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Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals; Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Boom!   That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down.  If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out.  No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center.  What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals

Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.

Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.

Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.

The events are free but donations are accepted.

On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.

NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.

“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.

“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”

Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.

A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”

Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.

“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.

Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.

World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.

“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”

Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.

“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”

Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.

Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.

“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.

NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”

“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”

“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”

“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.

Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.

“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”

Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.

“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.

“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”

Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.

“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”

NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.

For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Changing One Life at a Time: Mentoring Takes Center Stage as Individuals and Organizations Make Mentoring Count

January 5, 2014 1 comment

Mentoring stories are classic feel good stories that are easy to plug into as a writer and as a reader.  For the following Metro Magazine story about Midlands Mentoring Partnership honorees, I describe the powerful one-on-one mentoring experience of Dakotah and Peggy and the difference that it’s making in their lives and I detail how the mentoring support offered by Mutual of Omaha is impacting organizations serving youth.

 

Changing One Life at a Time: Mentoring Takes Center Stage as Individuals and Organizations Make Mentoring Count

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

 

We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”

–Ronald Reagan

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

–Leo Buscaglia

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 

–Mahatma Gandhi

Dakotah and Peggy

Three quotes by successful people from different walks of life, all expressing something about the merits of giving to another. There’s lots of ways to aid others. Mentoring is a timeless one. Traditionally, mentoring involves guiding or encouraging someone less experienced than you to reach their potential. In the process, you grow as a person. 

 

 

Midlands Mentoring Partnership honors mentoring in the metro

Mentoring happens every day around the metro in formal and informal ways. Usually, it’s a caring adult nurturing a youth.

Midlands Mentoring Partnership (MMP) is a local collective impact organization that provides area mentoring programs with strategies for achieving improved outcomes with at-risk youth and with approaches for reaching ever more young people in need.

Each year MMP recognizes individuals and organizations whose mentoring is making a difference in the community. The March 19 MMP Summit at the CenturyLink Center will honor the Mentor of the Year and Advocate of the Year and will present youth mentoring best practices.

Dakotah and Peggy: Mentor and mentee joined at the hip

First National Bank of Omaha employee Dakotah Taylor doesn’t mentor for any recognition it brings. Nevertheless, her work with the young woman she’s matched up with through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands has netted her MMP’s Mentor of the Year award. Her  16 year-old mentee, Peggy, nominated her in a heartfelt letter. The two have been matched for five-and-a-half years, a period that saw Peggy battle severe addiction and behavioral problems that tested everyone in her life, including Taylor.

Peggy’s letter describes why her “Big” is such an important figure in her life:

“She has showed me unconditional love and I couldn’t ask for anyone better. I’ve told her things I would never tell anyone. The most important thing to me though is she has NEVER given up on me. She helped me get off the ground and onto my feet again when I couldn’t do it myself. Not only am I blessed with another friend but she’s a friend I can call my sister and I love her with my complete heart.”

Taylor tears up when the letter’s read back to her, saying, “It’s incredible.” About the award, she adds, “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get something like this. It’s so humbling, it’s so great.”

Peggy says, “Dakotah is really a blessing because I’m a handful. She deserves this.”

Taylor’s gone the distance with Peggy, a junior at alternative Millard Horizon High School, through thick and thin. Peggy became a substance abuser before her teens and eventually dealt illegal drugs. She got caught up in things that put her, her family and Taylor in danger. She’s been in the juvenile justice court system for six years. She spent time at the Douglas County Youth Center and at Boys Town.

Now the once troubled teen has found stability. She’s sober, she’s back home, she’s expected to graduate early from high school and she’s planning to get an early start on her associate degree in nursing at Metropolitan Community College in preparation for studying to become a registered nurse and ultimately a physician. She knows without question she always has a friend to turn to in the 30-year Taylor, who’s married with a pre-school child.

 

 

 

 

All the way down the line

“Through everything, even when I was at my worst, Dakotah still was there, writing me, giving me hugs, telling me she cared, and that’s all   anybody going through something like that wants,” says Peggy. “They want someone to just reassure them that everything’s going to be OK. Whether you believe it or not it still gives you some hope and I didn’t have any hope. Dakotah’s messages were so happy they brought my spirits up that I can do this, I can get out of this.”

Taylor wasn’t about to go anywhere when the going got tough.

“There’s those times when it’s somewhat challenging and it could be    very easy to walk away but sisters don’t walk away from each other. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and you’ve got to keep walking.”

MMP experts say Taylor embodies what it means for mentors to stay the course when matches prove difficult. Just to stay in contact took extra effort when Peggy was not living at home. Taylor acknowledges she wasn’t always sure what to do when Peggy acted out or relapsed.

“It’s been hard for me to understand what Peggy has gone through because I didn’t have to face those things. Any time we were together I would ask her questions and drill her about, OK, why did you do this?

I think I needed to somehow put myself in her shoes and understand her thought process. Unfortunately she did make some bad decisions but she’s rectified those and she’s a strong woman now.”

Taylor also knew she was not alone but part of a team helping Peggy.

“Her mom and dad and I had some very hard conversations. We cried on the phone together when they didn’t know how to handle her. Everybody felt so hopeless. There were times I reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters when I didn’t know what to do. But I knew this young woman needed guidance, she needed someone to stick by her side no matter what, even if we didn’t get to see each other. She always knew I was only a phone call away.”

Sisters

For Taylor, there’s nothing better than seeing how far Peggy’s come.

“She’s in great place now. She looks so great and all grown up. Seeing her smile makes my heart smile.”

She expects great things ahead for her Little.

“Everything – the moon, the stars, anything she wants. She’s so smart. Her true passion in life is to help other people. Once she puts her mind to something she’s going to do it and now i’ve seen that.”

Peggy finally turned the corner when she stopped resisting getting help and surrendered to her Higher Power and to caring adults in her life.

She’s shared her experience with peers, who often come to her for advice. “I love helping people,” Peggy says. “As long as I help one person it’s going to make a difference in the world.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Nichole Turgeon says Dakotah and Peggy embody what mentoring’s all about.

“They have faced incredible challenges together and Dakotah gave Peggy hope for her future which has allowed her to persevere. I am confident Peggy is on the path to becoming a successful and happy adult and I know Dakotah will be with her every step of the way.”

More than sisters in name, Dakotah and Peggy believe they’ve developed an unbreakable lifelong bond.

“I have no doubt it’s going to be a sisterhood for the rest of our lives. We’re sisters not by blood but by choice,” says Taylor.

 

 

Nichole Turgeon

 

 

Passing it on

Taylor encourages anyone wanting to make a positive difference in a youth’s life to become a mentor. Just be prepared to make a deep commitment and enduring connection the way Dakota did with Peggy.

Says Taylor, “Our paths would have never crossed if it wasn’t for Big Brothers Big Sisters. It has changed my life. It’s brought someone into my life I deeply care about. I would do anything for her and she would do anything for me.”

Peggy sees herself following Dakotah’s footsteps. “I probably will end up being a Big myself.” She advocates the benefits of mentoring, saying, “There is a match out there for someone, there is.”

Many employers encourage their employees to serve as mentors. Taylor says her employer, First National, supports her volunteering. Mentees like Peggy are the beneficiaries.

 

 

 

 

Mutual of Omaha and Mutual of Omaha Foundation: Mentor advocates

Mutual of Omaha is another employer that supports the Midlands Mentoring Partnership. More than 50 Mutual staffers serve as mentors with seven MMP partner organizations. Among its mentors is Mutual of Omaha Foundation Program Coordinator Kim Armstrong. Armstrong mentors two young women, including one through Youth Emergency Services (YES), on whose board Armstrong once served. Much like Dakotah’s relationship with Peggy, Armstrong’s been transformed by the experience of working with her mentees.

“At the end of the day, just having someone to turn to is the greatest benefit for them – at least that’s how I see it – and I’m honored to play that role,” Armstrong says of her matches. “Most mentors will say that they benefit more from mentoring than their mentees and I am no different. I have realized unexpected benefits. I feel I have become a better mother, a better employee and a better person.”

She says each of her mentees has “played a role in opening my eyes to so much, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

Mutual has been a champion of MMP’s efforts since the catalyst organization’s formation in 1999. The insurance giant’s ongoing work as a partner and advocate of Youth Emergency Services and other mentoring providers is being recognized this year at the summit.

Going the extra mile

MMP Executive Director Deborah Neary says, “the Advocate of the Year award honors a business or organization committed to helping young people achieve their potential through mentoring.”

Christine Johnson, president and CEO of the Mutual of Omaha Foundation, says she encourages mentoring in part because “it helps to build a cohesive, motivated, engaged workforce, which we know is shown to increase employee performance and productivity.”

In addition to their involvement with YES Mutual employees serve as board members for various mentoring organizations and encourage fellow employees to mentor. The Mutual of Omaha Foundation provides financial support for mentoring efforts.

YES Executive Director Mary Fraser Meints says anything that bolsters mentoring is a net gain for participants and for society.

“Youth who have a mentor have better attendance at school, a better chance of going on to higher education and better attitudes toward school,” she says. adding, “The leadership role Mutual of Omaha has taken with the mentoring program offered by YES has made a huge impact in helping our youth become more self-sufficient.”

Mutual sponsored a May party for eight college-bound YES youth. Each graduate received luggage and a laptop.

“Our youth were beyond thrilled to have their own laptop. That simple gesture alone will never be forgotten by our youth,” says Meints.

 

 

Deborah ODonnell Neary

Deborah Neary

 

 

Christine Johnson

Mary Fraser Meints
Mary Fraser Meints

 

Supporting mentoring

In 2013 Mutual employees volunteered beyond YES to support the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, host engineering workshops for Girls Inc. of Omaha and participate in Kids Can Community Center’s Day of Caring. Community outreach is an important part of the Mutual culture, says Dan Neary, Mutual of Omaha chairman of the board and CEO, “Our youth are the future. One day, the community and even our company will be in their hands. So, mentoring is truly an investment in the future and it will provide returns we can’t even imagine.“

Foundation President Christine Johnson says, “We understand the importance of the quality and length of a mentoring match. We think it’s important to educate our employee volunteers about mentoring and the importance of that commitment. By providing time during the work day to grow their mentoring relationship, we hope we can help them succeed by being a positive and long-standing force in the lives of the children they mentor.

“It is a great honor for us to receive this recognition from MMP. We value their commitment to our community and have great respect for their work.”

For MMP Summit details and tickets, call 402-715-4175 or visit http://www.mmpomaha.org.

To inquire about becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, call 402-330-2449 or visit http://www.bbbsomaha.org.

 
 

Giving Kids a Fighting Chance: Carl Washington and his CW Boxing Club and Youth Resource Center

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The initials in the CW Boxing Club and the CW Youth Resource Center belong to Carl Washington, the founder and director of longstanding programs making a difference in the lives of at-risk young people.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Carl and the work he does to keep kids on the straight and narrow touches on what happened in his life to prompt his  commitment to mentoring and coaching.
Giving Kids a Fighting Chance: Carl Washington and his CW Boxing Club and Youth Resource Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Organizations serving at-risk kids come and go but few stay the course the way the CW Youth Resource Center, 1510 Cass Street, has since opening in 1978.
Founder-director Carl Washington hosts a Nov. 29 open house at CW from 4 to 8 p.m. to celebrate 35 years of structured youth activities.
His experience mentoring youth began a decade earlier, when he was like a big brother to his nephew Howard Stevenson. After Stevenson was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer in the wake of a 1968 civil disturbance in North Omaha, Washington was angry. A bully and street fighter at the time, he went to the old Swedish Auditorium boxing gym looking to release his rage.
“I went down there and picked on the first guy I thought maybe I should be able to beat up, a chubby kid by the name of Ron Stander.”
That’s Ron Stander, aka the Bluffs Butcher, who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a 1972 title bout. But when Washington first laid eyes on him Stander was still a pudgy, no-name amateur.
“Everyone was paying attention to him. My thought was, Knock him off and then you can be the top guy. It didn’t work that way.”
After weeks pestering coaches to let him spar Stander, the exhibition was set. Washington was so confident he brought an entourage. He knew he’d miscalculated when he landed his best blows and Stander didn’t even blink. The first punch Washington absorbed was the hardest he’d even been hit. After a few more punishing shots he feigned injury to end the onslaught.
Washington wanted to quit the sport right then but Stander encouraged him. The two men became friends. While Stander went on to make boxing his career, Washington only fought a year. Well-schooled by the late trainer Leonard “Hawk” Hawkins, Washington saw his true calling not as a fighter but as a coach. He believed boxing could give kids a safe activity in place of running the streets.
He first tried forming the gym in 1971 but it didn’t take. Seven years later he gave it another go, this time with help from two mentors. A lifelong inner city resident, Washington daily saw unsupervised kids getting into mischief and brawls, hungry for structure, and he felt he could give them the healthy alternative they needed.
“A group of kids I ran across were fighting and I broke it up and took them downstairs to my basement and started working with them. We took two of them to a boxing show at the National Guard Armory and they both won trophies. We put the trophies up on the mantel and the other kids wanted to win trophies, too. So, it grew from there.”
He’d have two dozen youths training in his basement at one time with another similar-sized group out on a long run before they took their turn hitting the bags.
CW took the local amateur boxing scene by storm, winning hundreds of individual and team trophies at smokers and the Midwest Golden Gloves.
“A couple years we won every weight division,” he says of the Gloves.
Washington ran a tight ship. “I instilled discipline. Our guys had to walk the line.”
He bemoans the lax standards commonplace today.
“I see a lack of respect for one another from a lot of kids, a lot of people, Respect is not on the table like it used to be. Respect is an art we should be going back to. I think a lot of that is lost. When all those factors are gone that’s why there’s so much chaos.”
He insists boxing’s a useful tool for instilling values.
“Out of a hundred kids probably one of them might box and go all the way to the Gloves and do all he’s supposed to do in boxing. But for the rest of them it might open the door for them to get into wrestling, football, basketball and other sports. We can give them that discipline.”
He says that discipline carries over to school, work and family life.
The kids he started with are now parents and send their kids to him.
Reaching kids takes patience and instinct. “I have a feel for when I meet a kid exactly what the kid really wants – if he wants to box or to get in shape or if he’s down here because his mother needs a baby sitter. Sometimes they may have aspirations of becoming a champion.”
Terence “Bud” Crawford is a once in a lifetime phenom who came up through the CW ranks and now is on the verge of fighting for the world lightweight title. He remains loyal to the CW, where he still trains under the man who got him started there, Midge Minor, and is managed by another CW alum, Brian McIntyre.
In its early years CW was a predominantly African American gym. Its fighters weren’t always well received.
“We ran into a lot of negativity in the beginning. Some cities we boxed in weren’t too friendly. It seemed like the ones closest to Omaha were the unfriendliest,” says Washington. He recalls that before a Wahoo, Neb. boxing show his fighters got  debris and racial slurs hurled at them. They silenced the crowd with excellence.
“A lot of parents with me wanted us to leave and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to leave.’ We parked the cars going toward the street just in case we had to get out of there in a hurry. I said, ‘We’re going to go back in there, box, and act like  gentlemen and we’re not going to respond to the crowd. We had 16 bouts that day and we won all 16.”
Boxing hasn’t been the only avenue for youth to explore at CW, which moved from his basement to the Fontenelle Park pavilion to south downtown to its current spot in the early 1990s. CW once featured recording studios and a dance floor to feed the rap and breakdance demand. Washington organized talent showcases and concerts highlighting the club’s many homegrown performing artists
“We were involved in a little bit of everything. We were doing anything we thought could reach kids.”
He says he put on the first gang reconciliation concert back in the mid-1980s when he was doing gang prevention-intervention work before it had a name.
He cobbled together support from grants, donations, fundraisers and raffle sales.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles in the beginning. What really built the club was raffle tickets. We were out on the corners and kids sold raffle tickets. I was able to do the (initial) restoration here through the raffle sales.”
At the boxing gym’s peak, he says, “We were going all over the country with kids in the car to boxing shows and coming back with a lot of trophies.” But he feels CW was never fully embraced by its hometown, where fans booed the club’s fighters when the national Golden Gloves were fought here. Boxing’s also lost kids to martial arts and other activities.
Looking back, he says he’s proudest of just “being able to survive,” adding, “We’ve been pretty blessed.”
Though CW doesn’t have as many competitive boxers as it once did, he’s seeing more kids come as a result of Bud Crawford’s success. He scaled down the club’s entertainment facets after frictions surfaced between performers. He stopped holding concerts after a drive-by shooting outside the club. He recently formed a hoops program as a new outlet .
One thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is “I open my doors to everybody and I never charge a membership fee.”
For more information about the CW’s programs, call 402-671-8477.

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world.  The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection.  His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year.  It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either.  My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.

 

 

African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard,  participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs 

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.

Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.

Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a  $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

 

 

African danceAfrican danceAfrican drumming

African dance

African dance

African drumming

African dance

African danceAfrican danceAfrican dance

African storytelling

African drumming

African dance

African dance

African dance

African danceAfrican storytellingAfrican storytelling

African dance

African drumming

African dance

African storytelling

African dance

 

 

Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that.  I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.

“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.

“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.

“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”

The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”

 

 

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Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become   open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.

“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.

Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.

‘Bless Me, Ultima’: Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For a writer, I don’t read as much as I should.   Most of my book reading these days is related to assignments.   I just finished reading the classic novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya to inform the following story riffing on themes in the story about what it means to be Chicano.  The 2012 film adaptation of the novel is showing Sept. 16 at Creighton University in Omaha.  After reading the book I very much look forward to the film directed by Carl Franklin.  For my story I sounded out three Omaha Chicanos who adore the book and were active in the Chicano movement and remain community acitivsts to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Me, Ultima‘: Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya‘s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piece of Chicano literature and an influential artifact of the Chicano movement.

Three Omaha Chicanos who are great fans of the book look forward to a Sept. 16 screening of its film adaptation. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) Bless Me, Ultima (2012) will show at 7 p.m. at the Hixson-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center at Creighton University. The screening is free and open to the public. A pre-film social hour starts at 6 p.m.

For attorney Rita Melgares, a native of southwestern Colorado near where the author grew up and the story is set, the book’s depiction of a youth (Antonio) treading the worlds of indigenous tradition and mainstream convention with the guidance of an old woman, Ultima, as his curandero (healer), resonates with her own experience.

“I identified with the duality of the worlds he was living in. The duality of your Latino home bucking up against what you learn when you go away to school. It represented something I knew.”

Community activist Abelardo Hernandez grew up in El Paso, Texas, not far from Anaya’s New Mexican roots,. He says the book’s mystical visions and beliefs are “not so different than the stories our grandmothers used to tell us. At the time I didn’t identify with them as being from the indigenous culture but I suppose they were. People who cure with herbs and chants. They call it a cleansing. It’s a gift. They’re raised with it and they pass it on through generations of the family.”

Kansas City, Mo. native Jose Francisco Garcia says the book made him appreciate “medicine isn’t just MDs but a lot of wisdom and knowledge about herbs, folklore and hundreds of years of tradition.”

 

 

 

 

Hernandez says he most identified with “the family traditions, the respect for elders and the upbringing of kids” portrayed in the 1940s-set story. Like Melgares, he had the experience of straddling two worlds. “We were bi-cultural. We had to learn the American culture but the Mexican culture and traditions were raised with us at home, in church and at festivals, where everything was in Spanish. Because we lived mostly among Mexican people we didn’t learn the American ways until probably high school or even after.”

The book gave Hernandez, Melgares and Garcia a prism to appreciate their culture at a time when they asserted their identity. All were active in the Chicano movement and the book spurred their activism.

“It made me so proud to be a Chicana,” says Melgares. “Rudy Anaya was a man right out of our culture and he wrote about something he knew and it reflected much about what I felt. This was right during the surge of the Chicano movement and we considered it an important book for Chicanos. To me, Chicano is a political word we chose for ourselves in the movement for fairness, for justice, for equality. To me, Chicanismo or the sense of being Chincano, is what that embodies.”

Garcia says, “The number one principle of Chicanismo is to be self-determined and the second thing is to give back. It’s an intention. It’s almost like being converted. I started becoming influenced by the Chicano movement through books like Occupied America and Bless Me, Ultima. It gave me a way of life, it gave me a path to start following during a time when I really didn’t know who the hell I was. We had to search for our identity. We had to go out and almost reinvent not only who we were as Americans but who we were as a culture. The Chicano movement provided that.”

“People do have to have some kind of identity otherwise they get lost,” says Hernandez.

To be Chicano is a state of mind and being for Hernandez.

“People might change but the meaning doesn’t. I think Chicano is an experience you actually live through and that you identify with. It becomes a special feeling. A lot of people have educated themselves and attained nice careers but they still have that feeling of being Chicano because you’re background never goes away, at least it shouldn’t. A lot of people try to forget it, try to put it behind them, but it’s better to always know where you came from.”

In that spirit Hernandez helped form the Chicano Awareness Center, now known as the Latino Center of the Midlands.

“We were trying to get people to be aware of their culture,” he says. “We wanted to bring the language, the culture, the traditions back to the people because a lot of it was being lost. Once people learned English or maybe they never did know Spanish they didn’t want to have anything to do with learning anything Mexican.”

Garcia say the center, whose board he once led, advances “the precepts of Chicanismo of getting an education, having a cultural identity and expressing yourself in areas of self-improvement.”

Forty years have not dimmed the book’s impact. It remains widely used in classrooms and reading programs. Garcia says the film, which he’s seen, is a faithful adaptation. “It’s a great movie. It moved me. To a person like me of Spanish heritage that movie is very powerful.”

 

 

Rudolfo Anaya

In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford

July 30, 2013 1 comment

As I’ve said before on this blog nearly every writer gets around to writing about boxing at one time or another.  I did my first boxing story in the late 1990s and every now and then I get the craving to do a new one.  I’ve built up quite a collection of boxing pieces this way and you can access them all on the blog.   The following story for the New Horizons in Omaha profiles an up and coming pro lightweight contender, Terence “Bud” Crawford, and the older man in his corner who is trainer, friend, father figure and more to him, Midge Minor.  They are as tight as two people nearly 50 years apart in age can be.  Crawford has been under the wing of Minor from the time he was a little boy and he still relies on his sage advice today as he prepares for an expected world title fight.  The loyal Crawford is an Omaha native and resident who’s never left his hometown or the gym he grew up in, the CW, and he’s not about to leave the man who’s guided him this far.

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 
New Horizons Newspaper - Omaha, NE

 

In His Corner: Midge Minor is Trainer, Friend and Father Figure to Pro Boxing Contender Terence “Bud” Crawford 

by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Nebraska‘s best ever hope for a world professional boxing champion works out of the CW Boxing Gym in north downtown Omaha.

As 25-year-old lightweight contender Terence “Bud” Crawford goes through his paces, he’s watched intently by an older man in a sweatsuit, Midge Minor. Though separated in age by four-plus decades, the two men enjoy a warm, easy relationship marked by teasing banter.

Crawford: “I’ll beat this dude up right now.”

Minor: “You’re scared of me, you know that.”

Crawford: “You be dreaming about me.”

Minor: “You stick that long chin out to the wrong man.”

They’ve been going back and forth like this for decades. At age 7 Crawford got his boxing start under Minor at the CW, 1510 Davenport St., and he still trains there under Minor’s scrutiny all these years later.

The facility is part of the CW Youth Resource Center, whose founder and director, Carl Washington, spotted Crawford when he was a kid and brought him to the gym.

Crawford, an Omaha native and resident, owns a 21-0 pro record and a reputation among some experts as the best fighter in the 135-pound division. The smart money says it’s only a matter of time before he wins a title. That time may come in January when the Top Rank-promoted boxer is expected to get his title shot and the opportunity to earn his first six-figure payday.

Since showing well in two recent HBO-telecast fights, he’s riding a wave of fame. He’s the pride of the CW, where the number of fighters is up because he learned to box there, made it big and never left.

“He’s one of the causes of our gym being full now,” says Minor. “They all look up to him. It’s kind of like he put us on the map.”

Crawford doesn’t act the star though.

“I’m the same person, I’m regular, I just want to be able to make it and provide for my family,” he says earnestly.

He engages everyone at the gym and offers instruction to fighters.

“I’m always going to have CW somewhere inside of me because this is where I started from. Never forget where you came from. I’m always going to be a CW fighter. I just feel comfortable here. It does feel like home when I walk through them doors because it’s the only gym I knew when I was coming up. I’ve been coming here and going to the donut shop (the adjacent Pettit’s Pastry) ever since I was 7.”

 

 

©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

For a long time he was pressured to leave Omaha, where quality sparring partners are rare and pro boxing cards even rarer. But he’s remained true to his team and his home.

“A lot of people came at me with deals wanting to get me to fight for them, sign with them and move out of town. They kept telling me I can’t make it from Omaha and  need new cornermen – that they took me as far as they could. But I’m loyal and a lot of people respect me for it. My coaches have faith in me and trust me that I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship, and I trust them and have faith in them.

“I’ve just stayed with it and continued to have confidence in my team. I just keep pushing forward.”

He keeps a tight circle of confidantes around him and all share his same CW and Omaha lineage.

“We all family,” he says..”Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge.”

 

 

CW Boxing Gym is located in the CW Youth Resource Center

 

 

For his last fight Crawford, who always sports Big Red gear to show his Nebraska pride, wore trunks emblazoned with “Omaha” on them.

As Crawford shadow boxes inside the ring, looking at his reflected image in a bank of mirrors against the near wall, the 73 year-old Minor takes it all in from his spot in the corner, just outside the ropes. Minor has been in Crawford’s corner, both literally and figuratively, since the fighter first got serious about the sport at age 12. They initially met five years before that, when Crawford became argumentative with the trainer. Minor demands obedience. He barks orders in his growl of a voice. He’s known to curse, even with kids. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, especially a brash, back-talking little boy. When Crawford wouldn’t mind him, Minor banned him from the CW.

The trainer hated letting Crawford go, too, because he recognized the kid as something special.

“I saw that he had a lot of heart and that goes a long way in boxing. He never wanted to quit on me.”

The boy’s heart reminded Minor of his own. Back in the day, Minor was a top amateur flyweight, twice winning the Midwest Golden Gloves. But prospect or no prospect, Minor wasn’t going to stand for disrespect. The two eventually reconnected.

“I kicked him out of the gym for five years,” says Minor, a father many times over, “and then I brought him back when he got a little more mature and then we went from there.”

Crawford acquired some rough edges growing up in The Hood. Being physically tested was a rite of passage in his family and neighborhood. It toughened him up. He needed to be tough too because he was small and always getting into scuffles and playing against bigger, older guys in football, basketball, whatever sport was in season. He learned to always stand his ground. The more he held his own, the more courage and confidence he gained.

“I was taught to never be scared…to never back down. That was instilled in me at a young age,” Crawford says. “My big cousins pushing me, punching me, slamming me, roughing me up. My dad wrestling me. After going against them it wasn’t nothing to me going against somebody my size, my age.

“I’d fall and get jacked up or get bitten by dogs or get scratched. I’d need stitches here and there, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re all right.’ There was no going home and crying to your parents or nothing like that. No babying me. I don’t know what it feels like to be babied.”

There was something about Crawford, even as a child, that pegged him for greatness.

“Before I even started boxing my dad used to make me punch on his hands, teach me wrestling moves, throw the ball with me. He always said, ‘You’re going to be a million dollar baby.’ Ever since I was little he was like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, just go out there and do it, don’t let nobody hold you down or hold you back.’”

His father, grandfather and an uncle all boxed and wrestled in their youth. His dad and uncle trained at the CW. His grandfather boxed with Minor. They all had talent.

“It was just in me, it was in the blood line for me. I just took after them. My dad always gave me pointers.”

 

 

Crawford in action

 

 

By the time Crawford came back to the gym, he was less belligerent and more ready to learn. The non-nonsense Minor and the hot-tempered youth bonded. Like father and son.

“When I came back to the gym Midge and I were like instantly close.

Midge was like my dad,” says Crawford.

What was the difference the second time around?

“I don’t know. maybe it’s because I accepted Midge ain’t going to change for nobody. I didn’t really know him like that at the start. so for him to be talking to me crazy I took that as disrespect. I was offended by it. But when i came back I realized that’s just Midge being Midge. Some people get intimidated by him but one thing about Midge is if he likes you he’s going to roll with you. If he don’t like you, he don’t like you and there’s nothing nobody can do to make him like you. And if he’s with you he’s with you to the end.

“When I got to know him more I realized Midge will have my back till the day he dies and I’ll have his back to the day I die, and that’s just how close we are. Midge put a real big hold on me.”

When you ask Crawford if he could have gotten this far without him he says, “Probably not because Midge kept me out of the streets. He taught me a lot. Without Midge, I don’t think so, He taught me a lot of responsibility.”

Crawford came to know he could depend on Minor for anything, which only made him trust him more and made him want to please him more.

“I used to ride my bike to the gym with a big old bag on my back, that’s how dedicated I was. Then Midge started taking me to the gym. Over holidays he’d come to my house to take me to the gym. On school days he’d come get me at school and take me to his house. We’d just sit there together and watch boxing tapes. I would watch any kind of fighter just for the simple fact that you never know when you might see that style. He’d tell me what they’re doing wrong and what I could do to beat ‘em.”

Minor also became Crawford’s mentor.

“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” says Crawford. “He’s a great father figure in my life.

Just an all around good guy. He loves kids.”

All of Minor’s work with Crawford inside and outside the ring had the full support of Bud’s mother.

“It was a little like school to me. Sometimes I’d try to duck him and tell my mom to tell him I wasn’t there and she wasn’t having it. Sometimes my mom would call him and say, ‘Come and get him Midge’ and I’d spend the night at his house, watch tapes, work out. It was like that.”

When he got in trouble at school his mother informed Minor because she knew he’d hold him accountable. When Minor got his hands on him he worked him extra hard. it was all about getting the young man to learn lessons and to pay his dues. Instead of resisting it, Crawford took it all in stride. He says, “It was instilled in me early that what don’t kill you will make you stronger.I looked at it that it was helping me.”

“He appreciated it. He respected me,” says Minor. “We got along real well.”

 

 

Cover Photo

 Crawford pleased with his handiwork
 
Team Crawford

 

 

The troubled boy no one could reach found a friend and ally to push him and inspire him.

“Midge always instilled in me, ‘Nobody can beat you, especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training.’ He drilled that in my head. He believed in me so much. There were times I kind of doubted myself in my mind and he was just like, ‘Nobody can beat you.’ The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part. I’ve been fighting all my life so to get in there and fight, that’s easy. That’s 30 minutes. Sometimes only three minutes or 30 seconds if I get an early knockout. That’s compared to training for hours and hours a day.”

Minor routinely put him in the ring with much more experienced guys.

“That’s how much confidence he had in me. Seeing him have that much confidence in me made me even more confident,” says Crawford.

“It didn’t make no difference who I fought him with because he was going to fight ‘em. I’ve had a lot fighters but they didn’t have the heart that he has.”

The legend of Terence “Bud” Crawford began to grow when as a teen amateur he sparred pros and outfought them. Even today he likes to spar bigger guys.

“I like to try myself.”

Crawford is now on the cusp of boxing royalty and Minor is still the one Bud puts his complete faith in.

“He’s still there for me taking good care of me,” Crawford says. “I’m always going to have his back. You know he looked out for me when I was little and I’m going to look out for him now that he’s older.”

Having Minor in his camp as he preps for the biggest fight of his life is exactly where Crawford wants him. Having him in his corner on fight night is where he needs him.

“It means a lot to have Midge there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done for me to go in there and fight. Without the brain we can’t do nothing, so it’s very important that Midge is there.

“Before every fight I bring him a disc of who I’m fighting and I ask him what he thinks about the guy and he tells me what I should do and we go from there.”

The strategy for any fight, he says, is “a team effort” between his co-managers Brian McIntyre and Cameron Dunkin, trainer Esau Diegez, Minor and himself.

“We all work together and dissect our opponent but Midge is always the one that’s like, ‘Alright, this is what you’re going to do to beat this guy. This is how you’re going to fight ‘em.’ And we all go by what Midge sats. He’s great for seeing things I don’t see and making me see it.

“He gives me the instructions to beat ‘em, and all I have to do is follow ‘em. He’s got the wisdom.”

Minor says Crawford is a great student who picks things up quickly, including a knack for altering his style to counter his opponent’s style.

“He can observe different fighters and he can adapt to their styles. He doesn’t have no problem adjusting to them,” says Minor. “He listens to me and he produces for me.”

“Oh yeah. I see it one time and I do it,” Crawford says. “You gotta practice it to though, you can’t just think you’re going to perfect it by doing it one time. You gotta keep on trying it in the gym. You might not get it the first time, you might not get it the second time, but you gotta keep trying until you get it right.”

Still, when all is said and done, it’s Crawford who’s alone in the ring come fight night.

“You can tell me this, you can tell me that, at the end of the day I’m the one that’s gotta take those punches and get hit upside my head. The difference between me and other people is that I’m willing to go through the fire to see the light.”

 

 

Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur

 

 

 

Crawford’s aware of the strides he’s made in recent years.

“I feel like I’m more relaxed in the ring. I know more about the game.

I know what to do, when to do it, and I’m not just throwing punches just to be throwing them. I’m pinpointing my shots more. Yeah, all around my whole arsenal is just way better.”

“Early in his career he used to just throw punches,” says Minor. “He learned to settle down and adjust.”

Crawford says his overall skill set has developed to the point that he doesn’t have an obvious weakness.

“I can adapt to any style. I’m a boxer, a puncher, I’m elusive, I’m whatever I need to be. I’m always confident and I just come to win.

I’ve got it all – hand speed, power, movement, smarts. I can take a punch.”

He’s always in shape and lives a clean lifestyle, Minor says admiringly. The trainer never has to worry his fighter’s not working hard enough.

Minor’s trained several successful pros, including Grover Wiley and Dickie Ryan, but he says he’s never had anyone as accomplished as Crawford this early in their career.

Neither feels he’s reached his full potential.

“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” says Crawford. “So I figure once I get those bad habits out of the way then I’ll be better than I am now. Little things like not keeping my hands up, not moving my head.  Sometimes I’ll get in there and I’ll feel like he can’t hurt me, and I just want to walk through him without coming with the jab.”

Minor’s always watching to make sure Crawford doesn’t abandon his fundamentals. The veteran trainer guided Crawford through a highly successful amateur career that saw the fighter compete on the U.S,  Pan American Games team and advance all the way to the national Golden Gloves semi-finals in his hometown of Omaha. Crawford dropped a controversial decision in the semis that left him disillusioned by the politics of amateur scoring and Minor “broken-hearted.”

Minor continues to be the guru Crawford turns to for advice. Perhaps a turning point in their relationship and in the fighter’s development was getting past the anger that seemed to fuel Crawford early on and that threatened to derail his career.

When his temper got the better of him Crawford was suspended from the U.S, national team. He says American amateur boxing officials “put a bad rep out for my name,” adding, “They called me hot-headed and a thug.” He feels the stigma hurt him in his bid to make the U.S. Olympic team.

The fighter acknowledges he had issues. He got expelled from several schools for fighting and arguing. He grew up playing sports and fighting in the streets, parks and playgrounds of northeast Omaha, where his mother mostly raised him and his two older sisters. His father, Terence Sr., served in the U.S, Navy and was separated from his mother, only periodically reappearing in Bud’s life.

No one seemed able to get to the root of Crawford’s rage. Not even himself.

“I really can’t say about my temper. It was just something that was in me. Everybody asked me, ‘Why do you be so mad?’ and I never could pinpoint it or tell them why. I’d be like, ‘I’m not angry.’ But deep down inside I really was. I was ready to fight at any given time and that’s how mainly I got kicked out of all the schools.

“I was in counseling, anger management, all that stuff. None of it ever worked…”

His favorite way of coping with the turmoil was to go fishing at the Fontenelle Park pond.

He knows he could have easily fallen prey to the lures and risks of the inner city. Friends he ran with included gang members. On the eve of his first big nationally televised pro fight he got shot in the head after leaving a heated dice game he had no business being in in the first place. He was told by doctors that if the bullet hadn’t been slowed by the window it passed through in his car it would have likely killed him.

“I was lucky, I was blessed. That just opened my eyes more. I took it as a sign, as a wakeup call.”

Becoming a father – he and his girlfriend Alindra are raising their son and her daughter – also helped him mature.

Through it all Minor was that steadying voice telling him to do the right thing.

Crawford’s temper cooled and his life got more settled.

“It took him a while,” says Minor. “He was hard-headed. I used to make him come over to my house and I’d sit em down to watch boxing tapes and the more he observed other fighters he learned that his temperament had to change to be where he’s at now.”

Crawford also credits two men who took him under their wing at Omaha Bryan High School, then principal Dave Collins and assistant principal Todd Martin.

“They would always talk to me if I got in trouble. They put it in terms like I was in the gym training. They’d say, ‘You cant talk back to the teachers when they’re trying to tell you something you need to know. You don’t talk back to your coach when he’s teaching you how to throw a punch.’ I began to look at it like that and I said, ‘You’re right, i messed up.’ That really got me through my high school years doing what I had to do.”

Now that Crawford’s come so far he’s looking “to give back” to the community through his own boxing gym in the same community he grew up in. He wants his North O-based B & B Boxing Academy, which he recently opened with Brian McIntyre, to be a place that keeps kids off the street and gives them something structured to do.

Bringing a world title belt back to Omaha is his main focus though.

“Oh, it would be great. A lot of people look up to me so for me to bring that belt home to Omaha it would mean a lot, not only to me but to Omaha. Boxing is not real big in Omaha. I used to be and I’m trying to bring it back and I feel I can do that. I could inspire some little guy that later on could be the champion of the world. Who knows?”

He’s not leaving anything to chance in his bid for glory.

“I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody keep me from conquering my dreams.”

“That’s that confidence.” Minor says. “I’m so proud of him.”

Crawford knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without Minor. “He’s played a big factor in my life.” He values all that Minor’s meant to him.

“You got to. Nothing lasts forever, so cherish it while it’s here.”

 

Lessons in Transforming Lives – Omaha Home for Boys’ Bike Rebuild

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Non-profits are always looking for innovative ways to raise funds and thanks to a Mitchell, S.D. program that gets at-risk kids to work collectively to restore or repair motorcycles under the supervision of adults, the Omaha Home for Boys found a model for its 2013 fundraiser.  My story for Omaha Magazine talks about the inherent lessons that participating residents at the Home and its sister campus, Jacob’s Place, were exposed to in their bike rebuild experience this past spring.

 

 

 

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Lessons in Transforming Lives

Omaha Home for Boys’ Bike Rebuild

Photography by Ken Merchant
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

When a group of Omaha Home for Boys and Jacob’s Place residents helped put the finishing touches on a customized 1999 Harley Davidson motorcycle this May, they accomplished something bigger than themselves.

As participants in OHB’s Horsepower Bike Rebuild Program, the youth worked four months under the supervision of adults to outfit a bare-bones bike with all custom features. That bike, dubbed Mish Mash, is being raffled off this fall and will be awarded to a winner at Omaha Home for Boys’ September 26 fundraiser, Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts. Fittingly, the motivational speaker for the 6 p.m. Hilton Omaha event is actor-producer-director-author Henry Winkler, who earned fame playing the motorcycle-riding character The Fonz on the 1970s TV mega-hit, Happy Days.

Leading up to the event, the bike is being showcased at parades and shows to help boost raffle sales and raise awareness about Omaha Home for Boys’ and Jacob’s Place’s mission, serving youth. Founded in 1920, OHB is a residential program that provides at-risk boys and young men ages 10-18 with family structure, positive reinforcement, and educational support to help them become successful, independent adults. It’s sister program, Jacob’s Place, has a similar mission serving both young men and women ages 17-21.

OHB events manager Trish Haniszewski says the bike rebuild program, which originates out of Mitchell, S.D., is intended to empower youth through structured, hands-on work rebuilding old or damaged bikes.

She says the work the Omaha youth put into salvaging their bike “is symbolic of ‘refurbish a youth, refurbish a life.’” The person she recruited to be the program’s bike mechanic facilitator, Jeremy Colchin of Black Rose Machine Shop, found the experience more meaningful than he expected.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done…The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.” – Jeremy Colchin, Black Rose Machine Shop

“The joy I had after the first night of working with the kids was like nothing I ever experienced before,” says Colchin. “I didn’t expect to get attached to these kids.”

His father, Black Rose owner Mike Colchin, also mentored the youth.

Jeremy says the connection with some youth was immediate and with others, gradual. “You gotta pull them in…We seemed to pull them in in a good way, and that’s what matters. They were having fun when they were here,” says Colchin, who met with the youth Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howe Garage on campus. “Every single one of them has been extremely polite and fun to be around and easy to work with. It’s promising.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done; it’s about using [the process] as a tool for kids. In the big scheme of things, the bike’s the side note. The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.”

Colchin says the experience reminded him of when he began working under his father at age 16.

Getting the bike tricked out offered many teachable moments. “I thought it was a real interesting way to use what I know to work with these kids and teach them not just about motorcycles, but about how life works,” Colchin says. “That not everything is straightforward. You have to learn to work around problems, work with other people, and have fun doing it. If I can help someone [teaching them] that, that’s a great thing.”

 

 

 

 

The initial plan was to rebuild a beat-up bike. But when a junker couldn’t be found, the new emphasis became customizing a used one. Learning opportunities still presented themselves.

“When you customize a bike, you run into issues and problems you need to work through and take care of, and we’ve really done a good job accomplishing that,” says Colchin.

Ten to 12 youth participated each week in the bike build, including several girls. Besides taking ratchets, wrenches, and soldering irons to the bike, they came up with a new paint design. Flames on the gas tank include personalized names and sayings from the youth.

Program participant Tony, a Jacob’s Place transitional living resident, says, “It’s been a lot of fun. This was the first time I’ve actually worked on a motorcycle. I’ve always loved taking stuff apart and putting it together just for the heck of it—figuring out what makes stuff work. It’s been a very cool experience.” Tony, 18 and soon to enter the U.S. Marine Corps, says he and his teammates take pride in the work they did.

Of the lucky person who will win the bike in the raffle, Colchin says, “They’re going to be in possession of a Harley that’s customized in a way most guys wish they could afford to do.”

Raffle tickets for the motorcycle will be sold June 28-Sept. 26 and are available by calling Trish Haniszewski at 402-457-7000 or online at omahahomeforboys.org. Tickets to the Restoring Hearts fundraiser can also be purchased on the organizations’s website.

Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Street festivals are as emblematic of America as anything and my hometown of Omaha has it’s share of them.  A newer one, the Vinton Street Creativity Festival, is an urban pastiche that’s part carnival, part fair, part block party that takes its name and cue from the funky diagonal street where an eclectic assemblage of venues comprise Vinton’s historical business district.  This story appeared in advance of the recently held 2013 fest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

The resurgence of both the Vinton Street Commercial Historical District and the greater Deer Park Neighborhood it resides in is impetus for the second annual Vinton Street Creativity Festival.

The 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 18 event is a free celebration of youth and community organized by the Deer Park Neighborhood Association, Habitat for Humanity and the City of Omaha. Vinton Street merchants are helping sponsor it.

The festival, whose hub is 18th and Vinton, will include live music, a street art throwdown, extreme skateboarding, breakdance performances, children’s  activities, arts and crafts displays, walking tours and a Victory Boxing Club demonstration. Food can be purchased from the district’s many eateries.

The Hector Anchondo Blues Band will headline the on-stage band lineup, which  also includes Pancho & the Contraband and Midwest Dilemma. Mariachi Zapata and Ballet Folklorico Xiotal will perform traditional music and dance, respectively.

The Omaha Creative Institute will present Elmo Diaz in a blacksmithing demo, Tom Kerr drawing caricatures and a watercolor station for kids to paint.

Linda Garcia will teach the Mexican paper cutting craft, appeal picado banderas, in creating miniature decorative flags.

Among a few dozen commercial historical districts in the nation, the Vinton strip is singular for its diagonal layout. The narrow, meandering road, with low-slung, century-old buildings set close to the street, follows a ridge line that may have been a trail or country road before the area’s late 19th century development.

Noted photographer Larry Ferguson, who’s long maintained a studio and living space in the Daniel J. Jourdan Building at 1701 Vinton, says as a result of the street’s serpentine shape “you have a lot of different vistas as you move along and through those curves – it’s like a piece of sculpture that way.”

Festivalgoers will come upon a commercially thriving district whose 14 historically significant buildings have been largely untampered with and house a diverse mix of service-based businesses. Many small business owners there are Hispanic. Their enterprises include bakeries, restaurants, a meat market and clothing stores.

The area is far livelier then when Ferguson moved there in 1987. “It was a derelict part of town. It was really bad,” he recalls. “Nothing but vacant storefronts and six bars. Very little street and pedestrian traffic.” He says as the South 24th business district filled “it was a natural progression for the Latino community to move up into this area to rebuild. That led to a big influx of property changes and people changes. To the point now we have constant traffic on the street during the day. A lot of new businesses have come on board that are making Vinton happen. The new businesses are just hopping.”

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest changes is the influx of families with young children. Deer Park Neighborhood Association president Oscar Duran says, “There are hundreds of young kids in our neighborhood.” In his work as a Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist with Habitat for Humanity Duran’s enlisted youth as volunteers and as participants in urban art competitions and mural projects.

“I saw we had a local asset of urban artists within the neighborhood, That started us asking ourselves what other ways could we outreach to our youth in the South Omaha area. How can we bring together a mash of different counter cultures and communities that celebrate youth being active, involved and a part of  something?

“So we invited some of the urban artists and break-dancers we’re familiar with as well as the nonprofits that do outreach-mentorship to cross pollinate with each other and celebrate what each of them is good at.”

Duran says the resulting youth and community-centered event is an attempt “to separate us from other neighborhood festivals because Deer Park itself is a very unique neighborhood. It’s a collection of smaller neighborhoods. It’s a melting pot. You go down Vinton Street and you have an internationally known photographer (Ferguson) who’s been there since the ’80s right next to a carniceria (meat market) who’s been there for ten and right across the street you have a pasterleria (bakery). Then there’s all the restaurants, the boutiques, the Capitol Bindery, Gallery 72.

“I think it’s really cool. It’s something that’s very organic to our area.”

New additions to the melting pot are The Apollon, a multi-genre arts event-dining space having its grand opening during the fest, and The Pearly Owl curio shop.

Apollon co-founder Ryan Tewell says the district is becoming known as a “friendly up-and-coming arts and dining destination without all the traffic and congestion and higher prices that come with it.”

Grants are assisting some owners with sprucing up the facades of their buildings. Duran says improvements to the surrounding area include the recent razing of condemned homes, the rehab of others and the construction of new residences.

“That revitalization brings new people, higher property values,” Ferguson says. “I’ve got 26 years here of watching this neighborhood transform, which has always been my dream. I’ve been trying to champion this street for a long time. It’s very exciting to see it happen.”

Ferguson and Duran view the festival as a showcase for what the area offers.

“There’s a really good core of people here,” Duran says. “A very strong sense of work ethic and community was already here and it’s not going to go away. There’s really an environment fostered here that people want to help each other.”

“Vinton’s becoming more unified,” says Ferguson. “It’s a real celebration of it. We’re totally jazzed and excited.”

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System


 

Teela Mickles of Omaha has been doing the good work of prison ministry for a long time.  She doesn’t so much preach to offenders as provide them lifelines and guides for transforming themselves and breaking the cycles that landed them in prison in the first place and that led them back in prison after release.  Her Compassion in Action program is expanding to serve men, women, and children touched by the judicial and penal system.  I did an earlier profile of Teela that you can find on this blog.  And I extensively quoted in another piece about programs in Omaha that aid returning citizens.  This new story that follows below will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion in Action’s move to the former Wesley House campus at 2001 North 35th Street is symbolic for CIA founder-executive director Teela Mickles.

Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system will return community-based human services to a site that housed Nebraska’s oldest social service agency.

The Wesley House Community Center was a United Methodist Church mission for decades. Most recently, Paul Bryant operated a youth leadership academy there. When it closed in 2010 the Methodists pulled support and the two-building campus, which includes a church, was acquired by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation.

The buildings sat unoccupied until Mickles and OEDC president Michael Maroney reached an agreement for CIA to move operations into the main structure this spring. She’s subleased the church to a Native Assembly congregation pastored by Rev. James Bollinger. CIA and the church will offer a community food pantry.

She hopes to raise $300,000 through donations, grants and fundraisers to support operations the first year. Proceeds from a June 28 Performance for Peace event at the Kroc Center, 2825 Y Street, will go to CIA. The 6:30 p.m. event will feature live music performers, spoken word artists and dancers.

Mickles is also seeking donated materials and labor to address various building needs.

For Mickles. who’s added extensive youth services to the CIA mission, moving from her home to a building with multiple office, meeting and classroom spaces, made sense. But relocating to this northeast Omaha site is also personal. She grew up in a home where the center now sits.

Maroney, the man entrusting Mickles with the place’s legacy, has warm memories of Wesley House. He worked there on three separate occasions. The organization he runs today was birthed there, as were other black-run enterprises, including a bank and radio station.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly back in the late ’60s and early-mid ’70s when it actually was doing things unprecedented in terms of creating those entities,” says Maroney. “That’s why we were careful to ensure we leased it to an organization that continues to add value to the community going forward.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mickles appreciates that past and intends on being a positive force in a community reeling from gang violence, truancy, dropouts, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“I think these things could be prevented if people were aware of the root causes and were willing to go after those root causes,” she says.

It’s why she’s partnering with a gang prevention program. Raw Dawgs Youth Corps, whose focus is boys, and with two programs, ICARE Youth Services and IMAGES, whose focus is girls. Kainette Jones runs ICARE and Helen Wakefield runs IMAGES. The women laud Mickles for her commitment to empower people to change their lives.

The LITE (Ladies in Training Everyday) Mentoring Partnership for at-risk girls is a collaborative between CIA, ICARE, IMAGES and the city.

“Kainette works with girls who are in the judicial system, Helen works with girls in the public schools system and I work with girls locked up –in detention. The girls can come out of my program and go into the other programs,” says Mickles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s akin to the human and social services once offered at Wesley.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Mickles notes. “Mike Maroney didn’t want to give it to just anyone, he wanted to keep it in the community, he wanted to keep it doing what it’s supposed to do with its history of serving families and reaching our little kids. And I have my own history with it because at age 10 my mother and father sold our home and two adjoining lots so the Wesley House could be built. There’s a tree my dad put a tire in so I could swing.

“So I’m coming back home. It’s amazing I’ve come full circle and am back where I started.”

She’s coming with an ambitious plan, too.

“This is a major opportunity for Compassion in Action to expand with all the organizations I partner with to keep our babies from going through that cycle. We’re going to break a whole lot of cycles.”

Mickles, a certified Assemblies of God minister and an addiction counselor, has worked with incarcerated folks for 30 years.

As part of her faith-based work she’s developed a curriculum to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. She also trains individuals and organizations dealing with offenders.

For inmates to buy into a program, she says, “it’s gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.” Her early work with women taught her that preparation before release is key.

“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”

Many of the same things hold true for male offenders.

Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever leave prison.

“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release. We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”

Family reconciliation can take time. The focus must first be on recovery.

Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she says.

For a time she operated CIA transitional homes where returning citizens stayed in preparation for “independent living.” That included making residents employable. Today, she refers ex-offenders to transitional living and employment programs.

Her work received a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide parent education to women in prison.

“We had some really good results.”

In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She says, “A man has to feel some type of significance in order to continue his survival. These men are not dead. There’s a lot of intelligence, creativity behind those walls.You’d be surprised how a light comes on. But the problem is they’re not able to express that behind the walls.”

She believes men need encouragement and guidance from other men inside and outside the yard. “A man I think needs to take him down the journey.” Finding enough mentors is a challenge.

She’s proud that CIA’s become a trusted provider.

“Our specialty is prerelease education, reentry preparation. We know all the resources necessary for them to connect but we won’t send you someone who did not commit to working on themselves while they were still locked up. If they’re not willing to do that that means when they come out they’re going to continue to play games. We address all that on the inside. Their heart has to change.

“We let them know there are opportunities for them to make a change. There were things that happened to them when they were young. It was a process. So we help them look at that process. We work well with individuals who are committed to the discovery of their own purpose and own true personal worth. I believe validation breeds motivation for education to find their vocation.

“If you’re going to do that work, and it’s very difficult and meaningful, then you can come out here and be anything you want.”

In her experience those who make it follow a common path.

“When they stick to their plan, they will succeed and God is always at the core of that. Their gifts and plans had to be spiritually connected because they tried everything else and it didn’t work,” she says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mickles has many success stories among CIA graduates. One, Tracie Ward, works as her program manager while pursuing a master’s degree in health and human services.

Ward, says Mickles, found herself “in the wrong place at the wrong time “and ended up incarcerated when her children were still young.

Ward says she’s come a long way with the help of Mickles and others.

“Her program is faith-based which I believe is foundational for a lot of people transforming from something old into something new,” says Ward. “I call myself living proof because I’m living proof of overcoming a lot of things. Although I may have made mistakes I am also an overcomer and an achiever.

“I was able to tap more into my spiritual beliefs and that’s what helped me get through a lot of what I was going through. Miss Teela believes in people, she believes in validation, she believes in inspiring a person, she never comes off judgmental.”

Ward says it’s essential returning citizens find individuals like Mickles “that will see past your past.” She adds, “My past does not define me. I am who I am today, Years of sobriety. An associate’s degree. Great accomplishments. I love being the grandmother I am today.”

During her incarceration her three sons were matched with a volunteer family Mickles recruited and trained to act as a support system.

“They were able to fill in in some of the areas my family needed some assistance in,” Ward says. “Being able to keep that bond while you’re away is a big part of transitioning back into society or into your family or into your role as a mother. It kind of makes or breaks the relationship.”

The family remained engaged with Ward and her sons until she was free and reunited with her children. Now Ward’s using her own experience to help young women facing similar challenges as she did.

Mickles increasingly sees her work as a continuum. The problems that land adults in prison, she says, start early in life and tend to repeat from generation to generation.

“The men that are locked up all say the same thing – that they joined the gang for a sense of belonging. That’s a mandate on society that young men will be OK with getting the crap beat out of them so they can belong and young girls will be OK with having the option of being gang-raped so they can belong. Shame on us.

“The gangs are out there taking our kids. We need to consider an option the boys can go to where they can belong that’s positive. That’s how CIA got into what we’re doing now. All the pieces started falling in place. We’ve got the whole spectrum covered.”

 

 

 

 

 

She recently began working with young men at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.

“The boys are just like the men, once you get to that little child inside they let you know everything,” she says. “And there’s a fear factor. They don’t like what they have done, they don’t like the choices they have made, but they don’t think they have options. They are looking to die before they’re 25 or to spend their life in prison. That’s what the path of life looks like to them.

“When these young men graduate from my class they’re asking, ‘What is your main fear about being free?’ They say, ‘My life.’ It all stems from having been engaged with gangs. If someone had a tiff with you from back in the day they will find you. So that gun thing comes into play here. These guys really are holding their piece because there’s somebody that might come after them. It’s dangerous.”

Mickles advocates Interrupting the cycle before it starts.

“What if we don’t let the kids get the guns in the first place? What if we gave them an option?”

That’s where Raw Dawgs comes in. The Atlanta, Ga.-based program’s founder, Joseph Jennings, expects to have it up and running here by the fall.

“The Raw Dawgs program will provide that alternative to gang membership for boys 7 to 18,” says Mickles. “It’s an incentive program. Tutors will work with kids to help with their academics. Mentors will help with their home life. Kids will be rewarded. It’s a youth corps, military-style program. The kids will be drilled.

“We’re hoping that within five years with all the operations and networks we have here that we will see a reduction in bullying and dropouts and incarceration of our young people. We don’t need another prison, we need more people working together to help our babies see another perspective so they can get out of this situation before they get into it.”

Mickles enlists male lifers in the state pen to write cautionary letters to incarcerated young men at NYCF to provide a dose of truth from those who’ve walked in their shoes. The author of one letter writes:

“Little homeys,

“It’s no help to stay bitter and angry…Yes, its easier to be that way because you don’t have to be strong enough to own up to your own bad actions…You don’t have to be strong enough to accept the help offered to you…Bitterness and anger make it easy to hide, I get it. I don’t have no magic words or cure to fix your situation, whatever it is. There’s no simple or fast resolution here…

“Ultimately I have learned no one else has the answer…we are the ones with the answer. If you want life to get better you have to be one who works for it and when you slip up you have to be the one who faces that and fixes things as you get back on track. Never give up on you. Just the fact you have someone who has handed or read to you this letter means there are others who haven’t given up on you. 

“I make you a promise, homey, you don’t give up on yourself and I wont give up on you, and one day we’ll look back on life and be thankful we chose to have all the courage to fight for our lives back and to make things better for everyone around us. That’s the power of the divine spirit in each of us, that’s the power of our humanity at its best. 

“Be strong.”

Mickles says the inmates who pen the letters “are real excited about having something to make their lives significant. They desperately want to be able to give back to the community in some way.”

She says the young men who receive the letters and complete her curriculum “have been changed – they’re excited about a new life they can have.” All of CIA’s work is about keeping offenders from recidivism and diverting young people from poor choices that result in doing time.

“It’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community,” she says. “Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community is connecting to the fact these are people.”

She says the best deterrent to criminal behavior starts in childhood.

“If we validate our kids at a very early age and they feel they’re special they’re going to make the right choices.”

It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of a correctional facility.

“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” says Mickles. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.

“You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison. No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”

For tickets to the June 28 event call 402-451-4500.

Keep up with CIA at compassioninaction.com.

Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music Partner to Give Kids New Opportunities

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Nonprofit organizations that share similar missions can find greater efficiencies and impact more people when they partner, sometimes even reaching new audiences and delivering new services in the process.  That’s what’s happened with the partnership between the Omaha Conservatory of Music and the Salvation Army Kroc Center that’s expanding music education and performance opportunities for youth thanks to agency one lending its expert instructors to students at agency two.  My Metro Magazine story about this collaboration follows.

 

 

Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music Partner to Give Kids New Opportunities

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

A perfect fit

Last fall a meant-to-be match became reality when the Omaha Conservatory of Music began offering music classes at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Omaha. OCM provides top-notch instructors and instruments and the Kroc eager students and first-rate facilities.

OCM’s been looking to do more outreach with underserved populations and the Kroc Center’s been seeking to expand its music offerings. So why not bring the Conservatory’s resources to the Kroc?

“It was kind of a perfect fit because the Salvation Army needed a music piece to offer the community and the Omaha Conservatory of Music had expertise in that.

It made sense,” says Mike Cassling, a Kroc advisory board member who brokered this marriage with OCM board member Betiana Simon. The pair got the two organizations talking and before long a full-fledged program was designed and launched for youth ages 3 to 18. Cassling, CEO of Cequence Health Group, helped fund the program.

“We didn’t have the instructors in house for the music, and music is something the Army loves, so it seemed like it would be a good fit if they could provide instructors and we could provide students,” says Major Catherine Thielke, the Kroc’s officer for program development.

The classes are free to Kroc Center members and $10 for nonmembers.

“Parents are loving the fact this is available to their children and that it’s not breaking their pocket,” says Kroc Center arts and education manager Gina Ponce, who adds that music is a vital part of Hispanic culture and having affordable classes right in heart of the community is a welcome addition.

OCM executive director Ruth Meints says there’s good congruence between the center’s community focus and the conservatory’s mission of building artistic community through education and performance.

Thielke agrees, saying, “The Salvation Army’s mission and purpose here at the Kroc Center is to inspire people to discover their God-given talents and to develop those talents. We saw that the Conservatory was helping kids start very young in finding their giftedness in music.”

Music adds enrichment

“I’m a huge proponent that the arts, which music is a part of, are a wonderful way to increase self-esteem, well-being and self-worth,” says Kroc arts and education coordinator Felicia Webster. “The classes are just perfect to introduce young people to music and to help them feel good about themselves.”

Where the Salvation Army has a long tradition of brass band music, it’s lacked much in the way of woods and strings.

“We’re about finding out what children’s spark is, and that expands much broader than a brass band and into the strings and other types of instruments,” says Thielke. “We’re just very excited to be partnering with the Conservatory and we’re really glad Mike and Betiana saw what benefit this would have to both groups.”

“They’re very visionary people who helped it become a reality,” adds OCM’s Meints.

 

 

 

 

Classes strike a chord and fill gap in music education 

The classes have proven more popular than anyone imagined. Ever since the first round began in early September sessions have filled, new spots have been created and waiting lists have formed.

Meints says there’s been “overwhelming response” and she adds “it’s great to see so many people get involved right away.” She expects enrollment for the next round of classes in January to increase.

In January a new guitar class will complement the brass, cello/bass, percussion, violin/viola, woodwinds and voice beat-boxing classes.

“In the Hispanic community the instruments that are very prominent for mariachi are violin, trumpet and guitar and so that will be a very neat addition,” says Meints.

More classes may be in the offing.

At the conclusion of each six-week class a concert’s held featuring student performers from both organizations. The first concert, on Oct. 27, was packed.

Meints says the individualized instruction offered youth helps them grow faster musically. Some Kroc students are already showing great potential and may be eligible for OCM scholarships, according the Meints, who’s excited about nurturing  this previously untapped talent.

Officials with both organizations say the classes for very young children fill a vital need because music education doesn’t start until middle school. Studies show getting kids started early in music can improve cognitive development and academic performance, says Meints. She and Thielke emphasize that the Sprouts class promotes family interaction by requiring parental-guardian participation.

For details and to register, visit http://www.omahakroc.org or call 402-905-3579.

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