepreneurship, and journalism, are quite strong, too.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
To kill or not to kill? That question hovers over every moment of Dead Man Walking, the new Tim Robbins play that covers similar ground as the actor-filmmaker’s acclaimed 1996 film of the same name. In this meditation on the death penalty, the ramifications of taking one life for another is considered. Do we have the right to? Is it justice or revenge? Can execution ever be meted out fairly?
The play, making its Omaha premiere in a Creighton University main stage production opening this weekend, forces viewers to confront a subject most would rather not contemplate. And the humanistic way it presents this struggle ensures that it goes beyond being mere polemics or abstraction. It is high drama truthfully distilled in the very real conflict of a convicted murderer’s life hanging in the balance. Will ending his life compensate for the lives he took? Does he deserve to die? Did his victims? The dilemma only grows deeper when the killer shows remorse. Too late it turns out. No matter what side you’re on before the play, you won’t come out of it unaffected after witnessing a night of theater in which an execution by lethal injection is enacted before your very eyes.
“It’s very riveting. I mean, we’re going to execute somebody on stage,” said the show’s director Alan Klem, CU assistant professor of theater. “I hope to leave the audience with the same feeling I had after reading the play, and that is — I can’t ignore this. I think what the playwright is trying to get across is that we can’t take a passive view point on this issue. It’s better to take a strong stance, one way or the other, than to say, ‘It doesn’t concern me.’ It does concern us. Basically, we’re shedding light on executions, which are carried out at midnight when people are asleep. Why do do it then? Because the state doesn’t want you to know what it’s like. Death row is a terrible, terrible place. We’re trying to recreate that feeling the best we can that this is a terrible, terrible place.”
After the final curtain on opening night, a panel discussion on the death penalty follows. The panel includes Creighton law professor Christine Wiseman, a vocal death penalty opponent who, in 1995, exhausted the appeals process on behalf of Texas death row inmate Billy Conn Gardner. Serious questions were raised about his arrest, trial and murder conviction, but not enough to stop his execution.
What better forum for this discussion than a Jesuit institution with its historical social justice mission? At Robbins’ behest, a draft of the unpublished play has been offered to select, mostly Jesuit, colleges and universities to be performed during the 2004-2005 academic year. It’s part of his Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, whose intent is to elicit dialogue on capital punishment, an ugly reality usually shrouded in the dark of night, far away from public scrutiny.
Creighton is among only a few school’s mounting a production of Dead Man this year. The school’s Department of Fine and Performing arts is staging its version over seven nights in February and March. Show dates and times are: Thursday through Saturday, February 24 through 26, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, February 27 at 2 p.m.; and Thursday through Saturday, March 3 through 6, at 7:30 p.m. The show’s on-campus venue is the Lied Education Center for the Arts at 24th and Cass.
Both the play and movie are based on the best-selling book by Sister Helen Prejean, whose real life story recounts her 1980s experience as spiritual advisor to Angola State Prison (La.) death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. He was ultimately put to death. In her book and in Robbins’ adaptations, the one constant is a convicted killer awaits his reckoning via a lethal injection date. Alone, with no prayer of his sentence being commuted, he makes a desperate plea for help, A naive but caring nun answers the call — setting in motion events neither seems prepared to handle.
Just as there’s no doubt where the protagonist, Prejean, stands on the issue, it’s clear Robbins vehemently opposes the death penalty, but to his credit, he doesn’t allow his drama to turn political diatribe. “It tries to give both sides of the issue,” Klem said. “It’s important it not come off as a sermon.” Indeed, a reading of the play reveals a balanced work delineating how people find moral, Biblical mandates for or against execution. While the troubling and divisive themes are ever-present, the core conflict is the tug-of-war between Prejean and her soon-to-be-put-to-death charge, Matthew Poncelot. It is a struggle between her unconditional love and his unrepentant heart. Between her search for the truth and his denial of it.
The conflict is also an internal one, within the mind of Prejean, whose self-reflective stream of consciousness drives and defines the action. She becomes our witness, our guide and our narrator to the events that unfold. She even “preaches to the audience, trying to open their eyes,” said the actress playing her, CU senior Jeanne Tiehen. “But she doesn’t come down on them. It’s more like, ‘Listen to this story.’ It’s all about awakening the discussion about capital punishment.”
At times, we’re privileged to hear Prejean’s innermost misgivings. She’s plagued too by the harsh but righteous anger of the victims’ parents and the cynical disapproval of the victims’ themselves, who remind us of promising young lives violently cut short. The insistent voices and haunting figures receive expressionistic treatment by Klem, who with CU theater coordinator and technical director Bill Van Deest, has come up with a striking set dominated by a depressive death row cell block below, where the condemned fret and wait, and a surrealistic catwalk above, from where the dead look down. All is black save for the rust-toned bars and handrails. Adding context are stark, projected images on an overhead screen. Together with the disturbing, fated presence of Poncelot, a sneering, conniving hate-monger bursting with pent-up anger, fear and regret, it becomes an existential space.
At first, Poncelot tries playing Prejean the way he has everyone else. After all, she comes to the prison and criminal justice system as an innocent. When he sees she has, as Klem calls it, “backbone,” he begins to respect her. Before she knows it, she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being an advocate and confessor for a monster. Along the way, she makes enemies. But she cannot turn back.
In the eyes of Tiehen, a CU senior theater arts major whose experience researching, rehearsing and performing the role is her thesis project, Prejean is like Alice in the rabbit hole. “Once she falls, she just keeps going and going, and what I like about this script is that as soon as she gets a grasp of one thing, all of a sudden she’s dealt a whole new layer of challenges, and it’s overwhelming. There’s plenty of points in the play when she goes, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s kind of like she’s propelled along by events. It gives you a real sense for how this thing steamrolled. There’s not a moment’s rest. And there is no getting off for her.”
So, why does Prejean stay the course? “She sees this person who needs help and when he turns to her for it, she can’t turn away from that,” Tiehen said. “She feels a responsibility for this guy’s soul. For his well-being. For his life.” Klem said, “She becomes not only a tower of strength for him, but also the conscience for him.”
Poncelot is played by CU senior Rusty Perry, a regular at the Millennium Theater, He feels the condemned man finally opens up to Prejean out of “his trust” in her. “She sort of pulls it out of him. When he first meets with her, he blows smoke in her face. He doesn’t feel she deserves any more consideration than anyone else. Yet she still cares for him,” he said. “He’s like one of the strays she took in as a child. It’s his first experience of love — of someone caring for his life.”
For Tiehen, a veteran of such CU productions as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Prejean is a woman to admire and a character to covet. “She’s an amazing person. Her involvement in the movement just happened, and rather than running away from it — she embraced it. You don’t find many female characters like her that are intelligent and strong, and still warm and compassionate.” She said playing a public figure in Prejean, now an icon in the fight to abolish the death penalty, is “daunting. Here is this woman who’s become such a strong face and force in the movement…and how do I still make her somebody that’s approachable and not just a figurehead?” The key, she said, is expressing her “compassion and her faith something good will come out of this.”
Then there’s the fact that at the time of these events, Prejean was an unknown navigating her way through a crazy system that, once its wheels were set in motion to put someone to death, it could not be stopped. “She’s kind of the Everyman in the situation,” Tiehen said. “She’s scared. She’s frustrated. She gets angry. She’s not someone who’s just pious, tempered and passive all the time.” She’s real.
Tackling a part and a piece as heavy as this, Tiehen said, is taxing. “It’s extremely challenging. It’s demanding a lot of me, and all of us. But it’s been very educational to chronicle the journey of this process. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Klem said cast and crew have tried keeping things light in rehearsal. “It’s not an easy play to do. But even as heavy as it is, you’ve still got to have fun doing it.” Aside from the potent themes, he said its cinematic structure — with short, impressionist scenes and quick transitions — makes it “difficult to stage.”
In a play filled with “religious connotations” that pose Old Testament eye-for-an-eye arguments versus New Testament turn-the-other-cheek admonitions, “there is a communion going on,” Klem said. “It’s almost like a liturgy in a sense.” Amen.
- Man on death row for 21 years has murder conviction overturned (thegrio.com)
- Delaware to hear final mercy appeal for death row inmate abused as child (guardian.co.uk)
- Neb. Supreme Ct. rules against death row inmate (mysanantonio.com)
- Death row American’s lawyer calls for compassion from Iran (cnn.com)
- Execution date sought for Oklahoma death row inmate who killed his wife (newsok.com)
Born Again Ex-Gang Banger and Pugilist, Now Minister, Servando Perales Makes Victory Boxing Club His Mission Church for Saving Youth from the Streets
It’s doubtful that another amateur boxing club has received as much ink and video coverage in the short time Victory Boxing has since starting about a decade ago. The magnet for the attraction is founder Servando Perales, whose personal story of transformation and redemption and unbridled passion for helping at-risk youth are the driving forces behind his boxing gym. The gym is really his mission church and sanctuary for getting kids out of the gang life that consumed him and landed him in prison. That’s where his own turnaround began. If you’re a boxing fan, then check out the boxing category on the right — I have many stories there about pro and amateur fighting, past and present.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Rev. Servando Perales and his faith-based Victory Boxing Club at 3009 R Streets is a story of redemption laced with irony. He’s eager to share the story at its April 25 grand opening, when from 1 to 3 p.m. the public’s invited to experience the program USA Boxing magazine recently named national club of the month.
In terms of redemption, consider how this one-time boxer and gang-banger from south Omaha survived The Life of a drug dealer-abuser only to undergo a profound transformation in prison. Behind bars Perales found God with the help of fellow con Frankie Granados, an old friend he’d run with on the outside. Granados already had his own born again experience in the pen and he worked on Servando to take the plunge, too. It took time but Perales finally “surrendered.”
On the curious side, consider that Victory head coach John Determan is both a former corrections officer and cop. He donated Victory’s first ring. He appreciates the oddity of a gringo badge and a Latino fist teaming up.
“I knew him as a bad guy when I was a cop,” said Determan, a former Mills County (Iowa) deputy. “That’s what’s cool, you know — bad guy-cop coming together to do something like this,” said Determan, whose son Johnny, a nationally-rated 119-pound amateur, and daughter Jessica, a former amateur world champ, train there.
Beyond their lawman-outlaw roles, Determan and Perales knew one another from boxing circles. They even traded blows in the ring when the older Determan was a journeyman pro fighter and Perales a feisty young amateur. They dispute who got the better of each other in those long ago sparring sessions.
Fighting’s not all they share in common. Both are devout Christians. Determan ran a faith-based boxing club in Glenwood, Iowa. The evangelists boldly fly their Christian colors at Victory, whose “t” is an oversized cross with a pair of boxing gloves hanging from it. A wooden cross adorns a wall inside, where Perales ends pep talks with, ‘You guys ready for the risen Lord? Alright, amen.’” The pair hold weekly Bible studies on Thursdays. All part of the signs and wonders that distinguish Victory from other gyms, where Christ is more apt to be an expletive than a prayer.
“The thing that separates us from all the other ones is that we’re Christ-centered,” said Perales. “We do not waver our faith, our values, and we stand firm on who can change a person’s life, and it’s Jesus Christ. That’s my strong belief and that’s what sets us apart. That’s why you see 30 kids in here. It’s not because we’re the best coaches or because we have the best fighters, it’s because they sense a presence of God in this place. I actually believe that.
“We acknowledge that God is the only one that can change circumstances and change people. If He did it for me he can do it for anybody.”
“It’s great when we have our Bible studies,” Determan said. “They’re really hot topics where we talk to the kids about things they might struggle with and they’re hearing it from two perspectives — the gang member and the cop. And that’s one of our testimonies to our kids — that it doesn’t matter who anybody is, skin color, background or any of that, you can come together.”
Perales, a father of five, said the fact he and Determan can speak with first-hand authority about both sides of the law, gives them an edge in dealing with kids who may have problems at home or school and be veering off track.
“They can’t pull a fast one over on either one of us,” said Perales, whose gym serves members ages 10 and up. The coaches field calls from kids at all hours.
“Servando knows the challenges some young people face, having traveled that road himself, so he has an incredible ability to relate. His story is real and he has much credibility with youngsters. Consequently, he’s very effective, especially in helping troubled youth be positive and productive citizens,” said Martinez.
When storm damage made Victory’s previous site uninhabitable last summer, the gym was homeless. Martinez told a friend about it. Perales and the benefactor met and Victory soon had a spacious new home in the former Woodson Center.
“Actually, we wouldn’t be in this building had it not been for (ex) deputy chief Martinez. He’s the one who helped us get in this building by introducing us to a gentleman that actually put $65,000 up for this building,” said Perales.
A Weed and Seed grant purchased a new ring. The minister sees Victory as a partner with law enforcement to provide safe havens and activities. The gym hosts all-night lock-ins, takes kids camping and has them participate in community events, from parades to Easter egg hunts. Cops are frequent visitors. Some come to train, others just to kick it with kids. “We have a lot of cops that are friends,” Perales said. “Law enforcement is really deep out here. They’re strong. The gang unit, I know those guys personally. I grew up with them. We’re working, we’re doing everything in our power to keep the streets of south Omaha safe.”
It’s only logical the local Latino Peace Officers Association (LPOA) is a major backer of the gym, given its makeup and location in Hispanic-rich south Omaha and the club’s predominantly Hispanic members. But what you wouldn’t expect is that past LPOA president Virgil Patlan, the man who arrested Perales in ‘96 in a bust that sent Perales away for 18-months, ardently champions Victory. Once on opposite sides of the law, Patlan and Perales are friends and admirers today.
Perales attributes this turn of events to divine whimsy. “Yeah, God has a sense of humor, man — He put an ex-gangster and a cop together, and all for the glory of God,” said Perales, whose tats are remnants of the old life he left behind.
Patlan admits being dubious of Servando’s change of heart until hearing him preach and talking with him. “I was real skeptical at first because you hear this all the time about cons,” said Patlan. “It took a lot of ice-breaking but we became good friends. I knew he had a heart to help young people. I knew he didn’t want them to go through what he went through. I know if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes — he’s not. He’s authentic, he’s genuine.”
An Omaha Police Department retiree, Patlan is an active community advocate and neighborhood association volunteer. He and Perales collaborate on projects.
“I think that’s where the trust and the respect came for each other,” said Patlan, “and we’ve just kept doing programs for the neighborhood.”
A program they formed called This is Your Neighborhood makes presentations to school-age kids about the evils of gang affiliation-activity and the importance of staying in school. By his late teens Perales was incorrigible and got expelled from South High. His troubles escalated after that. It’s why Victory requires members abide by a strict code of conduct that includes maintaining good grades and refraining from swearing, gang signs and any disrespectful behavior.
Since Victory’s inception Patlan’s helped with donations. He and his wife are planning a “fun run” to raise funds for the program’s operating expenses. Patlan and Perales share so many values they don’t dwell on the divergent paths that led them to the close bond they enjoy today.
“Now I don’t even think of it. It’s natural. We call each other brother,” said Patlan.
Something more than fate led Perales back to his roots. Before he got mixed up in a gang, he trained under Kenny Wingo at the Downtown Boxing Club. The promising amateur soon wasted his potential, using his skills to protect turf and wreak havoc. After his conversion and ‘97 prison release Perales turned pro. “The Messenger” once fought on the undercard of a world heavyweight bout. He hung up the gloves with a 9-5 record. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Between matches he’d already begun missionary work with at-risk kids in his old South O stomping grounds — steering youths away from bad influences he’d succumbed to and bad choices he’d made. His regular job as a YMCA membership coordinator reflects the Christian outreach he’s felt drawn to. Unable to ignore the call to serve, he was ordained a minister in the Assemblies of God Church in 2005. He launched Victory in his garage that same year, using “the gift of boxing” to coach/mentor/minister kids from the same streets he ran wild on.
“This is my church,” he said of Victory. “God called me to do this. It wasn’t by accident I boxed for 20 years. But with that comes responsibility, man.”
It’s no accident the Downtown club let an alum — Perales — train his kids there after the storm left Victory homeless. No accident he reunited with Determan, who took over Downtown after Wingo died. They’re family. It’s all come full circle for Perales. He sees in kids today the same hunger for love he craved at their age.
“Hopefully, God-willing, they learn and they feel valued here, because that’s the thing man — they’re all searching really for a sense of belonging,” said Perales, whose alcoholic father ditched the family. “For the most part they embrace our values and they love it here. 90 percent come to the Bible studies, and it’s optional. They want to be there. We tell ‘em, ‘You don’t have to join gangs to belong to something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be a follower, man, you can be a leader.’ And that’s why were here — to provide that outlet.”
He said kids find escape at Victory from lives on the edge. “There’s maybe a couple I keep a close eye on and talk to one-on-one,” he said. Impressive prospect Luis Rodriguez, a gang member before Perales turned him onto Christ and boxing, “is one I think about a lot,” Perales said, “He’s been with me for about three years. I keep him very close to him. He and his little brother Ezekiel. They really respect our values.” Success stories include three Victory alums now in the military.
Peer pressure though is a constant worry. “I’m not going to lie, some kids have come and gone,” said Perales. “They didn’t embrace our values. They didn’t like the fact they couldn’t cuss, they couldn’t bag and sag, they couldn’t fight out on the streets. We’re not teaching them how to box so they can go out and hurt people. That’s what I did and I regret every minute of it.”
Victory’s road from humble beginnings to its envied new 10,000 square foot facility is the start of “a dream” Perales has to create a full-service “hope center.” A rec room’s set-up but computers are needed. The kitchen needs a new stove and fridge. The training area holds two rings and assorted bags and free weights but boxing equipment wears out fast. Hundreds of spectators can fit on the main level and balcony for boxing shows, which provide revenue for the nonprofit gym. But Victory struggles making the $2,000 monthly rent. Overdue repairs await fixes.
Meanwhile, he said, grant monies have run out. More donations would secure Victory’s future as a community center. “It’s got so much potential, there’s so much room to grow. But one day at a time. It’s only been five months since we moved in,” he said. He’s counting on the grand opening adding new members and support. “I’ve personally invited all the organizations in this community and hopefully they’ll make it out.”
He worries but then he remembers to trust in his Higher Power. “We’ve been walking in faith the whole time. He hasn’t left us yet. He didn’t bring us here to leave us hanging. He opened this door for us. I know He’ll take care of us.” Amen.
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John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, Including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams
John Sorensen epitomizes a subject whose magnificent obsession, in this case for social work pioneers Grace and Edith Abbott, inspires me to want to write about him and his passion. This blog contains an in-depth story I did a couple years ago about John and his various Abbott projects. The following short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) encapsulates his fascination with the sisters, particularly Grace, and previews his documentary film about a quilt project with strong connections to the Abbotts‘ advocacy for immigrant women and children. John’s film lovingly details a group of Sudanese-American girls making a story quilt that expresses their dreams and memories. The quilt project is a metaphor for the loss of one way of life and the adoption of another way of life as the Sudanese, like other newcomers in the great march of immigration and refugee resettlement in American history, become part of the rich tapestry and fabric of America.
John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
John Sorensen is like many Nebraska creatives who left to pursue a passion.
The Grand Island native and longtime New York City resident worked with master filmmaker Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success) and Broadway legends Lewis and Jay Presson Allen (Tru). He founded a New York theater troupe. He’s developed a radio series. He’s written-edited books and study guides.
What sets him apart is a two-decade venture combining all those mediums. The Abbott Sisters Project is his multi-media magnificent obsession with deceased siblings, proto-feminists and early 20th century social work pioneers, Grace and Edith Abbott, from Grand Island.
As Abbott champions, Sorensen and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Ann Coyne were instrumental in getting the school last fall to rename its social work unit the Grace Abbott School of Social Work.
John Sorensen with bronze bust of Grace Abbott
Sorensen has found a saga of strong, visionary women engaged in social action. These early Suffragists and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates were part of the Progressive wave that sought to reform the Industrial Age’s myriad social ills.
They trained under Jane Addams at Hull House, they taught at universities, they widely published their views, they advised Congress and sitting presidents and served on prestigious boards, all in helping shape policy to protect immigrants, women and children. Much feted during their lives, the sisters are arguably the most influential Omaha women of all time. The pair remained close, often consulting each other.
“I think from an early age, the sisters recognized they were each somehow mysteriously made whole by the other — that together they could learn things, experience things and do things impossible for either on her own,” says Sorensen.
His latest Abbott work is a documentary, The Quilted Conscience. He wrote, produced and directed it. A 7 p.m. free preview screening is set Thursday, October 6 at Film Streams.
The doc follows a group of Sudanese girls in Grand Island making a story quilt with the help of master quilter Peggie Hartwell and the town’s local quilters guild. The resulting story-blocks illustrate the African home the girls’ families left and the American home they’ve adopted. The quilt expresses the girls’ memories and dreams for the future. Sorensen seamlessly interweaves Grace Abbott’s minority rights advocacy with the girls’ cross-cultural experience to create a rich, affecting tapestry full of dislocation and integration, loss and hope.
A Q & A with Sorensen and some of the girls follows the screening. The “Dreams and Memories” story quilt the girls completed will be on display. The film is expected to eventually air on public television.
Grand Island public school teacher Tracy Morrow, whose students worked on the story quilt, says, “For many of the girls it has been a life-changing experience. They put so much work into it. I feel like John’s … educating the Grand Island community about the Sudanese and educating the Sudanese about Grand Island and America.”
As Grand Island connects Sorensen to the Abbotts, his project is allied with the public schools and library. The city’s refugee population is living context for applying Abbott values.
Sorensen has promoted the Abbotts for years, but it’s only recently his efforts have borne fruit. The story quilt has toured the state. He’s formed a immigrant-student quilt workshop. He co-edited The Grace Abbott Reader and helped get Edith’s memoir published posthumously. The sisters’ accomplishments are told in a new children’s book. The Grand Island Independent sponsors an Abbott scholarship.
All of it affirms that his epic odyssey to bring the Abbotts to the masses has been worth it. Even when his efforts gained little traction, he persisted.
“I just did whatever I could to keep transforming it and keeping it in people’s faces,” he says. “I could see I was having success in raising awareness — that people were slowly getting to know around the state who these women were. And that this more than the study of people from 100 years ago; this is the study about things that can help us to live better today.”
His devotion to the Abbott legacy is complete.
“I simply love the sisters,” he says. “I also admire their work for children and women and immigrants, and I feel a family-like connection and perhaps responsibility to them from sharing a hometown. I could no more turn my back on them, their legacy and their story than I could my own family. That love, that sense of faith is unconquerable.”
Even though he didn’t intend making it his life’s work, he’s grateful his Johnny Appleseed project is finally sprouting.
“It’s become clear in the last three or four years that it has no end for me. It’s become so embedded in my existence that I can’t stop — also because now it’s actually starting to unfold.”
Sorensen, who “never felt at home” growing up in Grand Island, is today a celebrated favorite son for his project’s rediscovery of two town legends. It feels like “a kind of destiny,” he says.
Seating is limited for the free Quilted Conscience screening. Reservations are recommended and may be made by emailing email@example.com or visiting the theater box office, 1340 Mike Fahey Drive. For more details, call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
- A Stitch in Time Builds A World Class Quilt Collection and Center-Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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