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All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide  now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=vanessa+ward

Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=color+blind+love

 

 

Josh Dotzler

 

 

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.

Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.

He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”

“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”

He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”

 

 

 

Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”

Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.

“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”

Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”

Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.

This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
Better Together

 

 

“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”

That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”

He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.

Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.

“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”

He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”

Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.

 

SpringCleanup

 

“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.

“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”

Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a  two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.

“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.

“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”

Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.

Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that

 

Basketball group

 

Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”

Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”

Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Andrew and Tete

 

Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.

“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”

Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.

Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.

“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”

 

 

 

 

Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.

“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.

“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”

Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.

“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”

But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.

“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.

It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”

Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.

“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”

 

 

 

 

He says a good day on the job can mean many things.

“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”

Making progress in any area satisfies him.

“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.

“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.

“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth.  God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”

Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.

“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”

Visit http://www.abideomaha.org.

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

December 2, 2014 Leave a comment

In the 1960s the Omaha Public Schools was in need of African-American educators and not finding enough suitable college-educated candidates here the district looked to historically black colleges in the South. The irony of this is that many candidates from Omaha were denied teaching, coaching and administrative positions by a district that practiced blatant racism for much of its history. For decades OPS only hired a small number of black educators and then restricted them to predominantly black schools in the inner city. For years black public educators in Omaha were also restricted to elementary schools. It took a long time for OPS to dismantle those barriers and open the gates of fair employment and placement. One of the many educators recruited here from the South under those conditions was Gene Haynes, a native Mississipian who had actually followed his older brothers to Omaha and lived and worked here for a time before going back to Miss. to attend Rust College, a private historically black college. After he graduated from Rust he applied with and accepted an offer from OPS to teach and in 1967 he began what is now a 47-year career in the district. His first 18 years were at Omaha Technical High School and the last 29 have been at Omaha North High School, where he’s been principal since 2001. He’s helped lead a major turnaround at North, whose academic and athletic programs are doing great things. My New Horizons cover profile of Haynes follows.

 

 

 

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horixons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

It is a marvel Omaha North High Magnet School pxrincipal Gene Haynes relates so well to students given how far removed his life experience is from theirs.

The 70 year-old Mississippi native came of age in a time and place unlike anything his students know. Haynes grew up in the grip of poverty and segregation in the post-World War II South. Yet he’s current and cool enough to accept either a handshake or a fist bump from students. He either calls them by name or by “brother man” or “sister girl” as he makes his presence known in the hallways, cafeteria and other common areas every school day.

“When you say their name they know you’re paying attention to them,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in going to the activities and seeing what the young people are doing and encouraging them to do their best.”

He’s such a fixture at North and in the community that he knows most students’ extended families. Omaha Public Schools superintendent Mark Evans says, “It makes a huge difference when the person telling you which direction to go knows not only your mom and dad but your aunt and uncle, your grandma and grandpa. I think it makes kids so responsive to Gene – much more so than most administrators.”

A message Haynes conveys to students is, “Do your best when no one is around.” When he’s around and sees students applying themselves, he says he knows “they want to be highlighted” and thus he singles them out. North students increasingly shine academically and athletically in the transformation he’s leading there.

“When you treat people right, good things happen,” he says. “I make it a point every day I come to this building to be outside greeting kids as they come in. They see this crusty old man. I’m not an office person. I have to do my paperwork on Saturdays or after school. When the kids are moving to and from class I’m out there to see what the kids are doing. You can’t stay in one place, you have to be able to move, and I do, which prompts kids to ask, ‘Are there two of you?’ I show up when they least expect it, not looking to catch them in anything but to give them that extra encouragement they need.

“We have a staff at North High School that cares about every student. The kids know that. I think that’s the key. You have to go in with a positive attitude. Every student is worth something. The young people you’re working with on a daily basis are going to be your future.”

For Haynes, there’s no conflict about his mission.

“The bottom line has been and always will be what’s best for young people, not personally for me. It’s to make a difference in the lives of young people that you come across in your path.”

It’s all about setting expectations.

“If you don’t expect anything from them they’re not going to give you anything but if you have those high expectations and you communicate that there’s no wiggle room. You need to know how to do that. I’ve kind of mellowed in my latter years. I was very aggressive (before). It goes back to my father who said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with a stick.'”

When he sees students acting out he handles it differently today than in the past, though he still bellows “Hit the bricks” to stragglers.

“If you reprimand or put them down in front of their peers you’re not going to get anywhere. The best thing to do is to approach them and treat them with all due respect.”

 

 

 

A credo he likes imparting is, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about repeating it – it’s always going to be there.”

Haynes realizes students confront a lot these days between the pressure to have sex at an early age, the lure of drugs, the threat of bullying and the high incidence of teen depression and suicide. He’s aware many inner city students come from broken families and live in active gang areas where instability and fear rule.

“I think the biggest challenge we face is we don’t have enough time for the magnitude of issues students bring to school. It’s not about books, it’s about time and effort to convince these young people there’s a better way of dealing with issues.”

Rather than an extended school day or extended school year, he advocates schools and communities “provide the best opportunities” for students to develop.

He says parents are vital cogs in their children’s education and he actively solicits their participation.

“I pick up the phone and call them. If I need to go make a home visit I do that. We make them a part of the equation.”

He says “the trust level has improved” among North’s parent base. He
suspects some had bad experiences in school, making it incumbent on himself and his staff “to ease any apprehensions they feel,” adding, “There’s a support system in place to eliminate some of those concerns. We have a very strong PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization).”

Coming out of Miss. in an era when blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, he knows about hard times and perseverance. You don’t forge a 47-year career without overcoming odds.

Haynes grew up the youngest of four sons to a sharecropping father and homemaking mother in a country hamlet between Gholson and Preston, Miss. During the off-season his father drove a truck. Like his brothers and cousins he was delivered by his midwife grandmother.

“We came in with the blessings of my grandmother,” is how he puts it.

In that tight-knit community he says, “We kind of looked out after for each other.”

In the fully segregated South he attended all black schools that got “hand-me-down” textbooks from the white schools. As a child he walked miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At 9 he started taking a bus to school. By high school the routine found one bus picking up a white neighbor girl and another bus picking him up, the vehicles taking the youths to “separate and unequal schools.”

Blacks were treated as second-class citizens in every way.

“That was the way of life back in that time. Growing up in the Jim Crow South toughened your skin up.”

His parents never got as far as high school but they stressed education’s importance. The black teachers who taught at the choolhouse boarded with the Haynes family during the week. That close proximity to educators made “a big impact on me,” he says.

An influential figure in his life was a landed white man, Vardaman Vendevender, who took an interest in young Gene.

“This gentleman was very dear to my family. On the weekends I worked for him. I did things around his house. I had access to his tractor, truck, jeep. If he needed things from the store I was able to go into town and get them. He called me Gene Robert after my grandfather. He once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be successful you have to leave the state of Miss.’ Here was a white guy sharing that with me. That was a relationship I treasured for years. Up until he passed every time I would go back to Miss. I would visit him.”

Vendevender’s son, Jake, visited him at North a few years ago. “He said, ‘When I pulled up I couldn’t believe a young skinny kid from Miss. is the principal of this big high school. My father must have made an impression on you.’ That’s something that sticks with me even right now.” Haynes returned the favor, visiting Jake below the Mason-Dixon Line. “We talked about the olden days.”

Haynes was in high school, where he excelled in sports, when the civil rights movement came to Miss. and all hell broke loose. Native son James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962 but only with the full force of the nation’s highest court and National Guard troops behind him.

“The most frightening thing in my life was riding the bus to school and having federal marshals on every corner. Tension ran very high.”

 

Every time activists or lawmakers threatened dismantling segregation, racist stakeholders in that apartheid system reacted violently. In 1964, his freshman year in college. a trio of Freedom Riders were killed. The deaths of the Mississippi Three further heightened fear.

Haynes says despite the obstacles and dangers he never despaired things wouldn’t improve. He believed in the power of education and in letting the truth shine through ignorance.

“I could see that because of my training and my teachers, who were always discussing how important it was to get an education. They embedded that into us – that education is a key for success.”

Blacks were also resourceful to find some kind of way through barriers to pursue their goals and dreams.

“We managed in spite of the opportunities denied us.”

Haynes says that as a college-bound African-American then his higher ed choices in the South were severely limited. In much of the region at that time blacks could not attend anything but historically black colleges. “When I was coming out of high school if you were black and you didn’t go to Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State, Rust College or one of the other private black schools, you couldn’t go.”

During the ’60s some challenged this exclusion but not without the federal government enforcing it. Even then there were serious, often ugly consequences. It would be some time before blacks were able to attend schools of their choice without incident.

Haynes was fortunate to have as a mentor a male high school biology teacher who also coached him in football.

“He was very instrumental in working with me from grade 10 on, preparing me for college. He had gone to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss, and he was very instrumental in my attending Rust. I felt that was the opportunity for me to do the things I need to do.”

Before attending Rust, however, Haynes followed his brothers to Omaha, where the extended family put down roots during the Great Migration blacks made from the South to the North in search of a better life. Omaha’s booming meat packing plants and railroad operations drew many unskilled blacks and other minorities here.

“We had relatives here and they hooked my oldest brother, who came here in ’59. with a job. iI was a kind of networking that went on. He came here on a weekend and he went to work at the packinghouse on Monday. That started a chain of events,” says Haynes, whose other brothers followed. In 1963, Gene did, too. His brothers went to Miss. for his high school graduation and no sooner did the ceremony end then they took him back to Omaha with them.

“I left to the chagrin of my mom and dad. I was the baby and now the nest was empty. In 1964 my mother and father pulled up stakes and moved to Omaha. Mom couldn’t stand not being around her boys.”

 


  • Haynes with his brothers and parents

 

 

Unlike his brothers, Gene didn’t work in the packinghouses. Instead, a relative got him on at the fancy Blackstone Hotel, with its distinctive exterior, ornate interior and popular Golden Spur and Orleans Room.

He returned to Miss. to attend Rust, majoring in social studies and economics.

“They provided me with a great education,” he says of his alma mater. The school also served as his introduction to his life partner. “I met a great lady whom I ended up marrying – my wife Annie. We graduated from Rust in 1967 and we got married in 1968.”

Haynes and his wife are the parents of one son, Jerel, and the grandparents of Caleb and Jacob.

Work-study and a scholarship put Haynes through college. He toiled in the dorms and athletic offices to pay his way in becoming his family’s first college graduate. Given the sway educators had in his life, he naturally looked at teaching as a career. Places like Omaha had a dearth of black college grads then, so OPS looked to historically black colleges for candidates. He joined other newly minted educators from the South as OPS hires, including Sam Crawford, Jim Freeman and Tom Harvey, all of whom enjoyed long careers like him.

“A large group of us that went to predominantly black schools came to Omaha to teach,” he says. “We’ve been very blessed because we have carved out a legacy that’s been great. We stuck together.”

Haynes didn’t intend staying in Omaha. When he started at OPS in 1967, at Omaha Technical High School. he came alone while Annie pursued teaching opportunities in Alabama and then Cleveland, Ohio.

“My plan was to teach here one year and go to Miami, where I also applied. I lived with my parents to save money. Forty-seven years later I’m still here and I haven’t saved any money yet,” he says, laughing.

 


  • Haynes with one of his Omaha Tech High basketball squads

 

 

After that first year in Omaha he went to Cleveland to court Annie.

“I convinced her Omaha was the place she needed to be.”

She got a job teaching 3rd grade at Lothrop Elementary. Annie ended up teaching 37-plus years in the district.

Haynes, who earned a master’s degree in education, administration supervision from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974, taught and coached at Tech until the school closed in 1984. The massive Tech building is now the OPS headquarters, He was an assistant football coach when future University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers played for the school. During his tenure at Tech Haynes became the state’s first black head basketball coach. Breaking that new ground meant dealing with some racist coaches, officials and fans.

“With a predominantly black team we had some skewed eyes looking at us. I had to tell the kids, ‘You have to play above that because let’s face it if it’s close, you can forget it,'” says Haynes, referring to blatantly bad calls that went against his team and other minority-laden teams then at Omaha Central and Omaha South.

“I told the kids, ‘You have to be twice as good as your competition.’ And so we tried to prepare them for that.”

He says he instilled in his players the philosophy – “You give it your best. Winning is not everything, but a sincere effort is.” He says he still believes that today. “It’s not about wins and losses it’s about the success of the young people at the end of their high school term.”

He has fond memories of his time at Tech.

“I can think about so many young people I was fortunate enough to work with.”

One of those is Thomas Warren Sr., who became Omaha Police chief and is now president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska. Warren played basketball for Haynes and remembers his old coach as “a strict disciplinarian who had the respect of his players” because he went the extra mile for them. He sees Haynes doing the same thing today.

“For many of his players he was responsible for facilitating scholarship opportunities. For me individually, he drove me to Sioux City, Iowa in his personal vehicle for my recruitment visit to Morningside College, where I eventually attended. I have watched him spend countless hours serving the students of Omaha North High School and our community. He has been an advocate for at-risk students and I have never seen him give up on a kid. I consider Gene Haynes a friend, mentor and role model and I will always refer to him as ‘Coach.'”

Other students Haynes molded became entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals in one field or another. He finds it ironic many of them are now retired while he’s still working.

“Doesn’t seem right,” he says, smiling.

He says “the passion the staff developed caring about individual students made all the difference in the world” at Tech “and that’s what I’ve attempted to do and incorporate here at North.” He and his staff work to create an environment where students “feel they can come and talk to us about their concerns and we’ll address the situation.”

When Tech closed Haynes became assistant principal and athletic director at McMillan Magnet School for a year before joining the North High staff in 1987. At North he served as assistant principal and athletic director for 14 years until assuming the principal post in 2001.

Since taking over at North, whose 4410 North 36th Street campus borders some of Omaha’s highest crime areas, he’s credited with leading a turnaround there. But he says the transformation began under predecessor Tom Harvey, who changed the school’s image. Starting in the 1980s North’s once proud reputation suffered under the strain of urban pressures that saw school dropouts and disruptive behaviors rise, along with test scores decline. Haynes says Harvey began the process of turning this wasteland into an oasis of success.

“Tom Harvey was a driving force behind the resurrection of North.”

 

 

 

 

The impoverished neighborhoods around North had fallen into a mire of drugs, gangs, violence, vacant homes and hopelessness but have rebounded with help from community building organizations like Abide.

North’s leaders, Haynes says, made a conscious effort to make the school an anchor and resource in a community hungering for something it could be proud of and call its own.

“Tom Harvey invited the alums and the Vikings of Distinction to turn North High School around. They talked about what would it take to change the perception. There used to be a fence around the place.
When you saw that fence you thought about the prison mentality and we had to change that. The fence came down and there was a trust factor then within the community that North is the place to be.”

Haynes has continued to enhance North’s community engagement.

“North High School is a key component of this community. We have opened up North for community events and activities. We found that when people in the community feel they are part of something your vandalism goes down. They feel they have ownership in this. The second Saturday of the month the Empowerment Network uses our facility. Every Sunday Bridge Church holds services here.”

He says if northeast Omaha is to realize its hoped-for revival then North High and its companion schools must be actors in it.

“If it’s going to change North High School and the Omaha Public Schools are going to be key players in turning things around. Right now I see we’re moving in the right direction.”

Haynes welcomes community partners.

John Backus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in North Omaha, says, “When we approached him about ways to be helpful in his school he was ready with ideas, answers and the sort of willing spirit that accomplishes things. Gene Haynes is a capable leader and intensely interested in the well-being of his students.”

Perhaps the biggest sea change for North came when it was made a magnet center for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

“Haynes says, “We wanted the best and the brightest people to be a part of North High School – students and staff. We went out and brought in the best and the brightest and we will continue to do so.”

 

 

 

 

To accommodate this influx of students and new curriculum Haynes invited the entire North community of staff, students, alums and neighbors to weigh-in on a vision for a new addition. A group of students took the initiative and drew up the initial design for what became the 34,000 square foot, multi-million dollar Haddix Center.

“When the students are active I think it’s important you allow them to have input,” says Haynes. “It took 11 years from the time we started to plan until we were able to build. That was huge. We cherish the fact the alumni association and one gentleman, George Haddix, gave up $5 million. The district bought the project and supported it. We dedicated it in 2010. This is our fifth year in that facility.”

As a magnet center North draws students from around the metro. Haynes says one third of its students come from outside its attendance area. The school’s test scores have soared and the number of academic college scholarship awarded graduates has exploded. OPS superintendent Mark Evans says, “It’s a great success story and his leadership has made a difference there not only in the classrooms but in the extracurriculars. The principal sets the tone and is the leader of that culture and Gene Haynes is one of the best examples of that. When you say North High, you think Gene Haynes – that’s how much identification there is with him there.”

Evans adds that North’s success has a ripple effect on its student body and the surrounding community. “I think it’s huge. I think it sends a message of hope that we can and will succeed. We’ve got some young people who haven’t always thought they were going to be successful but because of North High and Gene Haynes they all believe they can be successful now and they are being successful.”

Haynes feels the STEM experience students receive there is preparing them for working living wage 21st century jobs that demand tech savvy employees. He’s confident as technology becomes ever more important that North’s on the cutting edge of utilizing it in the classroom. For example, some algebra classes are entirely taught on iPads. A new Samsung Smart School Solutions pilot program invites students to use a 75-inch touch interactive display and tablets to make stock market purchases, deliver tech-driven business presentations and get hands-on learning experiences with real life business partners.

“We have the best technology persons in Rich Molettiere and Tracy Sage,” Haynes says of North’s technology coordinators. “We really appreciate what they’ve been able to do. If someone tried to take them out of North High School, it’s on.”

North’s academic progress is matched by the success of its athletic programs. Until recently the school was known for its wrestling dominance, including multiple team and individual champions and at least one Olympic hopeful, Vikings grad RaVaughn Perkins. But more recently North’s football team has been the dominant force, winning back to back Class A state titles behind superstar running back Calvin Strong, a South Dakota commit. and Husker lineman recruit Michael Decker. The 2014 Vikings finished 13-0 and are widely considered one of the top teams in Nebraska prep football history.

 

 

 

 

North has done all this without having a true home field to play on. Its football team plays at Northwest High’s Kinnick Stadium some four miles away. A proposal for North High to build a stadium of its own, right in the neighborhood, is being looked at. As with the earlier Haddix Center, North students did an initial design. Haynes and the school’s foundation are assessing if there’s enough support in the community for what would be a privately funded project costing millions of dollars.

“We want it be state of the art,” Haynes says.

He believes the stadium would be another “bright light for this community” and he says the facility would be available for use by nearby Skinner Magnet School and the Butler Gast YMCA.

Haynes keeps long hours at North, whose doors hardly ever seem to close for all the activity there. He says he goes home satisfied when “I see the kids leaving school with a smile on their face and a pat on the back from the principal and they acknowledge it.” He adds, “I have a post I go to at dismissal that borders the neighborhood. From my perch I can see kids coming and going and if anything’s going to happen from the outside that’s where it’s going to come from. The kids know that and I know that. That’s why I choose to go out there. As the kids walk by I acknowledge them and give them encouragement. That’s what I consider a most gratifying day.

“I try not take anything from school home, and vice versa.”

As for how much longer he’ll be doing this, he’s promised the class of 2017 he’ll walk with them at their graduation.

“That’s the plan – if my health stays good.”

That would make 50 years at OPS.

He won’t have any say in his successor but he and others will be keeping a close eye to make sure this sweet ride continues.

“I feel whoever comes in is going to do the right thing, and if not it’ll be a short tenure.”

Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. A measure of the high esteem he’s held in is the street named after him right outside the school. At the dedication for it last summer and on social media people offered tributes, calling him “humble, genuine, dedicated, a role model – commands true respect.” A grateful Haynes takes it all in stride, saying, “The Omaha community has been very gracious to me and my family and now I have to live up to it.”

 

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

September 29, 2014 1 comment

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

 

 

 
Two of a Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vic Gutman

Idealist, Go-getter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He despaired at what he found in that arena.

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

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

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

“Some of their stories broke my heart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We were ragtag,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

September 5, 2014 Leave a comment

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 Ferial Pearson

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An entire ritual formed around each week’s assignment.

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

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

Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.

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

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

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

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

“The response has been overwhelming.”

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

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

The project lives on in other ways, too.

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

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

The book’s available online and at select bookstores.

 

 

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

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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

JOURNEYS: African Safari

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

OUT ON SAFARI

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

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

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

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

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

 

BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER

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

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

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

 

EVOLVING EXPANSION

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

It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.

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

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

 

EVOLVING EXPERIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

 

EVOLVING AWARENESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.

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

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

 

SHARED TRUST

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

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

Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.

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

Being a well-run venue helps.

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

No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.

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

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

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

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

~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO

Cover Photo

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

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

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

 

 

Mark Evans, ©ketv.com

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

©omaha.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©omaha.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Pam Cohn (Secondary)                                                                                        

 Melissa Comine (Elementary)

Dwayne Chism (Elementary)                                                                                                                                                                                           Lisa Utterback, Elementary

         

 

 

 

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

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

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

Other principals have done the same thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

 

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit http://www.projecteverlast.org.

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