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Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School

July 5, 2012 3 comments

 

Education is not my beat.  In fact, I don’t have a beat as a reporter or journalist.  Life is my subject matter.  Pretty broad, I know.  But there are certain subjects and subjects within subjects that I get drawn to and one of these is the downtown Omaha Liberty Elementary School.  The following is one of several stories I’ve filed about it and its staff over the years.  It’s a special place with special people and hopeflly this story (and the others) conveys why.  The woman who headed up the school at the start, Nancy Oberst, has since moved on but her assistant principal Ilka Oberst (no relation) is now in charge and so there’s been a nice continuity there.  An example of the superb teaching staff at Liberty is Luisa Palomo, whom I’ve recently profiled and posted about, winner of the 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year award.  I expect I’ll be drawn back there again to file a future story.  Meanwhile, check out the articles filed under my education category and you should find quite a variety there.

 

Luisa Palomo with some of her charges

 

 

Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School       

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally appearee in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

For the first time, the largely Hispanic-served Liberty Elementary School has a home to call its own. Located a half-block from the temporary warehouse Liberty occupied since being formed in 2002, the new-look Liberty opens the 2004-2005 school year August 25 in a newly constructed three-level building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Designed by the Omaha architectural firm Zenon Beringer Mabrey Partners Inc., the $7.4 million site is as traditional as the previous one was unconventional.

With a likely enrollment increase from 500 to 600, Liberty’s continuing its mission of educating a high English-as-a-Second Language student base (60-plus percent) and gearing programs to new arrivals’ needs. Sixty-eight percent of its kids are Hispanic. Most are first-generation Americans. The remaining quotient is divided among African-Americans, Native Americans, Africans and Caucasians. Diversity at Liberty is more than a symbol, it’s infused in lesson plans and in the books kids read, in the art they create, in the foods they eat and in the heroes whose praises they sing.

Taking advantage of a downtown locale with such kids-friendly attractions as the Omaha Children’s Museum across the street, the YMCA around the corner and the Rose Theater and Joslyn Art Museum within easy walking distance, Liberty’s formed partnerships that give students and families preferred access to these facilities. Unlike the old Liberty, which lacked a gymnasium and theater, the new Liberty’s outfitted with both. Not having those facilities was spun into a positive when the Y and Rose let students access their athletic and stage resources, respectively.

A hybrid downtown-neighborhood school serving the low income areas just south, east and west of the restored Drake Court Apartments, Liberty’s created a warm school culture that’s arisen, in part, from the makeshift space it held classes in for two years. The school was situated in a former bus barn and paper storage warehouse. The facility, running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, was renovated by its owners, NuStyle Development Corporation, and leased to the Omaha Public Schools. Working with acres of open-floor space and lofty ceilings, Alley-Poyner Architects designed a modular layout of classrooms separated by partitions. With little to baffle sound, Liberty was constantly abuzz with noise. The resulting chorus of youthful voices leaking through the cavernous environs added a homey vitality and charm absent from the sterile confines of most schools, where children are holed-up behind walls except at class breaks, recess and meals.

Liberty brightened a dull industrial setting into a vibrant space. Children’s artwork was plastered everywhere. Without an intercom system or classroom phones, Liberty staff communicated the old fashioned way, not unlike neighbors speaking between fences or hedges. Visitors could overhear or glimpse the rhythms of education unfolding or sometimes spilling-over all around.

Principal Nancy Oberst said she and her staff enjoyed the freedom of a barrier-free school whose informality, in-turn, fostered camaraderie. “It’s something I saw real early on over there. If you needed something, you talked face-to-face or you stood on a chair and you reached over and grabbed that book or yardstick or whatever other resource you needed. We really could bring our staff together quickly because we spent so much time with each other and in such close quarters. We had a lot to overcome and I think because of that we became a real unified, strong staff. We had to be together to do it,” she said.

 

 

 

The warehouse Liberty called home its first couple years

 

Liberty’s new home

 

 

Beyond the benefits to staff, she feels the more relaxed school atmosphere helped put students and parents, including some immigrant adults facing legal residency issues, more at ease. With the move to the new building and its more spacious and segmented interior, she doesn’t want to lose the essence of what made Liberty such an inviting place. Likening a new school to a gleaming gated community, she wants to avoid the trend that isolates people behind closed doors.

“It’s a concern to us. Everyone on our staff has talked about it. Being a tall, sturdy, large new structure will, in some ways, make some people a little bit more worried about coming in. And, so, we’re going to really work hard on making sure we can keep that family-centered, welcoming, we-are-your-school spirit. We want to say, It doesn’t matter where you come from, we are happy to have you. That’s kind of a charge I’m rekindling with everyone. It’s something I know existed at the old Liberty. We can’t lose that. That’s what made us strong.”

Oberst said the formidable walls and amenities that make some schools cold, imposing places can be broken, “but you have to make an effort. I know a building can be beautiful and not welcoming enough. That part we have to create. We want to warm it up, and the only way you warm things up is by people. You just have to work at it. For example, I still want to know the names of all our kids and parents.”

As Liberty prepares showing off its new digs, Oberst plans leading a team of staff on a meet-and greet-canvassing of the school’s mixed-use residential-commercial district — something they did three summers ago. “We’re going to go door-to-door again and invite all the neighbors to come and see the new school. Now, we really have a great showcase for them to see. I think schools really need to do that. Schools need to reach out to their neighborhoods because schools aren’t neutral ground. They’re a plus, and you really should promote your school as a plus and your students as the future. We need to be providers of hope.”

The hope Liberty embodies carries special import for its immigrant families. Oberst takes seriously the principles and dreams bound up in the name. “We really try to create this feeling that Liberty is THE community and not just this separate place. We want to be the community…the starting point, the Ellis Island, the place where families can come and find things. We represent that ideal for many people. The wonderful thing about this spectacular new building is what it will offer our kids. They’ll be proud to tell everyone this is their school. In a way, it’s a new start.”

For a first-time school plopped-down in a funky area of trendy eateries, light industries and thrift stores and in close proximity to 24-Hour Package Liquor and the Douglas County Correctional Center, it’s been a successful adaptation. The school went to great pains to win over neighbors. It worked with the Omaha Police Department to increase patrols and the City of Omaha to ease traffic snarls. Still, an apartment house only two blocks away has been the site of repeated police calls over drug and prostitution activity. Neighbors are suing its owner.

Oberst, who’s been at Liberty since its start-up, feels the school’s helped stabilize the area. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, I’m so glad they’ve put a school in that neighborhood.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, said, “I think it’s been a good thing for the downtown community. I think the police have paid more attention to the area.” Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children’s Museum, said, “We’ve been extremely thrilled to have the school as a neighbor, and now that’s it’s just across the street, there’s no telling the potential of that relationship. Liberty’s given this part of downtown more of a sense it is a true neighborhood. We love the fact kids and families are residents of the area and take ownership in it. I think there’s great pride in having the school. It adds a life and personality to this diverse neighborhood.”

Oberst said Liberty’s own diversity is a selling point. It’s why Jim and Barb Farho and John and Jennifer Cleveland elect to send their kids there. She said the fact parents keep their kids enrolled “means we’ve really held their expectation of providing a quality education in a diverse urban environment.” Another indicator of Liberty’s quality, she said, is that several teachers on staff send their kids there.

The sight of Liberty kids walking to and from school in the working-class Columbus Park neighborhood must evoke memories in older residents of Mason School. Now apartments, the former South 20th Street public school was long a magnet for children of the European immigrant families that once anchored the ward. Like then, many Liberty families are starting out or starting over, but one difference is Liberty’s highly mobile student body. Many youths lead nomadic lives due to parents’ seasonal jobs or pending legal status or family issues back home in Mexico, Guatemala or whatever Latin or Central American country of origin they hail from.

Oberst said student turnover has increased as the economy’s slumped. “Some rooms are hit really hard. I had a first-grade teacher who started the year with 15 kids and saw 13 changes. Now, it doesn’t mean that all 13 left, but some kids leave and some kids come back. We often have kids go and come back.” Once gone, a student’s whereabouts can be hard to track. “Sometimes…it’s a quick move in the middle of the night. The family may not have a phone. Then, it takes us awhile to locate where the kid is. And we do work at that. We send people to the house to see if they actually moved or if it was a family emergency. A child may move in with another family member. Or, they may just be attending another OPS school.”

Nancy Oberst
Ilka Oberst
Luisa Palomo

 

Strict post-9/11 regulations may prompt newcomers to uproot their families, she said, such as the Nebraska License Bureau’s requirement of a birth certificate, green card and social security card. Requirements for registering a child at Liberty remain the same — a birth certificate, immunization record and address verification.

A transient life, she said, is an endemic problem among the poor. “Poverty means having to move often.” The disruption such want causes, she said, is only exacerbated by “not having language.” Then there’s the added burden many
bilingual minority children have of acting as interpreters for their parents, who, in turn, are frustrated by a language gulf that makes them dependent on their kids.

She said many Liberty kids grow up wanting. “There’s no space for the kids to play. There’s no space for the family to have a quiet dinner. All those things that promote communication and closeness — it’s more of a challenge.” She described a recent home visit that found no parent at home to attend the kids, one of whom was sick and absent from school that day, and a living space so cramped that bunk beds were literally jammed in a doorway. “There’s some sadness,” she said.

She estimates 95 percent of Liberty kids lack such basic tools as a home computer. Others lack bare living essentials like a suitable bed to sleep in or a decent pair of shoes to wear. Oberst, like other inner city principals, is forced to beg, borrow and steal for extras that are staples at well-heeled suburban schools. “It’s true. The kids with the greatest needs have the least resources,” she said. “I’m trying to collaborate with anyone and everyone who wants to help…just to make the field more level for our kids — to have at their fingertips what other kids have.”

Liberty’s many partners include Camp Fire, First National Bank and Kutak Rock LLP. Liberty’s working to expand its Y ties to encompass a swimming program. Oberst is seeking support to put an I-book or laptop in every kid’s home. In keeping with its mission of providing care to the underserved and uninsured, One World Community Health Centers makes twice-weekly visits to Liberty for pediatric check-ups, immunizations, physicals — “all the things our community needs but doesn’t have much access to,” Oberst said, adding that One World is after funding to add on-site family health and dental care and behavioral counseling services.

To further address disadvantages, Liberty: maintains a large ESL teaching staff and encourages all staff to be fluent Spanish-speakers; holds English-language and GED classes for adults; specializes in guided reading to promote literacy and language arts; sends staff out to kids’ homes for goodwill-outreach visits; operates a food bank and emergency fund for urgent family needs; and refers families to human service agencies. “We’re a safety net. We also try to teach people how to help themselves by doing budgeting, price shopping and using what’s available in the community,” Oberst said. “Building relationships is fundamental to all of this.”

Academically, Liberty’s a first-time participant in the local Banneker/CEMS initiative to improve math and science performance. Given the obstacles its kids face, progress is measured incrementally. “We’ve made some strides in our standardized test scores. We’ve grown five points, so we’re inching our way up,” Oberst said. “But we’re going to have difficulty keeping up with the No Child Left Behind mark, because that’s a difficult mark to attain. Some standardized assessments don’t really show a child’s progress. We’re teaching towards strengths and measuring how far kids come from where they started. This past year, we identified 50 kids as gifted. The year before we had 14 or 15. We’re not so much into a strata thing as wanting to push all the kids ahead. It is my job to open the doors for all my kids.”

Not all families’ struggles persist. Many, she said, save enough to buy new homes. Some parents attain their GED. Older siblings of Liberty kids find jobs that take advantage of their bilingual skills. All signs of hope for Liberty’s future graduates. “Those are my kids who are going to be marketable” one day, Oberst said. As far as her own future at the school, she said, “I want to be here to see our kids go to junior high. I would like to do that. I love this place. My heart is here.”

 

Registration Now Open for Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars with Leo Adam Biga: Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Registration Now Open for

Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars

with Leo Adam Biga

Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

Follow your passion and write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions

When:

Sunday, October 30

Sunday, November 13

Sunday, December 11

6-8 pm

Each seminar is unique, though some core material is covered during every workshop

 

Where: 

Brandeis building downtown, 210 South 16th Street in the warm, luxurious setting of the Community Room

Use 16th Street Concierge entrance between Douglas and Farnam (Concierge will direct you to the elevator to access the 2nd flr Community Room)

NOTE: Ample street parking available or for $5 use the Brandeis parking garage (Douglas between 16th and 17th (car pool and share the cost)

 

Host Christine Lind will provide free beverages and goodies during the seminar

Join us for this informative, relaxed evening

 

The seminar is by-registration only:

If you register for one seminar, the cost is: $40

If you register for two seminars together, the cost is: $70

If you register for three seminars together, the cost is $100

NOTE: The registration fee is payable by check only (make it out to Leo Adam Biga)

Mail your check to:  Leo A. Biga, 10629 Cuming St., Omaha, NE 68114

Your check must be received before the seminar for you to attend and be sure to indicate which seminar(s) you’re registering/paying for

NEW:

Register at leoadmbiga.eventbrite.com/

 

If you know of or are affiliated with a school, church, library or other nonprofit that would like to host a future seminar, please note that special group rates are available. It’s a perfect fit for any group that enjoys reading, writing, books. Call 402-445-4666 or email leo32158@cox.net for details.

 

What is A Journey in Freelance Writing?

An informal two-hour seminar that discusses:

• How to prepare yourself to be a writer

• What’s involved in finding your writer’s voice

• Where do story ideas come from?

• How to pitch and market your work

• What are editors looking for?

• How to develop and maintain a client base

• Yes, you can supplement your income and even make a living as a freelancer

As an award-winning journalist I will offer my decades-long experience as a guide for establishing a writing career or taking your career to the next level. The conversational, interactive seminar offers plenty of Q & A time.

Ideal for aspiring or emerging writers of:  articles • press releases • newsletters • blogs • web content • scripts • books

Book the seminar for your club, organization, school, library or church. Schedule it for your next writing/literary group meeting, festival or conference.  

Group rates available.

 

Thanks for your interest and I hope to see you there,

Leo Adam Biga

 

Related articles

Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

September 6, 2011 3 comments

Nancy Oberst is one of those high energy, positive vibe individuals you can’t help but feel better for meeting or knowing, and that’s why it was a distinct pleasure working on two stories about her and her then work as principal at Liberty Elementary School in Omaha. This article for Medium Magazine appeared only months after the school was launched downtown in a former bus barn and still months away from moving into its then under construction dedicated school building down the street. The other piece about Nancy and Liberty appeared shortly after the new school building was complete and Nancy, her staff, and students finally took possession of a building they could call their own. The same enthusiasm and dedication I found the first time was evident when I caught up with her that second time. Nancy’s no longer at Liberty but the school she helped form and lead is still going strong. She and her husband Matt are living in the Washington D.C. area now, but their connection to this place remains strong, just as it does for their famous son, indie rock and Saddle Creek Records star Conor Oberst.

 

 

Nancy Oberst

 

 

Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Medium Magazine

 

Inner city public schools face a litany of challenges that cry out for dynamic, caring leaders willing to defy the low expectations set for their at-risk students. While Liberty Elementary School in downtown Omaha is better off than many of its counterparts, principal Nancy Oberst finds many issues to tackle there in her ebullient, high-energy, never-say-die style.

“Always looking for an angle” to give her fledgling, first-year school’s 400 largely disadvantaged students “a leg up,” she variously charms, prods, lobbies and cajoles “to level the playing field for our kids.”

“She is an advocate for her children like no one I’ve ever seen. I mean, if she wants something she thinks is best for the kids, she will get it. She is a woman of vision. She just really knows what she wants and she goes after it,” says Linda Daly, a Liberty reading-ESL specialist who followed Oberst from nearby Jackson Academy.

The 49-year-old Oberst is intent on making Liberty and the adjacent Drake Court, an historic apartment complex newly restored and occupied, the linchpin of an emerging 20th Street corridor some are dubbing Children’s Row. Liberty, the Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People occupy a four-block strip from Leavenworth to Farnam. “We’re not only part of a new school,” Oberst says, “we’re part of a new community. That’s a big draw for us and a positive spin for the neighborhood. There’s a ripple effect going on with Liberty and Drake Court in terms of adding some stability to the area.”

For Oberst and staff, Liberty is not an assignment, but a mission. Temporarily housed in a renovated former bus barn while awaiting completion of a new three-story building down the street, Liberty serves a racially diverse, working-class student body drawn from downtown’s south side, an area once home to Italian immigrants and now a haven for Latino emigres.

An honor roll listing on a school bulletin board reveals Liberty’s ethnic flavor. Aside from Anglo names like Ruth, Sarah, Adam, Christa, Jenny and Tyler, most names, like Cesar, Wambli, Parisian, Andres, Misael, Juan, Indira, Jesus, Ebony, Shaquia, Dancingmoon, Hynalem and Hoa, reflect the large Latino presence and smaller black, Native American, African, Asian contingents. Oberst, the embodiment of Lady Liberty that stirs this melting pot, says, “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids.”

Alley-Poyner Architects-designed the open floor adaptation for the school’s warehouse setting, whose massive skylight and tall banks of windows bathe the place in golden light and whose cavernous spaces resonate with the sound of youthful voices. As many newly arrived students do not speak English, Liberty makes language arts and literacy its overriding emphasis, piloting the federally-funded Guided Reading program and employing ESL specialists in every classroom. Most staffers and paraprofessionals, like Legna Colon, are bilingual. Liberty also holds adult English classes. Children and families requiring extra support find in Oberst and Liberty a champion and resource center, respectively, attuned to their needs.

 

 

The old bus barn that served as Liberty’s first home

 

 

“Despite all the charges we have the one thing we are focusing on here is reading,” Oberst says, “because we believe reading is the key. If you can learn to read, math and science isn’t going to be that tough for you. We’re allowed to take the monies we get and buy supplemental books and resources that we feel as a school are going to make the difference with our kids, all the while knowing the goal is to catch up and be where everyone else is. I guess we feel a sense of urgency about what we’re doing. The needs are great.”

She knows the territory well from canvassing the neighborhood last summer, visiting many families’ homes, and from growing up in a working-class Omaha family herself. “We need to help children where the gap is wide and is getting wider. That’s why families come here (from Mexico, El Salvador) — to have a piece of the pie — and to invest in something for the future. That really is what America has been about. We want kids to feel their life is like everyone else’s and that there’s nothing that should get in the way. That’s really what public education promises.” Like the school’s namesake.

Getting past the barriers that cultural-language differences can pose is a matter of building trust. That’s why Oberst routinely has teams of educators make home visits and ensures that all school correspondence is printed in English and Spanish. She also sets a welcoming tone by insisting staff greet parents, holding informal coffees with moms and dads, inviting families to come to events at school — from community forums to special celebrations, like Cinco De Mayo — and encouraging staff to attend kids’ outside activities and even having kids over to their homes.

“It boils down to — How do you make people comfortable? Language is the key,” she says. “To engage people on their own terms and their own turf shows goodwill, respect and a real personalness. It heightens parents’ knowledge that we care and we want them to participate. We want parents to know they are valuable in this.”

Oberst, who takes predawn power walks to stay fit, is seemingly always on the move at Liberty. She hustles greeting the early-bird arrivals at first light and seeing-off the last stragglers at night. She’s outside, even in bad weather, supervising dismissal. She pops inside classrooms to casually survey things or to do formal observations. She’s a whirling-dervish presence at breakfast and lunchtime, seating kids, intervening in conflicts, confiscating contraband and picking up spills.

Displaying a warm paternal demeanor with kids, she makes a point of talking to them about their schoolwork and family. A daily ritual finds kids gathered around a mounted aerial photo of the Liberty hood, which Oberst turns into a lesson by having students identify their homes and area landmarks. Wherever she goes, whether eating with the kitchen staff or chatting-up teachers in the faculty lounge or sitting-in on meetings with the construction gang, she works her mojo as a cool schoolmarm for the new millennium who is down with today’s Generation Z hip-hopese. After all, one of her and husband Matt’s three sons is indie-rock musician Conor Oberst (known as Bright Eyes), who admires his mom’s compassion.

“She loves those kids so much. She wants to take care of them. She spent a good portion of her childhood not having very much, so she understands what it means to not have everything you need,” Conor explains. “Over the years there’s been kids she’s had special relationships with that she’s taken under her wing and had hang out with our family. She obviously has a great heart. She inspires me.”

Complicating the task of connecting with kids is the high mobility of families in the Liberty district — a mixed use ward of commercial-residential rental properties — that results in high student turnover. “Because we realize we’re not going to have them very long, we have to figure out ways to make kids feel welcome, comfortable and engaged,” she says. “We have to stay focused and be able, for however many days we have them, to make an impact.”

Oberst, who taught special ed before joining the administration ranks, makes clear just how much of a gap her students must overcome. “We don’t think many of our children have Internet access or even a computer or books in their home. For a lot of our kids we are their medical provider because families can’t afford a physician or lack health coverage. We’ve paid rent and utility bills and we’ve bought food for families in real desperate need.” Like at Jackson, Oberst has formed an emergency supplies cache to provide indigent families with everything from food and clothes to personal hygiene items. Liberty also acts as a referral center by directing families to social relief agencies.

Whatever obstacles kids face, Oberst refuses to lower student achievement goals because she feels that would send the wrong message.

“We can’t make excuses. We can’t say, Oh, this must be the reason why they can’t achieve. All that does is put people down and not encourage them to be what they can be. All of us have to believe in high expectations for kids” she says. “We need to always stay focused on what our real mission is and that is to make our kids competitive — to win as many awards as other kids. Recently, we took six children to the city-wide spelling bee and our children did very well. Two of them made it to the state competition. It’s all about where we think we can be. That we can have kids as competitive and that read as well as other kids. Our counselors tell them, ‘So what if English is not your first language? Don’t say you can’t, honey, look at what you can do — you’re speaking two languages. That’s even better…you’re even brighter.’”

 

 

The new Liberty

 

 

Attitude is everything with Oberst, who according to staffer Linda Daly infuses a “we-will-get-it-done” mantra at the school.

“She has such a positive outlook,” Daly says. “If you doubt you can do something she asks you to do, she’ll say, ‘Of course you can do that.’ Like anything else, there’s been growing pains, but Nancy will make it happen here, plain and simple.”

Oberst’s infectious enthusiasm, combined with her talent for networking, promoting and relationship-building, has brought in many benefactors, partners and extras for the school in terms of dollars, programs, in-kind services, supplies and opportunities. Her track record for eliciting support and for launching new schools in inner city environs, as she did at Jackson, is what led Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to tab her for Liberty.

“Her expertise in working with children and families of diverse backgrounds and educational needs, her experience in starting up new schools and her passion and love for creating school-community partnerships is what made her an excellent candidate,” Mackiel says. Then there is the long-stated desire of Oberst, who enjoys the process of “creating a school culture” from the ground up, “to be in an urban setting. That’s where I want to be. I’m a sort of in-the-trenches person.”

Typical of her pro activeness, she turned what could have been a negative at Liberty, namely the lack of a gym and stage, into a positive by forging ties with the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People that allows students to access those facilities for recreation and drama.

With Liberty located amid a rough business district trafficked by street denizens and in what has become a major construction zone between the ongoing Drake Court renovation and work on the new school, safety issues have surfaced. She has largely quelled those concerns by working with the southeast Omaha police precinct and neighborhood associations to increase cop and adult safety patrols. As the new school begins taking shape, she intends on making the construction site an educational experience by leading groups of kids, in hard hats, to view the progress of Liberty’s future home.

Demographically-speaking, the future is now at Liberty, where diversity is not a buzz word but a simple reality. A tour is a multicultural immersion into an American microcosm — with brown, black, yellow and white faces commingling, colorful folk art hanging and Spanish and English phrases given life through singing, speaking and printing. Oberst embraces the heady brew of this ethnic stew. “I think it makes us all more worldly, more global, more able to really perceive the world as it is,” she says, “and to me that adds such richness and weaves such broader thought. We become bigger people. And I think that’s why diversity is a great experience for children to have. They learn to appreciate the differences in people.”

The next big thing for Liberty is the March 2004 opening of its new 600-plus student capacity building. In the neat symmetry of an old neighborhood reinventing itself, the warehouse Liberty occupies could see reuse as an arts-media center, the Drake Court may spur area renewal and the school should be an anchor of hope and a catalyst for change.

Oberst envisions attracting more students of middle-class parents, including those working downtown, thus bringing more economic diversity to the mix. “There’s a lot of excitement about the new building,” she says. “It will be more convenient than what we have here, but I think convenience is overrated, personally. It’s sort of fun to problem-solve.”

Always one to jones for challenges, she expects more as more students-in-need enroll. Despite “the great needs,” she says, “there’s also great joy” at Liberty. “Everyone just kind of gets pulled in.” Like the staffer who paid for a Statue of Liberty replica mounted on a pedestal outside the main offices. A fitting symbol for a school providing opportunity and for a headmistress embodying Lady Liberty herself.

Returning To Society: New community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

July 2, 2011 3 comments

Having posted an awful lot of fluff or soft journalism stories lately, I thought it time to present something completely different, as in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on reentry programs that work with offenders to prepare and guide them for what is hopefully their successful reintegration in society. I don’t tackle many serious or hard subjects like this, but I do enjoy the challenge. As freelancing for newspapers and magazines in Omaha does not pay well, I can never justify devoting the amount of research-reporting time such a story deserves. The compensation doesn’t come close as it is to compensating me for the time I invest, much less for the time I would like to invest.

 

 

 

 

Returning To SocietyNew community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

©by Leo Adam Biga

A somewhat different version of the story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As the doors of America‘s overcrowded prisons swing ever wider, sending more ex-offenders back into society, reentry‘s become a major focus nationwide, including Nebraska.

America has 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in prison. That number’s expected to rise with the cost of housing inmates amid already strained resources.

Nationally, thousands enter and leave the corrections system every day. Hundreds of thousands every year. As community corrections, early parole releases and probation sentences send more offenders back into society, there’s new emphasis on preparing them for release and supporting their transition. Nebraska, like the rest of the U.S., is navigating this flood of returnees.

 

 

Ray Kyles, You Are Not Alone

 

 

Not surprisingly, corrections is better at confining folks than “fixing” them, which helps explain why prisons see so many repeat offenders. A 2011 Pew Center on the States study found more than four in ten offenders return to state prison within three years of release. Nebraska does better than the national average, at about three in ten, but there’s concern too many end up back in the system or struggle on the outside, thus becoming a drain or risk.

For veteran reentry worker Teela Mickles, the problem is crystal clear. “Even individuals who’ve been in prison will say, ‘If you don’t get us before we get out, it’s a waste of time.’ This cold turkey stuff won’t work,” says Mickles, who works with inmates and parolees through her nonprofit Compassion in Action.

Two ex-offenders now working with returning citizens confirm reentry is an inside game that must start early on.

“Turning your life is very hard, take it from me,” says Ray Kyles, adding it was “only when I finally took an inventory of myself and seen what I was worth that I started transforming.” That change only came during his third and last stint in prison. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in order for a man or woman to be successful once they come out of prison they must start working within the moment they hit the prison system. It’s a learning process.”

“Transition starts on the inside,” says Garry Kern, who was incarcerated 13 years and is now a caseworker for Goodwill Partnerships. “It’s a mindset. That’s where change comes.”

There’s growing recognition of the importance of pre-release preparation.

“By helping an inmate get a high school diploma or GED, help them address their substance abuse and mental health issues, and by helping them become a better parent or learn a vocation, we are giving them a better chance to return to the community as a successful citizen,” says Nebraska Department of Correctional Services programs administrator Layne Gissler.

Reentry programs are voluntary for prisoners. “If waiting lists occur, generally the inmates who are closest to release are given priority for programming,” he says.

 

 


Teela Mickles, Compassion in Action

 

 

Ideally, pre-release programs lead to changed attitudes and behaviors inside that persist on the outside. That’s the expressed goal of the UNO Transformation Project. Using The Autobiography of Malcolm X and motivational interviewing as talking points, facilitators encourage inmates to take stock and develop personal life plans. The program, largely funded by UNO grad John Morgan, works with inmates on addressing six stability domains:

housing

employment

education

substance abuse

mental health

social networks

“So, your family, your friends, your health, the people you hang out with,” says project manager Nicole Kennedy, who wrote the curriculum. “We picked those six areas because the research tells us for every one one of those areas you can help stabilize somebody in, you see a reduction in recidivism.”

She says project modules ask inmates to be self-reflective.

“We’re recognizing that until somebody has taken the time to sit down and actually think about who they are, what they value and what they want out of life, all that programming is not really being applied in the most productive manner. What we’re trying to do is get them to think a little more deeply about how do all these factors relate to what plan you’re going to have when you return to the community. We’re asking these guys to take a critical look at some personal and sensitive topics.

“I think a lot of prison programming is very narrowly skill based. What we’re trying to do is much more broad based. You can’t really think about your substance abuse in isolation of your employment or your housing or your social networks. All of these factors, while they have their own unique components, will be impacted by the others. So it’s going to be harder for you to stay sober and clean if you don’t have a job and you don’t have a place to live, because the life pressure that brings will eventually build up. Likewise, if you’re not managing your substance abuse it could be really hard to keep a job. If you’re dependent on your family to provide you housing and are couch surfing, that’s going to take its toll on family relationships.”

 

 

Nicole Kennedy, UNO Transformation Project

 

 

Kennedy credits Nebraska corrections officials for supporting a holistic model that serves inmates from the jump. She says there’s wide agreement the more inmates do to address their needs beforehand the more likely they are to make positive choices upon release.

“Corrections gives these guys a lot of tools and resources but this is kind of the mortar that holds those bricks together,” she says. “We’re really trying to get you to take all this information and apply it to yourself and your own unique circumstances.”

The Transformation Project refers its graduates to Ray Kyles and his You Are Not Alone program. Kyles is convinced accountability must first take root behind bars if an offender is to turn his or her life around.

“We need to start working with the choices you make in your life, We need to open your eyes up to what got you there. We need to get you to the point where you understand the trickle down effect of the crimes you may have committed — it’s not only hurting you, it’s hurting your family, it’s hurting the community. Until we understand the people we hurt we’ll still be wallowing in the world of that dumb shit of somebody owes me.”

Similarly, Teela Mickles says her reentry curriculum “is comprehensive and developmental in addressing the real issues in that individual for why drugs became an issue, for why crime became an issue. They have to understand, embrace and begin to work with the reasons why before they get out. That’s where job sustainability comes in, because an individual has to understand that there’s going to be a process of transition.”

Federal mandate and community advocacy are making reentry a priority in today’s more enlightened, research-based corrections field. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that involves law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, corrections officials, probation and parole officers, caseworkers and community-based service providers, both professional and volunteer.

The sheer volume of inmates has increased with get-tough policies in the war on drugs. Nebraska’s projected prison population for 2011 is 4,713, which is near where it’s hovered for several years. From 1995 to 2009 Nebraska’s overall incarceration rate per 100,000 adults increased from 185 to 245.

The cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals, most of whom are nonviolent, has become more of a burden in budget-strapped times. In line with national trends, Nebraska’s overall corrections spending has skyrocketed, from $72 million in 1995 to $181 million in 2010. Nationally, state corrections expenditures are an estimated $50 billion per year. Those costs don’t include what communities spend to house, train, educate, counsel, treat, employ and otherwise transition ex-offenders to law-abiding, productive lives. When a parent goes to prison there are “hidden” costs for welfare, foster care, legal services, family court.

In response to the unsustainability of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates public-private coalitions have pushed for more proactive reentry efforts both behind the wall and outside it.

The 2003 federal Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the 2008 Second Chance Act, both made hundreds of millions of dollars in grant monies available to reentry providers. Second Chance also established the National Reentry Resource Center, which offers education, training and technical assistance to providers, large and small.

These measures have brought new players onto the scene of a varied reentry landscape. In Nebraska, providers range in size, approach, scope and service area. Most are human-social service organizations or faith-based groups. The largest is Christian Heritage, a Lincoln, Neb. nonprofit that’s new to reentry yet has secured major Second Chance grants to fund programs that target reconnecting fathers with children and restoring families.

“The passing of the Second Chance Act has made some impact on our reentry efforts,” says Layne Gissler. For example, he says a new parenting program for incarcerated fathers administered by Christian Heritage “has been very beneficial.

“Outside of that,” he says, “our approach to reentry has remained the same. We utilize a multi-faceted approach that includes mental health and substance abuse programming, educational, vocational, parenting, life skills and other programs to address deficits. With the exception of the parenting program in our male facilities, these programs were in our facilities prior to passage of the Second Chance Act.”

The issue’s further come into focus through: a 2008 evaluation of Nebraska’s Serious and Violent Reentry Program by UNO’s School of Criminal Justice; the Douglas County Reentry Task Force, now reformed as the Reentry Initiatives Council; and the monthly Reentry Table Talk series at Metropolitan Community College.

Gissler said both the federal reentry initiative and the UNO study “helped educate, sharpen the focus and provide the necessary foundation for reentry in Nebraska,” adding, “There was a significant increase in the department’s long range commitment to reentry and the subsequent shift in emphasis based on risk.”

Increasingly, corrections works collaboratively with the community. The shared goal is reducing recidivism and improving quality of life outcomes. NDCS had fairly robust programs before, but is doing more with partners like UNO and Christian Heritage now that more dollars are available from Second Chance and other sources.

On the outside, ex-offenders encounter many hurdles piecing a life together in a fast-moving world that doesn’t cater to them. Jim Erwin of Christian Heritage advises inmates, their loved ones, sponsors and caseworkers work months in advance of release to line up leads on things like housing and employment. He and others working in the field say a safety plan and a support network is vital, The more on the margin someone lives, the greater the risk for recidivism. Substance abuse, family disputes or just being around negative influences can derail things.

“Folks can become very discouraged quickly if there’s not preparation,” says Mickles.

A big hurdle ex-offenders in Nebraska face is accessing vital records. There’s no central office to get a social security card, birth certificate, driver’s license, work permit. It presently takes days to obtain IDs from far-flung agencies. Support for a one-stop-shop is a hot topic and focus of the Douglas County Reentry Initiatives Council.

 

 

Douglas County Commissioner and UNO Transformation director Chris Rodgers

 

 

County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, who sits on the Council’s board, says Heartland Workforce Solutions in Omaha offers the framework for a one-stop-shop and the county’s seeking funds to help consolidate services for ex-offenders under the Heartland umbrella.

“There’s a need,” says Rodgers, who oversees the UNO Transformation Project. He says the Council looks at reentry in broad-based terms as well. “Our job is to identify issues and gaps and solve them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel.” If he’s learned anything it’s that successful reentry is up to the individual.

“It’s not magic, it’s hard work,” he says. “We’re not going to give you this yellow brick road outline to get there. What we do is lay you out a path with opportunity, but you have to put the work in.”

Ray Kyles of You Art Not Alone says, “Just like everything else, what you put in is what you get out. You become institutionalized the moment you get locked up by the police because from there on everything is given to you. Once you’re released from prison you still expect people to keep giving you. But what have you given yourself or what are you willing to give back to society? I’m not going to hold your hand, it just doesn’t work that way. I have a list of services gentlemen can go to for assistance. I get a hot jobs list every Monday.”

Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin says, “remember to empower, not enable” ex-offenders.

To that end, Metro produces a reentry resources book it distributes to correctional facilities and community service providers to give inmates, ex-offenders, caseworkers and sponsors contacts for statewide programs and services.

“If an ex-inmate has a job, place to live and family-community support,” says Gissler, “the odds he or she will return to prison are much lower. A pro-social network is needed upon release and this has been provided in part by civic and faith-based groups. They have teams set up to assist ex-inmates with securing housing and employment.”

Providers who establish bonds behind the walls are better placed to help offenders once they’re on the outside, say reentry veterans. Consistently being there builds trust. “People need to understand the more they make themselves visible and empower the individuals inside in preparation to come out,” says Mickles, “the more effective their reentry programs on the outside will be.” Neither her program nor any others work in isolation. None has the capacity to address every need.

“We cant do it alone,” Mickles says. “That person coming out needs a job, a place to live. They may need drug rehabilitation. They may need legal assistance to get their kids back. Things like that. We have to work with all the entities to assist that individual with all the areas they need to experience a successful reentry.”

As Mickles does Compassion in Action by herself, she acts as a clearinghouse by referring ex-offenders to needed services she doesn’t provide. Kyles works much the same way.

Regardless of size or resources, reentry providers work collaboratively.

“We all need each other, there’s plenty of pain to go around, and we all have our areas of expertise, and the better we work together the better the population will be served,” says Mickles, who’s hopeful about the momentum surrounding reentry. “In doing reentry here for 30 years this is the first time Omaha is really on task as far as working together and helping each other do what we do best.”

Recently, some facilitator associations and forums have emerged to help bring reentry players at the same table for enhanced communication and coordination. The Reentry Alliance of Nebraska is one. The Reentry Initiatives Council is another. Omaha’s Northeast Weed & Seed program held a spring reentry workshop at Metro that included representatives from the Omaha Police Department, Heartland Workforce Solutions and the Douglas County Department of Corrections as well as ex-offenders and their advocates.

 

 

Tommie Wilson, Reentry Table Talk

 

 

Since 2009 Metro liaison Tommie Wilson has organized the Reentry Table Talk the third Wednesday of every month. At the May 18 forum 48 attendees represented some two dozen organizations, including Eastern Nebraska Action Community Partnership (ENCAP). Some state corrections officials were there. Mickles was present. Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin was the featured speaker.

Erwin says he attends in order “to build relationships” with other providers. Diane Good-Collins, who with her husband Steve operates ReLeasT transition home for women in Nebraska City, says, “The relationships I’ve made in this room have helped people beyond this room. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that’s going to affect someone else.”

As an ex-felon, Good-Collins is among those who’ve “been there-done that” and now work with ex-offenders. Entrepreneur Rodney Prince is another, though his role is more as advocate and watchdog. His was among the few critical voices heard at the event as he challenged those present “to be coordinated and streamlined,” adding, “We need you to be on the same page.” Activist Eliga Ali and Black Men United president Willie Hamilton expressed concerns about the effects that mass incarceration of black males has on families and communities.

Wilson says some sessions can get rather heated. It’s all in the name of continued dialogue.

“We started out with four people talking about what we needed to do,” says Wilson, who has a grandson in prison, “and now the meetings average 45-50. I gather people here to talk about what’s going on with reentry, to bridge that connection to find out where resources are, to learn who’s doing what, to collaborate. I also bring to the table ex-offenders. If they’re having difficulties finding things they can connect with people and get into programs.”

Programs are one thing, reality is another. Because life happens, how an ex-offender responds to events or situations will ultimately determine his or her fate.

Rodgers cautions change is “not a one size fits all” proposition. “People transform in different stages.”

Mickles agrees, saying, “The term for each individual to experience success is quite different. Also, the definition for success is quite different. It may not be no recidivism. The person may need to reoffend in order to be successful. I’ve learned to redefine certain things.” She says a woman she worked with reoffended several times before going straight, “and she’s now giving back to the community in a major way” as a reentry provider.

Good-Collins, tells a similar story of a chronic reoffender who’s finally turned her life around. After hundreds of lock ups, then being homeless, Good-Collins says the client is now in a stable home environment and working. “She got her first paycheck in over 30 years. She’s doing awesome.”

“With that individual acceptance and lack of preconceived anything,” Mickles says, “individuals tend to find themselves. But society needs to know there is a cost.”

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

June 23, 2011 6 comments

Supremely talented photojournalist Don Doll, a Jesuit at Creighton University in Omaha, has been documenting the human condition around the world for five decades, shooting assignments for national magazines and for the Society of Jesus. He’s also a highly respected educator and benevolent mentor. The handful of times I have communicated with him over the years invariably finds him just returned from or prepping for his next jaunt to some faraway spot for his work. Now in his 70s, he has more than kept up with the technological revolution, he’s been on the leading edge of it in his own field, where he long ago went all digital and began practicing the much buzzed about convergence journalism that now routinely sees him file assignments in stills and video and for print, broadcast, and Web applications. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from a few years ago and is one of a few pieces I’ve done on him and his work that I’m posting on this blog.

 

Don Doll

 

 

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When noted photojournalist Don Doll leaves Omaha on assignment, he generally goes to document the travails of poor indigenous peoples in some Third World nation and what his fellow Jesuits do to help alleviate their misery. The all-digital artist shoots both stills and video. Last spring the Creighton University journalism professor, named 2006 “Artist of the Year” (in Nebraska) by the Governor’s Arts Awards, reported on peasant conditions in Ecuador and Colombia with writer-photographer Brad Reynolds, whom he’s collaborated with for National Geographic stories.

Always the teacher, Doll will share his expertise in a Saturday Joslyn Art Museum class from 9 a.m to noon in conjunction with the Edward Weston exhibit. His work can currently be seen at: the Boone County Bank in Albion, Neb., where photos he shot along the historic Lewis & Clark trail are on display; and the Sioux City (Iowa) Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, where his Vision Quest, 76 images of men, women and sacred sites of the Sioux Nation, shows now through August. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Joslyn, among other museums.

Many of the images he’s filed in recent years chronicle the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which ministers to exiles around the world. Doll’s traveled to many JRS sites. He’s captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. He returned to Sri Lanka again last year to record the devastation of the tsunami and efforts by Jesuit Relief Service to aid families. He’s borne witness in Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and other remote locales. In 2005 he went to Uganda, where his words and photos revealed the “terrible” atrocities visited upon the Night Commuters of Gulu by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Doll estimates 15 million people are displaced from their homes by the war and the LRA. The human rights crisis there is but a small sample of a global problem.

“We don’t even know how many refugees there are in the world,” he said. “There’s probably 20 million internally displaced people and another 20 million who have been forced to leave their countries. I go to these terrible places in the world and try to tell the stories of people who have no other way to have their stories told.”

Making images of hard realities has “an effect” on him. “What does it do to you to photograph in these situations? I think it does something irreparable,” he said. “I mean, you carry those people inside all the time. It makes you aware of how poor people are and what awful things they go through.”

 

 

Chad, refugee

 

 

Even amid the horror of lost limbs and lives, hunger, torture, fear, there’s hope. He recalled an El Salvadorian woman who recounted how gunmen killed her daughter and four sons, yet declared, “‘I have to forgive them because I want God to forgive me.’ Well, the tears started coming down my eyes,” he said. “Here’s this poor, unlettered woman who lost five of her children in the El Salvador war and she’s saying, ‘I forgive them.’ Oh, my God, the insights the poor have.”

Balance for him comes in the form of the humanitarian work he sees Jesuits do.

“I try to tell what Jesuits are doing around the world in their work with the poorest of the poor. Not many people know this story of Jesuits in 50 different countries helping refugees. I’m so proud of being a Jesuit. I’m so impressed by these men,” said Doll, who celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit in 2005.

 

 

 

 

Two colleagues exemplify the order’s missionary work. One, Fr. Tony Wach, is the former rector at Omaha Creighton Prep. Wach aids refugees in Uganda, where he hopes to start a primary school and a secondary school and provide campus ministry for a nearby university. Doll tells his story in a new Jesuit Journeys magazine article titled “Fr. Tony’s Dream.” “He’s amazing,” Doll said.

The other priest, the late Fr. Jon Cortina, built the refugee town of Guarjila in El Salvador and began a program, Pro-Busqueda, to reunite war-displaced children with their families. Doll profiled his friend and ex-classmate on a “Nightline” special. Cortina educated many, even Archbishop Oscar Romero, to the plight of the poor. “Jon used to say, ‘We have the privilege of working with the poorest of the poor to help them.’ That’s what he loved about working up in Guarjila,” Doll said. “He loved those people and they loved him. He really lived the idea of liberation theology.”

Doll came to photography in the late 1950s-early 1960s as a young priest on the Rosebud (South Dakota) Sioux reservation, “where,” he said, “I discovered how to teach.” He said the experience of living and working with Native Americans, whom he made the subjects of two photo books, Crying for a Vision and Vision Quest, “changed my life. There’s something wonderful about being in another culture, being a minority and experiencing the values. It gives you a different perspective on your own culture because it enables you to see in a kind of bas relief your own cultural values and you can either recommit to them or reject them.”

The new values he’s assimilated give him a new understanding of family. “The whole kinship is a really beautiful thing about the Lakota people and how they hold one another in a very close relationship. That’s what you don’t see when you drive through ‘a rez,’ past a tar paper shack surrounded by cars that won’t run — you don’t see the powerful, beautiful relationships inside.”

Doll, who owns a tribal name given him by the Lakota Sioux, maintains ties with Native Americans, photographing an annual Red Cloud Indian School calendar featuring tribal children in traditional dress and mentoring students off ‘the rez’ at Creighton, where he’s proud of the school’s significant native population. He’s proud, too, of native students who’ve gone on to win major awards and jobs.

As much as he enjoys teaching, the pull of far away is always there. “I love to travel. My passion is to make pictures and to document visually what’s going on in the world,” he said. There are many places yet to visit. “I haven’t been to Russia, nor China, nor Australia, but I’ll get there.” His rich Jesuit journey continues.

Check out Doll’s work on his website magis.creighton.edu.

A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire

June 14, 2011 13 comments

Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale

 

One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story.  Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) will have to do.

 

 

A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.

The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.

Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”

The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”

Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”

Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center

 

 

The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others  predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).

Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.

For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.

She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”

Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.

 

 

 

 

Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.

She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.

A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”

Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

June 4, 2011 12 comments

My blog features a number of stories that deal with good works by faith-based organizations, and this is another one. Northeast Omaha’s largely African-American community suffers disproportionately in terms of poverty, low educational achievement, underemployment and unemployment, health problems, crime, et cetera. These challenges and disparities by no means characterize the entire community there, but the distress affects many and is persistent across generations in many households. All manner of social services operate in that community trying to address the issues, and the subject of the following story, Hope Center for Kids, is among those.  I filed the story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) and I came away impressed that the people behind this effort are genuinely knowledgable about the needs there and are committed to doing what they can to reach out to youth in the neighborhoods surrounding the center.

 

 

 

 

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

Northeast Omaha’s largely poor, African-American community is a mosaic where despair coexists with hope. A stretch of North 20th Street is an example. Rows of nice, newly built homes line both sides of the one-way road — from Binney to Grace Streets. Working class families with upwardly mobile aspirations live there.

Yet, vacant lots and homes in disrepair are within view. God-fearing working stiffs may live next door to gang bangers. To be sure, the good citizens far outnumber the thugs but a few bad apples can spoil things for the rest.

Endemic inner city problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, gun violence, unemployment, school dropouts and broken homes put a drag on the district. Church, school and social service institutions do what they can to stabilize an unstable area. Meanwhile, the booming downtown cityscape to the south offers a vista of larger, brighter possibilities.

One anchor addressing the needs is the faith-based nonprofit Hope Center for Kids. Housed in the former Gene Eppley Boys Club at 2209 Binney, the center just celebrated its 10th anniversary. An $800,000 renovation replaced the roof and filled in the pool to create more programming space. Four years ago the organization opened Hope Skate, an attached multi-use roller rink/gymnasium that gives a community short on recreational amenities a fun, safe haven.

In the last year Hope’s received grants from the Kellogg Foundation, the Millard Foundation and Mutual of Omaha to expand its life skills and educational support services. Additional staff and more structured programs have “taken us to a whole new level,” said founder/executive director Rev. Ty Schenzel.

Clearly, the 50,000 square foot, $1.2 million-budgeted center is there for the long haul. Hope serves 400 members, ages 7 to 19. Most come from single parent homes. Eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced price lunch at school. Hope collaborates with such community partners as nearby Conestoga Magnet Center and Jesuit Middle Schools, whose ranks include Hope members. University of Nebraska at Omaha students are engaged in a service learning project to build an employability curriculum. Creighton med students conduct health screenings. Volunteers tutor and mentor. Bible studies and worship services are available.

Some Hope members work paid part-time jobs at the center. Members who keep up their grades earn points they can spend at an on-site store.

Per its name, Hope tries raising expectations amid limited horizons. It all began a decade ago when two Omaha businessmen bought the abandoned boys club and handed it over to Schenzel, a white Fremont, Neb. native and suburbanite called to do urban ministry. He was then-youth pastor at Trinity Interdenominational Church., a major supporter of Hope.

Ty Schenzel

 

 

 

He first came down to The Hood doing outreach for Trinity in the mid-’90s. He and volunteers held vacation bible studies and other activities for children at an infamous apartment complex, Strehlow, nicknamed New Jack City for all its crime. He met gang members. One by the street name of Rock asked what would happen to the kids once the do-gooders left. That convinced Pastor Ty, as Schenzel’s called, to have a permanent presence there. In a sea of hopelessness he and his workers try to stem the tide.

“What we believe is at the root of the shootings, the gang activity, the 15-year-old moms, the generation after generation economic and educational despair is hopelessness,” he said. “If you don’t think anything is going to change and you don’t care about the consequences then you lose all motivation. You have nothing to lose because you’ve lost everything.

“Our vision is we want to bring tangible hope with the belief that when the kids experience hope they’ll be motivated to make right choices. They’ll start to believe.”

Schenzel said what “differentiates Hope is that the at-risk kids that come to us probably wouldn’t fit in other programs. The faith component makes us different. The economic development-jobs creation aspect. The roller rink.”

He said former Hope member Jimmie Ventry is a measure of the challenge kids present. Older brother Robert Ventry went on a drug-filled rampage that ended in him being shot and killed. Jimmie, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law, had a run in with cops and ended up doing jail time. Schenzel said, “One day I asked Jimmie, ‘How do I reach you? What do I do to break through?’ And the spirit of what Jimmie said was, Don’t give up on me. Don’t stop trying.” Hope hasn’t.

Schenzel said results take time. “I tell people we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, which I think is what Jimmie was saying. We’re now in our 10th year and in many ways it feels like we’re still starting.” Hope Youth Development Director Pastor Edward King said kids can only be pointed in the right direction. Where they go is their own decision.

“It’s one thing when they come here and we’re throwing them the love and it’s another thing when they go back to their environment and the drug dealers are telling them not to go to work,” he said. “We’re here telling them: You do have options; you can make honest money without the guilt and having to look over your shoulder; you don’t have to go to prison, you can graduate from school — you can go to college.

“We provide hope but the battle is theirs really. When you don’t believe you can, when everything around you is hopelessness, it takes a strong person to want to make the right choices.”

 

 

 

 

Chris Morris was given up as a lost cause by the public schools system. Hope rallied behind him. It meant long hours of counseling, prodding, praying. The efforts paid off when he graduated high school.

“The Hope Center helped me in a positive way. Just having them around gave me hope,” said Morris.

King said several kids who’ve thought of dropping out or been tagged as failures have gone on to get their diploma with the help of Hope’s intervention.

“It took a lot of hard work for people to stay on them and to push them through,” said King. “We’re so proud of them.”

The kids that make it invariably invite Hope teachers and administrators to attend their graduation. That’s affirmation enough for King. “It’s the thing that keeps me coming back,” he said. “When I hear a guy talk about how coming here keeps him out of trouble or makes him feel safe or that he enjoys hanging out with my family at our house, that lets me know we’re doing the right thing.”

For many kids the first time they see a traditional nuclear family is at a Hope staffer’s home. It’s a revelation. Staff become like Big Brothers-Big Sisters or surrogate parents. They go out of their way to provide support.

“Our staff go to kids’ games, they connect with them on the weekend, they’re involved in the lives of the kids. Pastor King’s house should probably be reclassified a dormitory,” Schenzel said.
King comes from the very hard streets he ministers to now. Like many of these kids he grew up fatherless. He relates to the anger and chaos they feel.

“It breaks my heart to see the killings going on. I couldn’t sit back on the sidelines and not do anything. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be here. I know what it’s like to have resentment for not having a dad around. A lot of the young men don’t have a positive male role model at home to be there for them, to discipline them.”

Hope educators work a lot on discipline with kids. Positive behavior is emphasized –from accepting criticism to following instructions. Hope slogans are printed on banners and posters throughout the center.

 

 

 

 

There, kids can channel their energies in art, education, recreation activities that, at least temporarily, remove them from bad influences. A Kids Cafe serves hot meals. King supervises Hope’s sports programs. “If we can get them involved in our rec leagues, then it’s less time they can be doing the negative things,” he said. “There’s nothing like the discipline of sports to keep a guy in line. We get a chance to teach life skills to the guys. “

Ken and Rachelle Johnson coordinate Hope’s early ed programs. An expression of the couple’s commitment is the home they bought and live in across the street.

“For me personally it’s not a job, it’s a ministry it’s a lifestyle, it’s our life.” Rachelle said. “We love being around the kids in the neighborhood. The kids deal with a lot of abandonment-neglect issues. They all have their own story. We wanted to say, Here, we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere, because it takes a long time to build relationships.”

Relationship building is key for Hope. Staff work with families and schools to try and keep kids on track academically. Programs help kids identify their strengths and dreams. To encourage big dreams teens meeting certain goals go on college tours.

“Increasingly we want to create this culture of connecting our kids to higher education,” Schenzel said.

Optional worship services are offered but all members get exposed to faith lessons through interactions with staff, who model and communicate scripture.

“Here’s our mantra,” Schenzel said: “You can only educate and recreate so long but unless there’s a heart change through a relationship with the Lord it’s putting a Band Aid on wet skin.”

Hope strives to have about 100 kids in the building at any given time. “Much more than that feels a little bit like a daycare. We don’t want to be a daycare. We want to do some transformation,” he said.

Schenzel sees “little buds of tangible hope going on” in what he terms Omaha’s Ninth Ward. He and residents wonder why “there’s seemingly an unholy bubble over north Omaha” preventing it from “getting in on the growth” happening downtown and midtown.” Those frustrations don’t stop him from dreaming.

“We would love to do mini-Hope satellites in the community, maybe in collaboration with churches, as well as Hope Centers in other cities. We envision an internship program for college students who want something to give their hearts to. We could then exponentially impact more kids. We want to create cottage industries that generate jobs and revenue streams. Some day we want to do Hope High School.”

Keep hope alive, Pastor Ty, keep hope alive.

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