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

September 29, 2014 1 comment

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Two of a Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vic Gutman

Idealist, Go-getter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He despaired at what he found in that arena.

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

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

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

“Some of their stories broke my heart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were ragtag,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

September 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferial Pearson is an award-winning educator  highly regarded for her work with students who can use some extra TLC.  An experiment in kindness she launched in a metro Omaha classroom proved healing and habit-forming.  Pearson challenged her Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School to become Secret Kindness Agents performing anonymous good deeds at therir school.  To her surprise the students ran with the idea, taking it well beyond what she imagined.  The experience is told in a new book, Secret Kiindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.

 

 

 

 

 

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared online at http://www.thereader.com

 

When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.

That got Pearson, an award-winning local educator, thinking bullying and violence might be avoided through kindness. On Pinterest she found an envelope labeled “random act of kindness assignment.” That led her in 2013 to propose a Secret Kindness Agents project to her junior class of Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School.

Doing character-building projects is old hat for Pearson, who went by Mama Beast to her students’ Baby Beasts. She didn’t know how the teens, who’ve since graduated, would respond. All came from challenging backgrounds. Several identified as gay or lesbian and were the target of bullies. She’d hand-out weekly assignments for students to anonymously complete at school – from sitting with someone they didn’t know to picking up trash to writing notes of appreciation.

To her delight the students embraced the idea, even expanding on it, though for some it meant overcoming doubt or embarrassment. The project took on a life of its own and helped students heal, develop confidence and become like family.

“When you’re a teacher you’re used to kids saying, ‘Well, how many points is this worth?’ or ‘Why should I do this if I’m not going to get a grade?’ but they didn’t have any of that kind of a response. It was, ‘We want to go further then what you want.’ They’re great kids.”

The story of how the project inspired and impacted participants is told in the new book, Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.
Pearson was joined by some former students – she now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – at an August 31 signing at The Tea Smith, 78th and Dodge.

 

 

 

 Ferial Pearson

 

 

 

For the students who took on this let’s-show-a little-kindness role, the experience went well beyond a class project.

“For me, being a Secret Kindness Agent was so much more then doing the assignments each week,” Alyssa Schimbeck says. “I went out of my way to do things for others.

Things as simple as grabbing the door or picking up things people dropped. After everything was over I still found myself being kind to others.”

When Pearson followed up a year later she found the kindness habit ingrained in many Agents, some saying they routinely performed random caring acts, with no expectation of recognition or reciprocation.

“And they’re still doing stuff,” Pearson notes proudly.

Schimbeck describes being at a bowling alley when fellow Agent Lance Otto retrieved a toy bull from a claw machine and gave it to her. Later, she noticed a little girl try but fail to win the same toy, whereupon Schimbeck gave the girl hers.

“It was extremely heartwarming to know the little girl would love that bull more then I would and it brought back all the good feelings from the project. Taking part in it reminded me even the simplest act of kindness can change someone’s life.”

Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.

“I thought it was a terrible idea. My first assignment was to write a letter to an administrator, so I naturally picked the one no one liked, who I just happen to adore. I told her although she is not the most popular…she is doing a great job. I received a letter back saying how much she appreciated the note and how it helped her get through a bad day.

That it meant a lot to hear a student give her positive affirmation.

“At that moment my view on the whole project changed. It made me believe our own pride stops us from helping others. I still have that letter. I read it when I want to believe there is no good left in the world.”

What Pearson calls “the ripple effect” took hold while the project was still in its infancy. The students decided they needed an oath to recite and borrowing from the Green Lantern they crafted one:

I accept wholeheartedly
To fulfill my kindly duties in the most secret way
No good act, no kindness shall escape my sight
Beware our kindness; S.K.A.s’ might!

The class adopted code names to protect anonymity. The students didn’t stop there.

“They found YouTube videos on acts of kindness, they started bringing in social justice songs and stories all tying into kindness. All of it inspired me, too. I was noticing acts of kindness, making sure I was thanking people,” Pearson says.

An entire ritual formed around each week’s assignment.

Then Caslyn Lange asked Pearson’s help to fulfill an act of kindness outside the regular ones. She wanted to give a note of appreciation and $25 to a student who never gets noticed. When Pearson asked staff for nominations, she got several names and donations, resulting in nine students each receiving a note, $25 and Taco Bell coupons.

As Lange wanted her happiness “spread out” by seeing people’s reactions, Pearson enlisted staff to summon the unsuspecting recipients to report to the main office. She and Lange were there to witness the looks of surprise, joy and gratitude on students’ faces.

Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.

“Even though they were drawing assignments every week they were doing stuff on their own in addition to that,” Pearson says admiringly of her kindness entrepreneurs.

When WriteLife.com publisher Cindy Grady saw Pearson’s posts about the project striking a chord with students she encouraged a book. Grady published an earlier book by Pearson and her then-class at Omaha South High School entitled In My Shoes. Pearson was hesitant but her Ralston students were not. When Pearson suggested proceeds go to a charity, the students elected the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation knowing one of their own, Triston Herring, is diabetic.

“It was really cool to see them vote for JDRF because he was the one who nominated it. They understood what it meant to him. It was a huge show of support.”
Soon after Ralston Public Schools officials found out about the book assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs authorized 500 copies be purchased.

“We overwhelmingly were impressed with the work of our students and staff,” Gibbs says, “and we wanted to share the project with the entire district to showcase teachers and students from Ralston Public Schools. Our goal is to share wonderful ideas and practices …and the amazing lengths students and staff take to develop a sense of community and belonging.

“The response has been overwhelming.”

After a district event at which Pearson and two Agents spoke they “got hugs, kind words and wonderful notes.”

Gibbs says some Ralston teachers are planning their own SKA projects. Two teachers with close ties to Pearson are planning an SKA project in the Bryan Middle School homeroom they share. Pearson also hears about teachers doing similar programs around the country.

The project lives on in other ways, too.

“It keeps coming back to me,” Pearson says. “I keep thinking about it every time something horrible happens again. That’s what keeps me from spiraling to where I just want to hide and keep my kids with me and never let them go out into the world. It reminds me there are good people out there, there are good things, there is hope.

“My Agents realized it feels better to be kind when you’re in a bad mood than it does to lash out. They are out there now having that ripple effect to make somebody else feel better.”

The book’s available online and at select bookstores.

 

 

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

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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

JOURNEYS: African Safari

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

OUT ON SAFARI

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

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

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

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

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

 

BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER

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

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

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

 

EVOLVING EXPANSION

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

It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.

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

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

 

EVOLVING EXPERIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

 

EVOLVING AWARENESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.

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

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

 

SHARED TRUST

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

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

Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.

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

Being a well-run venue helps.

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

No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.

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

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

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

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

~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO

Cover Photo

Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive.  This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions.  My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Mark Evans, ©ketv.com

 

 

Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.

With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.

Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,

District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.

One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.

 

 

Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.

He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.

“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.

“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”

 

©omaha.com

 

 

Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.

“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.

“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:

Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”

He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.

“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”

He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”

Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”

He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.

“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”

He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.

“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”

 

Evans delivers podcast as part of district’s efforts to be more transparent ©wn.com

 

 

He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.

“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.

“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”

Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.

“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”

Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.

“Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.

“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”

 

©omaha.com

 

 

Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.

He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.

“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.

“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”

Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.

“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”

Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.

“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”

   Pam Cohn (Secondary)                                                                                        

 Melissa Comine (Elementary)

Dwayne Chism (Elementary)                                                                                                                                                                                           Lisa Utterback, Elementary

         

 

 

 

His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.

“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.

“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”

Other principals have done the same thing.

“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”

To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”

In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.

“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that, we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.

“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,

which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”

Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.

“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”

 

 

He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.

“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”

He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.

“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”

Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.

“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing    partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.

“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”

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


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

 

 

 

 

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit http://www.projecteverlast.org.

Partnership 4 Kids – Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers


Omaha Metro Magazine asked me to write a special multi-page insert for its June 2014 issue all about a local nonprofit. Parternship 4 Kids, and its mission to give at-risk youth a pathway to educational success from Kindergarten through college.  Here are the stories.

 

 

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

 

BREAKING BARRIERS AND BUILDING BRIDGES

Transforming Communities…Fostering Life Beyond Limits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine

 

Giving at-risk youth hope and a pathway to success is the core mission of the goal-setting and mentoring collaborative known as Partnership 4 Kids. Serving more than 4,700 K-9 students in 22 schools with the help of 400-plus volunteers, P4K sprang out of two small adopt-a-school programs initiated by Omaha entrepreneurs.

In 1989, local busInessman and philanthropIst Michael Yanney launched All Our Kids at then-McMIllan JunIor High School as away to capture and support the lost youth he saw beIng left behInd In North Omaha. He formed a contract with 20 at-risk youth that had high potential but displayed low achievement and he promised them a post-secondary education if they met a set of expectations. Volunteer mentors were assigned to each student to guide their progress. Mike and his wife Gail became personal mentors to several students. Over the next two decades the program expanded into more schools and touched the lives of more young people, many of whom have realized the dream of a college education and a career.

Business owners Jerry and Cookie Hoberman wanted to give back to the North Omaha community that patronized their firm and in 1996 they put in place an idea called Winners Circle at then-Belvedere Elementary School. At the time North Omaha public schools were lagging far behind in student achievement. Borrowing from the incentives-based program for employees used at the couple’s business, Winners Circle introduced motivational tools to help students set and achieve academic and citizenship goals. Adult volunteers called Goal Buddies encouraged students to succeed. Quarterly celebrations recognized student success. As student achievement rose, the program moved into additional schools.

Joining forces for greater collective impact, in 2007 All Our Kids and Winners Circle merged to create Partnership 4 Kids. By combining resources to provide support from early childhood through college, these efforts can now make a greater impact on participants.

“If you can make the difference in those kids where they start to believe they can succeed, you’re starting to make a huge indentation in the problems we have here in Omaha,”says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “That’s why we’re so passionate about what we do and that’s why we’re looking for more help. We have the groundwork set at the very time kids enter school and then it’s a continuum from Kindergarten through careers that we work with them.”

It’s about breaking generational poverty, which tends to persist with a lack of education.

“Education is at the core of everything we do with youth, but it is the relationship building and providing positive role models in their lives that makes the real difference,” Denbeck says.

Caring adult volunteers remain central to the P4K approach, whether as Goal Buddies, Group Mentors or Navigators.

“Sometimes parents need help. We have parents working three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Over 90 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch – the indicator of living at or below the federal poverty level. We have kids come through our program who are the first ones in their family to graduate high school, let alone college. That’s pretty startling.”

Gail Yanney says, “Today, young people have so much more to contend with. That’s where the mentor comes in. They have to have an adult that’s been there, that has common sense, that can perhaps guide them through these perilous waters. Youth are subject to all kinds of bad influences and we’d like to instill some good influences and give them an opportunity to see themselves as successes. Studies show that one meaningful person in a child’s life is the difference.”

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans says a mentor can be the difference between a child being hopeless and hopeful.

“If you start to believe you’re not going to get opportunities then you’re more apt to skip school, to have disciplinary problems, maybe even dropout,” he says, “but if you believe there’s hope and that light at the end of tunnel is close enough, you say, ‘I can do this, I can get through this and have opportunities.’ Partnership 4 Kids brings that positive adult in to bring that light at the end of the tunnel a little closer to students, where there’s a belief or hope that they can succeed.”

 

My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs

 

Success Story
P4K Alum Monique Cribbs enjoying education-career success                                                                                                                                                                                                             P4K has many alums whose educational achievements and success illustrate the value of having mentors in their lives.

Monique Cribbs was a senior at Omaha North High with a strong desire to fulfill her and her parents’ dreams of going onto college but she didn’t see a way she could afford school, at least not right away. Then a classmate in All Our Kids introduced her to Mike Yanney and that meeting led to him telling her he saw great potential in her and promising he would pay for her college education. When her life took some unexpected turns in college and presented her with some hard challenges, such as becoming a young single mom, her grades suffered and she strongly considered leaving school. But enough caring people in her life encouraged her to carry on. One of those caring people was Mike Yanney.

“I view Mike as a father figure, a very caring, wise person,” Cribbs says. “I remember going to his house and just crying. I told him I thought I would be dropped from the program. He said, ‘No matter what you do, we support you. Monique, the scholarship will never leave you, we’re here for you.’ and that meant so much to me. I had my son in 1999 and went right back to school.”

She followed her bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from UNO with a master’s in human relations from Bellevue University and is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and higher education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After stints at the Omaha Home for Boys and Bellevue University she served as Trio Coordinator at Creighton University. Today, she’s Career Services Coordinator at Metropolitan Community College, where she’s also an adjunct instructor.

“There are days when it’s really hard for me, where I’m really overwhelmed and stressed out,” Cribbs says, “but I know when I walk across the stage this next time it will have all been worth it. Now the sky is the limit, there is nothing I cannot do and one day I would like to be a vice president or a president of a college.”

Today she’s doing for current students what was done for her.

“It’s always good to have that advocate in your life to be able to talk about all sorts of things. I always want to have the ability to have contact with students but have the power to make change in institutions. I feel I’m in my training ground right now.”

She’s grateful for what P4K and the mentors she met provided her and continue to provide her 20 years later.

“I’m so appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given. These people truly are in your life, they truly care for you, and they’re also honest with you as well. It’s important to have someone to tell you, ‘You’re messing up right now,’ or, ‘You’re not making wise decisions but I know you have to live your life.’ As a mentee it’s critical you listen and also realize you do have to go through life making your own decisions while at the same time finding that balance between what your mentors are saying to you and what you want to do. That takes time.

“I think it’s amazing I met Mike (Yanney) when I was 17 and I turn 37 in May, and he’s still there and we still talk. I also still stay in contact with former All Our Kids President Julie Hefflinger. I think that means a lot because it went from being a mentoring relationship to being a friendship. I want them in my life. I appreciate them.”

Denbeck says the journey Cribbs has taken is one of “many compelling stories of people who have been in our program, graduated and are now very successful.” She says Cribbs epitomizes what happens when mentors enter a young person’s life and help pull them forward.

Denbeck says Cribbs does everything she can to give back to the program she credits with giving her so much.

“Monique spoke at last year’s Senior Banquet. Her message was,‘ It’s going to be hard, life isn’t always fair or easy, but don’t ever give up.’”

Indeed, Cribbs, who “was very honored to be the keynote speaker,” says, “I spoke from my heart about the power of education and my experiences in the program and in my life. I told the truth, saying not everyone in this room will make it through college but at the same time you all have people who are here to support you and you have to align yourself with those who want to see you do well.”

Her son Cayden participated in P4K as a 7th and 8th grader, one of several youth following in the footsteps of their parents in the program, and he’s preparing to enter Elkhorn Mount Michael in the fall.

“My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education and that his job is to go to school and do well and my job is to support him and be the role model of continuing my education so he can’t say to me, ‘Mom, I can’t do it,’  because I can say, ‘Baby, you can, because I did. There’s nothing you can’t do because I’m doing it.’“

 

Mike and Gail Yanney

 

A helping hand
When it comes to mentors, the biggest thing is showing up.

“Being a good mentor is about being there,” Denbeck says. “When you’re there consistently kids begin to get the sense that you care about them. That consistency is huge because some of these kids have had adults come and go in their lives all the time. The best thing a mentor can do is to care and to be consistent. Kids just want to know that you’ve got their back.

“When that happens as our Program Coordinators can tell you, you see better behavior and better grades because their mentors help them create hope that there’s a brighter future.”

At each participating school a paid P4K Program Coordinator serves as liaison, facilitator and resource for the school staff and volunteers.

“Our Program Coordinators are embedded more and more in the schools,” Denbeck notes. “That means they’re also doing some intensive case management with kids who need it the most. Our kids see our Program Coordinators at school every day. If we’re going to build relationships the more people see you the more they trust you.”

In some ways mentoring is as simple as giving students guideposts to follow and work towards.

“People growing up in poverty and facing very difficult situations really need a lot of help and it isn’t money they need, they need opportunities, they need people to put their arm around them and encourage them and motivate them,” Mike Yanney says. “It’s about instilling hope and there’s every reason to have hope because in this great nation there are all kinds of jobs available, even today, but young people have to be educated to do those jobs.”

 

Mark Evans

 

OPS endorsed                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        All of P4K’s work is done in step with its biggest partner, the Omaha Public Schools, whose students the program exclusively serves. Therefore P4K’s goals mirror OPS goals.

“As a school-based mentoring program we reinforce what the schools are doing,” Denbeck says. “We work in partnership with Omaha Public Schools and we’re a support group that’s giving these kids in-school and after-school support. We work with every kid in 12 elementary schools through our goal setting program and from there students are selected to go into our after-school group mentoring program in middle and high school. The carrot at the end is that we provide a college scholarship.

“We do whatever we can to be a good partner with the schools helping these young people and schools be successful. They have to believe in what we do and we have to bring something of value to the table. Having volunteers in your school is very healthy. It’s that co-connection of community and school.”

OPS head Mark Evans likes that P4K is in sync with his district.

“They are aligning student goals to school goals and district goals, which is really what we’re about right now with our whole strategic planning process,” he says.“We see Partnership 4 Kids aligning to what we’re trying to achieve, whether it’s NESA goals, attendance goals, graduation goals. This is just a great resource to help us see that alignment and keep that focus and to have a community member there helping our young people create those goals.”

Miller Park Elementary School Principal Lisa Utterback, whose school has seen academic achievement dramatically rise during her tenure and P4K’s immersion there, also likes that “the P4K program aligns strategically to what we’re doing,” adding,“We receive support from the Goal Buddies, the Program Coordinator and the P4K program by their presence in the building and their having positive communication with our students and encouraging them to stay the course.”

Similarly, Field Club Elementary School Principal Barb Wild has seen increased student achievement at her school. She says P4K “is a part of that because it’s part of our school culture,” adding,“ It’s integrated into what we’re doing with the acuity data and the state testing. It all connects. It’s not some vague just be good or just do better, it’s a very specific, laid-out thing students can attach to and take ownership of.”

Denbeck says,“We start early focusing on goal setting in math, reading and life skills. Those are real indicators of educational success and life success. The skill of goal setting directly correlates to education. It’s really important kids learn how to do this and the teachers are the ones developing those goals with the kids.”

 

Deb Debeck

 

P4K makes a big deal of students meeting goals at quarterly celebrations in the schools.

“The celebration each quarter is a culmination of their success,” Denbeck says. “They get to come up to the stage to get a medal and shake hands with the Goal Buddies. They’re recognized in front of the entire school. It’s really a school- wide celebration of the achievement of students. It’s directly related to creating that hope that there’s a brighter future.”

Evans applauds P4K for recognizing student achievement.

“I think the power of that is not that students are just getting an ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl’ but that it’s related to an accomplishment,” he says.“Giving support to young people, letting them know we care and celebrating their success is fine but the research says you need something worth celebrating – meeting a goal of some kind – and that’s where the core piece is. They’re tying it into recognition of an accomplishment. That’s when I think it really has value. The things you value most are the things you work hard for.”

 

The amount of people we touch and the lives we change and the results we have seen are pretty phenomenal. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 

Building blocks
P4K starts early getting kids to think about careers and college.

“In 5th grade we conduct career tours as part of career exploration,” says Denbeck. “We want kids to see all the different career options available. These trips are made possible through our partner corporations and sponsors. Our middle school program prepares kids for strengths-based leadership. Every one of our kids goes through the Strengths Quest program at Gallup to find out what their strengths are. Kids learn moral courage – how to stand up to bullying. They learn all those things that help build character and help in making good decisions. They learn financial vitality, they learn how to write a business plan and to sell a product. They learn both business skills and personal skills. We also begin taking our middle school students on several college visits. We want them to see college as a reality.”

Denbeck says one of the biggest indicators of whether a student will drop out of school is their experience in middle school.

“It’s a very changing and defining time in a young person’s life – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. It’s that whole adolescent change. In our program we address specific issues and lessons in various areas that will help these kids have the skills to succeed and transition to high school. Then, when they get to 9th grade we really talk about what they need to do to graduate. We put a plan together of how they can succeed through high school. As our kids go into their freshman year we call our volunteer mentors, Navigators. They work with groups on those skills students need to succeed in high school. Students look more seriously at career exploration and shadow mentors at their workplaces. We’re always putting careers and college in front of them.”

Navigators meet with the same large group of 9th graders twice a month after school in a classroom setting and at least once per month outside of school.

“It takes some skill to get kids to trust and operate in a group setting,” Denbeck says.“ There’s always time set aside for mentor-mentee relationship building and conversation, which is combined in tandem with a structured curriculum. Outings are reflective of what’s taught in the classroom. We also have a lot of fun group activities. We try to broaden their cultural experience because some don’t get those opportunities very often.”

Although P4K programming strives to provide a comprehensive pathway to success for students room is also made for community collaboration.

“We use these other resources to help students get up that ladder,” Denbeck explains. “As a nonprofit you cannot be everything to every single person, so a year ago our board of directors asked two specific questions: ‘Who needs us the most?’ and‘ Where can we make the biggest impact?’ So we redesigned our program to be a K-9 program. Why K-9? That gets you through the two biggest hurdles a young person goes through – from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Those big transition years are so key.”

P4K’s added formal partnerships with College Possible Avenue Scholars and Teammates to aid in preparing students’ individual plans for life beyond high school and completing the continuum of care.

Even as students move on into college P4K remains in their lives because of the scholarships they receive from the organization. P4K continues to be an ongoing resource to help keep students on track.

“We’re now working on establishing college campus groups to provide peer-to-peer mentoring,” Denbeck says.

P4K also has informal partnerships with many other youth serving organizations, such as the Trio programs, Upward Bound and Urban League of Nebraska to give students more options for finding the right niche for where they’re at and what they need.

High school students are given college access support via act preparation, admissions application ins and outs, financial aid resources and scholarship opportunities.Sstudents are offered workshops in various professions, job readiness seminars and summer internship opportunities.

 

 

 

A proven model
Every student’s path to success includes someone who helped them along the way and Denbeck says she’s proud to lead a program with a 25-year history of helping kids follow their dreams.

“The amount of people we touch, the lives we change and the results we have are pretty phenomenal. Knowing that we graduate 100 percent of kids with 90 percent going on to college and seven of our schools exceeding standards in reading and math tells us we’re doing a lot of things right.

“We’ve grown and we want to continue to grow.”

More donors and volunteers are needed to implement that growth. Denbeck hopes that as more people volunteer with P4K and as more organizations partner with it the added support will follow.

Volunteer coordinator Tracy Wells says the majority of P4K Goal Buddies and Group Mentors come from the corporate community and many return year after year.

“I think the glue that keeps people coming back is that they feel like they’re making a difference and they are connecting to the relationships they build with youth.”

Earl Redrick, a Group Mentor for four youth at Norris Middle School, says, “It is about relationships and having impact on the lives of young folks. Having a mentor, whether both parents are in the home or not, is proven to have some remarkable and positive results on the development of kids.” He knows from personal experience the difference mentoring makes because of the direction he received as a youth at youth serving organizations in his native San Antonio, Texas.

An employee with the Omaha office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Redrick says he goes the extra mile with his mentees, including regular Saturday outings, “because I know the rewards these guys get will go a long ways in life.”

Wells says P4K could always use more volunteers from the professional ranks like Redrick. She’d also like to recruit more retirees like Patti Quinn-McGovern, who began as a Goal Buddy at Field C lub Elementary School while employed at Omaha Public Power District and she and two fellow OPPD retirees have kept right on volunteering.

“Being a mentor is very fulfilling and rewarding,” says Quinn-McGovern. “I can just be standing here and children will come up and give me some hugs. Who can turn that away?”

 

It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. ~ BRITTANY GOSSETT

 

Brittany Gossett
While a 7th grade student at McMIllan MIddle School BrIttany Gossett couldn’t escape a school counselor who wanted her to apply to one of the two forerunner programs that merged to form PartnershIp 4 KIds. Seemingly every time the counselor saw Gossett she was championing the mentoring and scholarship resources of All Our Kids (AOK) as a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Gossett didn’t know what to make of it all, little knowing the program would propel her on a path of success.

“She kept pestering me, ‘Did you fill out the application?’ Finally, I filled it out and the program’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had,” says Gossett, now 24. She learned a valuable lesson about seizing opportunities when they’re presented.

Today, Gossett, who with the guidance of a personal mentor went on to graduate from Omaha Central High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is employed by one of Partnership 4 Kids’ newest collaborators, College Possible. The mission of College Possible is to get students to college by helping them navigate admission, financial aid and scholarship applications. Once students make it there the organization assigns them a coach to support them through the post-secondary experience, on through graduation and into their career. Gossett conducts workshops for middle and high school students to encourage them to start thinking about and preparing for college. She sees her work as a way of giving back for what others did for her.

“I had a mentor in Marsha Marron. She met me when I was in 8th grade at Monroe Middle School and she stuck with me all through high school and college. She did a lot of things with me. We went out to eat. Every year she would let me go school shopping for supplies. She brought me gifts at Christmas. Most of all, she encouraged me. We would talk most every Monday. We do stay in touch even now. It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. When people around you are behaving badly you can get sucked into it and I needed somebody to give me guidance and structure and that’s what she provided. I always had my own mind but she was that extra push to say, ‘You need to stay on this path so that you can get to college and be successful in life.’ She was that extra help to give me a reason to be successful.”

In her current work Gossett plays a similar role for students starving for the same kind of encouragement and guidance she needed.

“The thing that keeps me motivated to help students is that I can relate to them. I want to help students because I know they have potential and sometimes they just need the extra push like I did. These students are very hard working but sometimes they get beat up by life. A lot of the students we work with come from homes where the parents are not supportive, where they’re talked down to. Some kids can’t even walk outside their house safely.

“You just have to give them a chance and look beyond what the situation around them is and see their heart and who they are as a person. We get to know them personally. These students sometimes just need somebody to be supportive of them and try to understand where they’re coming from. They just may need somebody to pat them on the back and say, ‘Great job.’”

 

 

When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs
More than a decade earlIer, Monique Cribbs started her journey wIth the program near the end of her senIor year at North HIgh School. The only reason she came to it at all was that a classmate in the program suggested that she speak to its founder, Michael Yanney. Cribbs did and it changed her life.

“At the end of the conversation Mike said, ‘Monique, I see great potential in you and I want to help you and I will give you a full-ride scholarship to college,” Cribbs recalls. “So I became a part of the program. It was unorthodox because they were starting with kids in 5th or 6th grade and I came in at 12th grade. I had a mentor and I started doing all the same type of activities the other students were doing.

“We graduated that May and two weeks later my friend and I went to Bridge, a summer institute at UNL for promising scholars from across the state.”

The start of her college experience that fall was far from a smooth ride. She didn’t get along with her first mentor. She didn’t much like taking other people’s advice. Her grades slipped. Then after transferring from UNL to UNO, she got pregnant.

“There were a few bumps in the road. It was just a rocky time. I was young and I thought I knew everything.”

She feared she’d blown her chance. But even after those false starts and detours her education was paid for as promised. She’s gone onto great academic achievement and career success with AOK founder Mike Yanney and former director Julie Hefflinger as her mentors.

“When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated,” says Cribbs.

She says the power of P4K is that it puts people in your life who affirm that anything is possible.

“Having other like-minded people around you is very important because it’s very easy to say I can’t and so I won’t,” she says.

In a higher education career that has her helping students find their path in school and in life, she makes a point of using her own achievements to illustrate what perseverance and mentoring can do.

“Every time you pass a milestone it’s worth it to tell someone else about the process. It’s worth it to share your story with someone and to encourage someone to carry on as well.”

Today, Cribbs is a role model for her son Cayden, a P4K participant himself. She wants her example of being a high achieving woman of color from the inner city to inspire urban youth like her son to not be limited by stereotypes. Her desire is squarely in line with P4K’s premise that circumstances may make one’s road more challenging but they don’t have to define you or to curtail your expectations. She discovered what P4K professes is true – there are human and capital resources available to help you succeed no matter what your story.

“My son is another motivation for me,” she says. “I am a first generation college student from North Omaha and there are so many stereotypes about kids who grew up there and I always said. ‘I don’t want to be that stereotype.’ When I was pregnant I thought, I am that stereotype now, but I wanted to break out of that box and that’s why I continued to push. Yes, I am a product of North Omaha, I am a first generation college student, I have two degrees under my belt, I’m in graduate school, I have a son who’s an honor roll student who enjoys school and talks about going onto college.

“So you can break through people’s perceptions, you can do whatever it is you would like to do and there are people here to support you. You just have to continue to push.”

 

The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up. ~ JEFF RUSSELL

 

Jeff Russell                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Twenty-fIve years ago Jeff Russell was a student at then-McMIllan JunIor High when school counselors and staff recommended hIm as a prospect for All Our KIds. Mike Yanney launched the program there because at the time his niece served as principal at the school. The idea was to give underachieving young people the mentoring support needed to get them through school and to pay their way to college.

The way the program worked at the beginning, Russell and his fellow mentees all met one-on-one with Yanney before he matched them with employees of his company, Burlington Capital Group. At a certain point Mike and his wife Gail began mentoring select participants in what came to be informally known as Yanney’s Kids.

“I was originally paired with Gary Thompson, then Dave Vana, but ultimately I had many more throughout as everyone in the program seemed to have a helping hand,” Russell recalls.
Having a mentor, Russell says, meant having “someone we could talk to, seek homework help from, establish goals with. They helped us along our journey through school. Staying with the program meant support all the way through college. I soon started a summer job at Mr. Yanney’s house working for my next informal mentor, Ned Kaup, who showed me the ropes and prepared me to manage the place while he moved on in his life.

“I would have to say though that in the years I was with the Yanneys they were mentoring me the most to become who I am today. They promoted me as a manager of their place, which showed me the leadership skills I didn’t know I possessed. We developed a strong relationship and I was able to see they are two of the most giving people I have ever met and genuinely love and care for the people they help and surround themselves with.”

He says P4K “showed me I have options – I can achieve what I put my mind to.” The combination of a strong home life and the program he says, mitigated against the “bad influences”around him growing up. Until he came to the program he says, “I did not think I had a chance for college.” He pursued but did not finish a horticulture degree.

Russell is married with two boys and works as a nuclear security officer at the Fort Calhoun (Neb.) Nuclear Generating Station. He’s pursuing an industrial electronics degree that he plans to use in becoming an electrician with OPPD.

The Yanneys, who still regard the people they mentored as “our kids,” take great satisfaction in seeing them succeed.

“Jeff had every opportunity to fall into a crack,” says Gail Yanney, “but he was willing to listen and he tried and he essentially has now a piece of the American Dream. He has a wonderful partner, he has a good job that he can advance in, he has wonderful children.

“Monique (Cribbs) has not only a fabulous education and career but she has raised a really beautiful young man who will go on to be a productive citizen.”

Cribbs, Russell and Brittany Gossett are the P4K promise fulfilled.

“They’ve got hope and they’re going where they want to go and they’re getting themselves there,” says Gail Yanney. “I guess that’s the stuff that makes you proud. Some of them still have hills to climb but they’re climbing them.”

“We’re very proud of them,” Mike Yanney says. “They’ve really done some great work. They had some adverse situations but they’ve really risen to the top.”

Perhaps Jeff Russell sums up best what it means to have mentors in your life with, “The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up.”

 

 

Miller Park Elementary

 

P4K volunteers help students to set goals and local schools to thrive                                                                                                                                                                                           There’s something oddly perfect about a scene unfoldIng each quarter in the hallways at FIeld Club and MIller Park Elementary Schools. Outside the classrooms they’re assigned volunteer Goal Buddies squirm their way into school desks far too small for their adults bodies and hunch over to meet the eyes of the children they serve. One by one the students file outside the classroom into the hall to sit down and meet with their Goal Buddy. Not surprisingly, some children must be coaxed to speak while others must be urged to quiet down. A team of three Goal Buddies are assigned to each classroom. They work in tandem with teachers in encouraging students to set and meet school and district goals for reading, math and life skills. Each of these informal mentors provides another attentive, sympathetic set of eyes and ears and gives comforting hugs and words to students in need of some extra love and inspiration.

So it goes in this hallmark early education piece of Partnership 4 Kids, the Omaha nonprofit that sends the volunteers into the schools on visits designed to help kids achieve. The model’s working, too, because the schools, one in South Omaha and the other in North Omaha, are both seeing major gains in student achievement on standardized tests. The schools are among seven buildings P4K operates in that report rising student performance and the goal is to duplicate those results in the other schools where P4K’s active.

Patti Quinn-McGovern has been a Goal Buddy at Field Club for several years. She started when still employed at OPPD and she’s continued volunteering there since her retirement. OPPD is one of 29 organizations and companies that feed volunteers to the program. Where some schools have P4K volunteers from several sources, Field Club has a designated corporate sponsor in OPPD, which has more than 50 employees volunteering at the school for its 600-plus students.

“We are really fortunate to have OPPD as a partner in this collaboration with Partnership 4 Kids here,” says Field Club Principal Barb Wild. “They do an awesome job.”

Support System                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Each P4K school has a Program Coordinator to serve as a bridge between the program, the volunteers and the school. At Field Club it’s Neris France. At Miller Park it’s Kris Morgan.

Wild is a fan of how P4K emphasizes the same goals as the school.

“Every student makes a reading, math and life skills goal for each quarter. We have them connect those short-term goals to lifetime goals. Achieving those short-term goals gets them steps closer to long-term goals and success beyond middle school and high school.”

At Miller Park principal Lisa Utterback says P4K “has been very consistent and on point with supporting our school’s mission of success. We’ve taken their program and aligned it to what we’re doing and it’s an added support system and incentive program for our students.” She says, “We are all about goal setting and the importance of students understanding this is what I want to attain and this is the plan to get there. We have empowered our students to own their goals and to accept responsibility for their actions. We firmly believe one of our most important goals is creating a sense of hope and empowerment in our children – that if they set their goals and work hard to accomplish their goals great things can happen. We know it’s our duty to make sure kids understand that even though we’re faced with adversity and we have obstacles in our life we can overcome anything if we set goals, work hard and stay the course. Hope is the essential ingredient in everything we do.”

Wild says each Goal Buddy plays a valuable role because they’re “one more person that that child knows cares about them and is invested in their success. There’s a little bit of accountability to the Goal Buddies, too. That student knows they’re going to meet with and talk to that Goal Buddy about the progress they’re making or not making in that goal and the Goal Buddy is going to talk in a very loving, nurturing, caring way about being accountable to making your goals. It’s giving that consistent message from several different perspectives.”

Quinn-Mcgovern says she volunteers because “I believe strongly in the idea of goal setting and teaching kids this is what you can do and here’s the reward.” Academic goals aside, she says, “I think the life skills goal is really important. It’s common sense, it’s practical. We talk about setting various goals in life. It’s a way to talk about real life in a school situation that I think can be really effective over time. It’s personal, too, it’s not just let’s get down to business. We talk about them individually. We learn about their family situation. We’re just another person to listen to them and to support them.”

 

Lisa Utterback

 

Partnering up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The 17 Goal Buddies serving Miller Park’s nearly 400 students come from Lozier Corporation and Metropolitan Community College. Lisa Utterback joins with other educators in feeling fortunate to have dedicated volunteers at her school.

“Our Goal Buddies are consistent. Some have been working with our school for years and they’re invested in the success of this school. The kids know who they are and call them by name. I’m telling you it makes a difference in the life of a child especially when there is consistency. Some even come in outside their scheduled time to just to see how they’re doing . They come on field trips with the classes they’re assigned. They come and celebrate our goal achievements.”

Neris France says P4K is most effective where it’s most warmly embraced by principals and staff, such as at Miller Park and Field Club. Once a school is on board, she says, then it’s all about the volunteers.

“The volunteers are critical. They love what they do. They love that we give students hope and get to be role models who inspire them. I get inspired by the students every day. They inspire me and our volunteers to do our job because we want them to do good, we want them to succeed. We share a passion to get the kids to experience the opportunities we’ve been given in life.”

Earl Redrick sIgned up to be a PartnershIp 4 KIds group mentor last summer and after a full school year workIng wIth a quartet of males at NorrIs Middle School he’s eager to worK with them agaIn come the fall.

Group Mentors like Redrick make a two- year commitment to the program, pledging to mentor the same group of three or four students as they progress through 7th and 8th grade.
One of his mentees is Angel, a 12-year-old who learned about P4K from some schoolmates. He’s found the program’s emphasis on goal setting helpful.

“I’ve learned how to set goals and why achieving them will help me. When you meet your goals you get more confidence in yourself that you’ll do other things.”

The power of mentoring is well known to Redrick, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development employee who has experience being a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters in his native San Antonio, Texas and with other organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Growing up, Redrick benefited from being mentored himself.

“My dad worked a lot so my uncle was probably my first mentor but I was always involved in the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. There were always mentors there. Then when I got into sports the coaches were always there to serve as role models and mentors.”

Redrick, who’s relatively new to Omaha, says a presentation he attended about P4K peaked his interest to become involved.

“What caught my attention was the data they’re recording and reporting back on. Some of the outcomes are pretty phenomenal.”

 

Earl Redrick

 

P4K is an outcomes-based program that utilizes research in designing its structured curriculum that parallels what the schools are teaching. Like every P4K volunteer Redrick filled out an application and a background check was done on him. Then he went through the two-hour training P4K conducts. He’s since attended some P4K workshops, including one on how poverty affects youth. Since August he’s been meeting regularly with Angel and his classmates after school and getting together for Saturday outings he leads them on to broaden and enrich their experiences.

“We’ve had some great times,” Redrick says. “These guys bring a lot of energy to the meetings. It’s really interactive. We talk about very useful topics around what’s important to kids at their age going forward. The Partnership does a great job of laying that out for us. The Program Coordinator sends us materials in advance so we can prepare ourselves. It’s a very structured program which really has a defined set of goals and objectives they want to get to with the kids by a certain point. That’s really impressive. It’s led by the mentors but these guys really drive the conversation.

“Some days they are really, really good and some days I have to twist and grind a little bit harder to get what we need out of them, but it’s good.”

As for the Saturday outings, he says, “they’re part educational, part recreational,” adding, “there’s a lot of fun incorporated but there’s other stuff we do that are teachable moments. For example, we went to an event in South Omaha celebrating various cultures. Probably the biggest teaching moment we did for these guys was go to the homeless shelter, where they served lunch. That was a big deal. Seeing those folks has an affect on the soul. We had some serious dialogue after that. It was really good.”

Redrick also accompanied the boys to a career fair. He makes the boys’participation in Saturday trips, whether going to the movies or exploring the Old Market, contingent on them doing what they’re supposed to be doing in school.

“These guys are really smart and any grade under ‘C’ to me is unacceptable. I told them at the start. ‘If you do your part I’ll do my part in showing you whatever you want to do.’ So they have to be accountable and get their grades. One of the kids didn’t go with us one weekend because his grades were not what they were supposed to be.”

Angel says he appreciates all that Earl does for him and his buddies, especially “helping us to meet our goals, pass our classes and keep ourselves together when bad things happen in school and things are going to be stressful, like when we take tests.” He adds ,“I consider him a teacher. When he comes to the school he teaches us things we didn’t know before and he encourages us. He’s helped me talk to my parents more. Instead of just saying yes or no, I’m being honest and trusting to tell them whenever I feel bad.” Angel, who has two older brothers, is being raised by his mother, who’s separated from his father. She works long hours at a greenhouse to support the family. Although Angel’s always liked school and gotten good grades, he says going to college has become a definite goal with affirming adults like Earl in his life helping to keep him focused and motivated. For someone who hopes one day to design and build things for a living, he’s getting the help he needs to build a successful life.

Weighing in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Society’s shIftIng cultural compact wIth schools and school dIstrIcts asks them to provIde ever more services for an increasIng number of youth presentIng greater educatIonal and lIfe skIlls needs. The delivery of expanded services to districts like the Omaha Public Schools can only be realized with the help of community partners such as Partnership 4 Kids, says OPS Superintendent Mark Evans.

“With an enrollment of 51,000-plus and growing, not only is ours a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line, and we know that brings with it some extra challenges,” Evans says. “We have an increasing number of English-as-Second Language learners. We have a growing number of refugee families. Four years ago there were 800 refugees in OPS from Somalia, Sudan, Burma, (Myanmar now), and today that number is 2,000. That’s 2,000 young people not only with language barriers but huge cultural barriers because a refugee camp in Sudan is nothing like Omaha, Neb.

“We also have more young people coming to us with neighborhood issues we need community input with. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges a young person has. Increasing needs create extra challenges that task the school district and the community to respond to because we’re trying to fill in gaps in many situations. Community organizations like P4K are just critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”

Evans says schools are tasked to do more in this no-child-left-behind era when there’s no longer the economic safety net of plentiful jobs that don’t require a high school diploma, much less a college degree. “Back in the 1960s and ‘70s when kids had gaps like language skills they dropped out and no one worried about it. The dropout rate before then was 50 percent and greater but it wasn’t a problem because there was plenty of jobs for a high school dropout. You could go right to work at factories with good living wage jobs with health benefits, a pension program. But about the time of the ‘80s it changed. Ever since then you’re not getting a factory job without a high school diploma. In fact, now we expect a little college or a post-secondary certificate. Those manufacturing jobs of the past don’t exist anymore.”

At the same time, he says, youth in need of special language training either “didn’t go to school or dropped out because we didn’t have any services for them,” adding, “In today’s world we can’t do that – there’s no throwaway young people and they have to have an education. In our district right now we’re at a 77.8 percent graduation rate, and I credit P4K and other programs like it in helping us achieve that.”

 

Tracy Wells

Tracy Wells

 

Schools welcome community support                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Educating all youth to be prepared for today’s environment is a job bigger than any school district can handle alone. While Evans says the OPS graduation rate “is pretty high for an urban setting, the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that – we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90 because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are so slim. It’s difficult.”

He says P4K’s continuum of care model that follows students from Kindergarten through college “is what you’re looking for,” though he adds, “I always say it doesn’t have to be college. I want them to have post-secondary training in something, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a certified electrician, for example.” That continuum of care is strengthened, he says, when community partners work in step with schools and school districts, just as P4K does with OPS, in delivering consistent expectations for youth educational attainment.

“If we’re all aligned, that’s where we get the power,” Evans says.

There’s nothing new about community resources flowing into schools but as student needs become more urgent and complex the informal adopt-a-school relationships of the past are evolving into more formalized, intensive collaborations.

Omaha Public Power District  Vice President for Customer Service and Public Affairs Tim Burke is a strong advocate for P4K’s work in the schools and for other community partners like OPPD doing their part in the mosaic of educating and inspiring youth to succeed. Burke knows first-hand the need for pairing caring adults with at-risk students from serving as a P4K Goal Buddy himself.

“In some of these young kids’situations this can be the only positive reinforcement they get about continuing school, about continuing education, continuing that pursuit of growth and development,” he says. “It could be the only positive reinforcer to continue down that path. Partnership 4 Kids gives these kids hope that they can pursue whatever they want to pursue.
I think we truly are making a difference. We are that light, that hope, that opportunity for that student.”

 

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

 

Mentors make a difference
Burke, who serves on the P4K board and chairs its development committee, says the Partnership fills an ever growing need, which is why he encourages adults to volunteer as mentors.

“We could always use more volunteers doing this. It’s not a shortage of kids needing assistance but there is a shortage of volunteers willing to make that commitment. The community went on a mentoring campaign last fall and it may be doing that again this year to grow these kinds of volunteers to do this work. There’s always an opportunity to serve more kids. Now’s the time to have this conversation around it in the community.”

Burke echoes Evans of OPS along with P4K President Deb Denbeck in championing the greater collective impact being made now that organizations like the Partnership and other community players are “aligning and doing more things together,” adding, “I think that’s great for the community.” Burke says P4K has been embraced at OPPD for a full decade and his colleagues tell him it’s because they believe in the difference they’re making.

“It has been one of those corporate initiatives that people get really excited about. You never really know what impact you make with these kids but every time there’s an opportunity to show it these kids will come up, give you a hug and show appreciation for what you’re trying to do to help them do the things they want to do. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their growth and development or the way somebody comes out of their shell to look you in the eye or shake your hand at the end of the school year where they didn’t do that before.

“It’s that kind of feedback that really engages our employees in the work of the Partnership in helping these kids move through the most critical time in their life. Our organization has a strong commitment to it. Our participation rates are very high in people coming back time after time after time.”

P4K Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Wells says the nonprofit has up to 70 percent retention of its overall volunteer base, “which is really good and something we don’t take for granted and always need to work on.”

OPS Superintendent Mark Evans says in those buildings where everything comes together in terms of administrative leadership, classroom teaching, youth serving organizations like P4K, volunteers from the community and parental involvement, student achievement soars. Two of several schools where P4K and its volunteers are contributing to verifiable student success are Miller Park and Field Club Elementary Schools.

P4K and growing needs
Evans says, “They’re high performing schools, both of them, with high quality leaders who lead schools showing significant gains in student achievement and success. Kids leave their doors ready for middle school and the next steps.” He says those schools are doing it despite having to respond to extra needs expressed by students and they’re making it happen by getting the community involved.

“We do need to reach out to our community because we’ve got increasing needs. The young people didn’t ask to be at the poverty level or to be a refugee, it’s just where they are.”

Being responsive to these needs requires a multifaceted approach.

“It’s not just us – it’s programmatic support, it’s us reaching out to our parents and families, but it’s also community members supporting our young people. We know the more parents are involved, the deeper investment they have, the program works even better,” says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “We invite parents to all our celebrations and special events. We want families to be even more involved.”

P4K mentoring model co-founder Gail Yanney, who has mentored many young people alongside her husband Mike Yanney, says, “When you consider the number of children who need a meaningful adult in their lives there are way too many of them for us not to be all working together. There’s plenty of this to go around. Everybody approaches it from kind of their own way of doing things but the ultimate thing is you’re giving a kid the opportunity to see the value in themselves and the value in becoming a useful citizen.”

Mike Yanney is grateful things have evolved from when he started the precursor of P4K, All Our Kids, 25 years ago, when it was nearly alone in its formal mentoring model. “One of the great things today is that there are a number of organizations really working aggressively to help these kids turn their lives around and they’re starting to collaborate with each other,” he says. “I think Omaha has a really good chance of making serious progress with a fairly large number of kids and frankly that’s part of our being a very good, caring community. You can look at all the work the Sherwood Foundation and Susie Buffett are doing and that the Loziers and the Weitz’s and the Scotts are doing. There are organizations very heavily involved in it – Girls Inc., Teammates, the Boys and Girls Club. It’s really incredible. All of this collaborating together is coalescing into a fine beautiful program and sooner or later we’ll start seeing some extensive changes in our community and I’m very hopeful for it.”

The origins of Partnership 4 Kids extends back to the late 1980s, a perIod when a societal sea change began posIng added challenges to inner cIty schools and communities. As social and educational disparities have grown over time, Omaha has become a microcosm for a nationwide phenomena that poses increasing challenges for young people and their families attempting to craft meaningful lives. Educators, elected representatives and community leaders have worked long and hard to offer programs and services that attempt to address these issues and needs. P4K has been at the forefront of efforts to provide mentoring and scholarship support to young people at risk of being left behind. Much progress has been made in closing gaps and affording opportunities.

By the numbers
Since 2012, 100 percent of P4K students have graduated high school. P4K leaders say that more than 90 percent of its graduates from 2012 and 2013 report being enrolled in college or post-secondary training for the 2014- 2015 school year. Of the 36 active seniors graduating in 2014, 33 will be attending a two-year or four-year college, with the other three graduates enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves.

A pair of 2014 graduating seniors epitomize the continuum care model P4K delivers.

Serena Moore, who’s graduating from Omaha Central High School, has been involved in P4K since elementary school, when she was in the Winner’s Circle goal setting program. She’s been a group mentoring participant since 8th grade. She’s also been involved in the Upward Bound math and science program, Delta G.E.M.S and the UNMC High School Alliance. She’s volunteered for the American Red Cross, Open Door Mission, House of Hope and Project Seed. She plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha and major in bioinformatics. She’s awaiting word on various scholarships.

Daisy Robeldo, who’s graduating from Omaha South High School, has been involved in P4K programming since middle school and has not missed a P4K meeting in two years, She’s also been active in various community service projects and volunteers at the Latino Center of the Midlands. The oldest of six children from a single mother, she will be a first generation college student when she attends UNO in the fall to pursue her intended major of computer engineering. Moore and Robledo will follow the trend of P4K students, the vast majority of whom go on to attend in-state colleges.

Over its 25-year history 83 recipients of P4K’s All Our Kids Foundation Scholarship have graduated college. Some have gone on to earn advanced degrees. Many other P4K students have also graduated college with the help of different funding and scholarship sources.

Doing and seeking more                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              What was once an arena of agencies, players and programs all doing their own thing has become a more collaborative sharing ground. P4K is the direct result of two programs, All Our Kids and Winners Circle, coming together to make a greater collective impact and now with its newest partners, College Possible, Avenue Scholars and Teammates, plus other informal partners, P4K is poised to impact more and more students along that continuum from Kindergarten through careers.

P4K President Deb Denbeck says with more volunteers and donors, “I know we could expand this program to greater heights” and into more schools, especially more middle schools.
She adds, “There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. Before we look at expansion we’re going to do a two-year review process to make sure our programs are the very best they can be and we’re going to learn where we need to go next. Growth in a mentoring organization means dollars and it means volunteers. Volunteers are the heart of our organization. They are like precious gems here. We’re not a mentoring organization unless we have them.they’re so needed. They’re the real difference-makers.”

I know we could expand this program to greater heights…. There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 

 

 

Collaboration and Diversity Matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit Teaches Tools and Skills for Valuing Human Differences


Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences.  One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time.  It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity.  My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.

Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

 

Diversity Matters to Inclusive Communities

Beth Riley

 

 

Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity. 

The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.

“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.

“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”

Education and advocacy

Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.

The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.

“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”

Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.

“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”

Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.

Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”

A safe place

Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.

“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.

“That’s the real power.”

Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”

Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.

“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.

“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”

 

 

Youth focused

With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”

She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.

“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”

Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.

Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships

“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.

“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”

Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.

Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.

Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.

_______________________________________________________

 

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another.”

 

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