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Partnership 4 Kids – Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers


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

 

 

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

 

BREAKING BARRIERS AND BUILDING BRIDGES

Transforming Communities…Fostering Life Beyond Limits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Monique Cribbs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mike and Gail Yanney

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mark Evans

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Deb Debeck

 

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

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

Evans applauds P4K for recognizing student achievement.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Miller Park Elementary

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lisa Utterback

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Earl Redrick

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tracy Wells

Tracy Wells

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being responsive to these needs requires a multifaceted approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.”

Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

October 13, 2010 3 comments

I did this story a couple years ago for the Jewish Press about Rebecca Herskovitz and her work as education coordinator at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.  She’s no longer with that organization but she’s still very much a part of the Omaha art scene, and the studio center where she did work is in the news because it recently had its grand opening and because work by its namesake, the late great American realist visual artist, Kent Bellows, is featured in an exhibition this fall at the Joslyn Art Museum.  Check out my other articles about Bellows, his legacy, and the studio center on this blog site.

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

If the art world has missionaries than Rebecca Herskovitz has found her calling as an art educator helping young people explore their creative potential.

She doesn’t look much older than the kids she works with at the new Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where she’s education coordinator. She came to Omaha from San Francisco a year ago to fill the post and after months of planning she launched the center’s first after school classes in early September with 21 students.

Two 16-week semesters are offered per year.

The education program matches students from metro area high schools with professional working artists in classic apprentice-style mentoring relationships.

The center, whose classes are being held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market until the center’s permanent home undergoes renovation, is named after the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. The noted Bellows, the subject of a future Joslyn Art Museum retrospective, was well-known for supporting young artists. His studio space on Leavenworth serves as the administrative base for the Kent Bellows Foundation and mentorship program.

Omaha native Anne Meysenburg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad, is executive director of the Bellows foundation and the Studio/Center for Visual Arts.

The studio where the iconoclastic Bellows lived and worked will eventually host classes and gallery shows once the interior is renovated. Largely preserved the way the artist left it, the studio will also be an archive for scholars. For now, field trips bring the kids on site to the Bellows space,. Everything from his eclectic personal belongings to elaborate backdrops he made to sayings he scribbled on walls adorn the converted storefront studio. It’s sacred ground for communion/inspiration.

“You feel like this is a place where something very special has been happening,” Herskovitz said there recently, “and to emulate that place of creativity and to be inhabiting it is absolutely contagious. It will be exciting to teach classes upstairs where those installations are and where the shrine that Kent made is. You can just feel it’s a place where magic was taking place. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing. I’m very excited about that.”

Meanwhile, Miss Becca, as she calls herself, leads her young charges in the bowels of the Bemis building at 724 So. 10th St. The basement’s formerly blank walls and exposed pipes-vents have been transformed into dynamic spaces for hanging art made by students and their mentors. She encourages students to make the environment their own  — a living, evolving expression of themselves.

“I want them to take ownership over those spaces and I believe in the art space becoming to a certain extent an art piece itself over time. You just want a space that feels alive.”

With just the right amount of evangelical zeal, Herskovitz is the Pied Piper for this new arts program whose mission is to live up to the standards of its legendary namesake and his fierce creative independence. An independent thinker herself, the Bellows position allows her to design programs from scratch that give students outside-the-box opportunities for artistic growth.

“I think I was ready to do something a little bit different — that allowed me to write my own curriculum,” said Herskovitz, who was teaching visual art at a special ed school in San Mateo, Calif. and making her own art before arriving in Omaha.

“When I’m making art and when I’m teaching it’s kind of the same feeling. It’s the feeling of when you have a calling — when everything else kind of fades away and you feel excited and don’t want to think about anything else, almost to the extent where you forget to think about other things and two hours pass and you realize you haven’t moved from the same position.”

Prior to San Francisco, the Newton, Mass. native taught art at a public high school (in Worcester) while earning her master’s in education. When she read about the Bellows opportunity she knew it was the right niche for her.

“I really gravitated towards the mission, which is so linked to creativity, and that really fit with my own teaching philosophy,” she said. “And then I just really loved the idea of a new arts organization just getting started. It’s a really special thing to be part of making a place that you would have wanted to be in when you were in high school. I wish there had been a program like this for students interested in the visual arts. And as a teacher I wish I had been in an area where there was a program like this for me to recommend my students to.”

She said breaking away from the prescribed confines of public school educational approaches is what the Bellows project is all about. It’s liberating for Herskovitz and her students to not be driven by the kind of test score mentality and conventional thinking that she said results in “very limiting” curriculum in the public schools. Instead of “putting up obstacles to people having innovative thought,” she said, the Bellows model Is “founded on the idea of finding and nurturing those individual creative sparks in young people.”

Unlike a public school setting, where she said kids are apt to “get lost” in large classes, the small Bellows program ensures “individual attention.” “The student-teacher ratio is extremely close and that’s vital. That’s what’s going to allow us to give something to different to kids than what they can normally receive.”

The task of selling this new program to high school art teachers, who’ve become her best recruiters, proved difficult at first. Herskovitz received few replies to an e-mail she sent teachers over the summer announcing the program. She finally got the captive audience she craved when invited to make a presentation to teachers during an OPS professional development day.

“It took a little while to explain what we’re doing and it took teachers a little while to realize this is something really new and really different,” she said.

Before long, she was invited to classrooms to make her pitch directly to students, who she said quickly recognized the program’s benefits. More than 50 applied. She was prepared to start the program with 12, but, she said, “we had so many fantastic applicants that we’re above and beyond that with 21 kids.” A whole new class was conceived to accommodate the larger than expected numbers.

As anticipated, a large number of students are from Omaha Central, whose downtown location is mere blocks from both the Bemis and the Bellows studio. Other schools represented include Bryan, Burke, Westside, Duchesne and Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln. She feels students will come from a wider geographic area once the program offers transportation.

A goal for a diverse student mix has been met.

“We wanted our program’s demographics to look like OPS’ demographics and we match up perfectly with that,” she said. “My vision of a really healthy classroom is one where there is a lot of heterogeneity of all things — in terms of learning styles, ethnicities, ages and the neighborhoods they come from.”

What does she look for in prospective students?

“We’re just looking for a creative energy and kind of a passion for trying new things and wanting to have a role in their own education. We’re not looking for past experience. We’re not looking for some particular skill-set.”

The selection process involves an essay and an interview. She makes a point of meeting applicants’ parents or guardians.

“I think parent support is a huge deal.”

She encourages parents to visit the site “to know where they’re kids are going to be hanging out.”

 

 

 

 

Herskovitz enjoys being on the ground floor of something different and she senses students and parents do, too.

“I think it’s a completely new take on arts education,” she said. “This is a place where you get to feel safe. This is your creative family, your artistic community. We’re continuing what Kent showed all of us — this very powerful form of teaching, which is the mentoring relationship. I hope our mentors push students to find their own footsteps.”

She believes the mentoring component is what distinguishes the Bellows program from other enrichment programs.

“It’s a program that takes place after school but it’s not a typical after school program,” she said. “Students are having the opportunity to work with professional artists in very close ratios one-on-one, where the emphasis in really on creative thinking and problem solving, and I think that focus is really different from a lot of other programs.

“I think the most powerful learning experiences happen when you’re able to have a mentor who stays with you and I think what allows teenagers to really open up is knowing that adult is going to be with them for as long as they want them to be. And our program is built so we can continue those relationships for as long as the student wants to be there participating in it.”

The art educator spent a fair share of her time in Omaha the past year steeping herself in the local art scene, casting her eye for potential mentors among the area’s deep pool of working artists. Her first crop of mentors represents a cross-section of Omaha’s best and brightest. There’s Mexico native Claudia Alvarez, a ceramicist, longtime art instructor and former Bemis resident artist. There’s Omaha native Bill Hoover, a painter, writer and musician who also works with kids at Liberty Elementary School. There’s Jeff King, a graffiti, street-inspired painter whose work incorporates text. King conducts art workshops with kids at Norris Junior High. And there’s painter Caolan O’Loughlin, an Irish emigre who’s done curatorial-consulting work for the Bellows and who has a teaching background.

Herskovitz completes the Bellows mentoring staff. Guest artists also make presentations-demonstrations. Bemis curator Hesse McGraw contributes to some classes. Herskovitz has students utilize the Bemis as a kind of living laboratory and resource center by studying-critiquing the art displayed in its galleries, poring over books in the well-stocked art library and visiting resident artists’ studios.

“The Bemis has been very generous,” she said in making its facilities available.

It may be a temporary home, but the Bemis couldn’t be a better fit. “It just matches up so well with our mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better set-up than to have art students immersed in a contemporary arts center where professional international artists are living and working.”

Even when the Bellows studio is in use she foresees the Bemis continuing to play a role in the program. It adds another layer of experience and can help the program accommodate more students in the future.

The historic Old Market and its rich social-cultural milieu becomes another venue for art stimuli. Mentors also bring students to their own studios and to the studios of other artists throughout the city and they make gallery visits together.

 

 

 

Herskovitz said she and her fellow mentors seek to deconstruct assumptions about education by finding teachable moments in all kinds of situations or settings.

“I think there’s a huge myth that you can’t teach art and I think it’s because of the way people think about teaching. They think of it as training or instilling this knowledge when really it’s more about facilitating thinking.”

What she’s in the process of trying to build is an environment where “young people become a learning community and bounce ideas off one another,” she said. “There’s a way to do that and with my curriculum that’s what we’re aiming to do. It’s structured within that to meet the individual needs of students.”

Sometimes, students work with mentors in workshop fashion on specific techniques or tasks, she said, and other times they break off to work on their own individual projects. Teachers move around the room, sharing observations and comments with students. Whenever possible, students interact with one another.

“Equal to what you see is what I hope you feel — that this is a place where these students feel really comfortable and can be themselves,” she said. “My goal is to create an art learning family. This is their chance, if they want to be someone different than they are in school, to be different when they’re here. If they need a different type of learning environment I hope this can provide that for them.”

She’s devised a sequence of programs/classes to engage students of varying abilities and interests.

“The artist-in-residence program is for older kids who are more advanced and are really ready to have more independent studio time and to meet one-on-one with a professional mentor. The studio thesis class is meant for 9th and 10th graders who feel themselves being pulled by the arts and are still kind of finding their voice. That’s more of a small group setting where kids can talk to each other and mentor each other along with the teacher.”

The gallery internship program provides students opportunities for organizing-curating-marketing student-mentor exhibitions. The program’s first exhibit, Versa Vice: Reflections of an Underground Society, opens Friday, Dec. 19 at the Bemis Underground. This showcase will reflect the work students have been making in class and the collaborative projects they’ve participated in with fellow students and mentors.

Ideally, Herskovitz said students will participate in several if not all of the program’s classes, progressing from beginner to advanced sessions, along the way getting exposed to different mentors and their varied philosophies, techniques, styles.

Although she didn’t have anything like the Bellows program in her upbringing, Herskovitz had her art-loving family.

“Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were very involved in the arts community. Growing up I would be set free to make art projects,” she said.

It was in high school her own passion for art bloomed and that’s one reason why she enjoys working with that age group. “I got very involved and inspired. I just couldn’t stop doing it.” Her dual passion for teaching began about the same time when she taught in an after school program.

She said even though her therapist parents, younger brother and extended family “don’t always understand my art, they have been so supportive. I feel really lucky for that.”

Before accepting the Bellows job Herskovitz researched Omaha’s arts community and she came away impressed. Now that she’s here carrying the banner for an arts organization bearing the name of an Omaha art icon she has an even deeper appreciation for things.

“Now being part of it it’s really wonderful to know these different organizations and different figures. I think maybe because of Omaha’s size you really can know people in the arts community and you really can make relationships. In San Francisco that was much harder. There wasn’t that sense of a supportive community. It was still kind of strangers operating in their own spheres.”

Omaha’s small-town-in-the-big-city character is just what Herskovitz has been searching for in forming an art family away from home.

“I love being here.”

Applications and inquiries may be made by calling 707-3979 or emailing Rebecca@kentbellows.org. Check out the web site at www.kentbellows.org.

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public.  As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies.  Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world.  Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored.  See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.

The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.

Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.

Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.

“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”

$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.

Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.

A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.

“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.

The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.

“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.

Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)

“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?'”

She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.

“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.

When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.

“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”

Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)

“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”

The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.

Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.

It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.

Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA Lose Home Base

October 3, 2010 8 comments

What's the lesson?

Image by The National Archives UK via Flickr

A frequent enough occurrence finds me reading about somebody in the local daily newspaper and my feeling an immediate connection to the person and what makes him or her tick.  Usually I am responding to a depth of passion the subject has for whatever that thing is that’s become a magnificent obsession in their life.  As a journalist, I then naturally want to take my own crack at telling the story.  That’s precisely what happened when I read about the subject of the two stories posted here, Gary Kastrick. At the time he was an Omaha high school teacher getting off the ground an ambitious history-social sciences program called Project OMAHA, which entailed Kastrick and students collecting, researching, and interpreting local history through multi-media projects.  Kastrick was an award-winning teacher who paired his love of education with his love of history.  Kastrick’s also a lifetime collector who has gathered countless artifacts of Omaha history.  His collecting increased after he started Project OMAHA.  He ended up creating an interactive museum at Omaha South High School that displayed materials he found and that others acquired or donated.  I followed Project OMAHA’s progress from afar, charting its ups and downs.  It was years before I finally caught up with Kastrick, and by that time his beloved project was in a tenuous state.  By the time I completed these two stories this year, one for the New Horizons and the other for El Perico, he had retired and the project retired with him. Thus, my stories are bittersweet in tone, because that’s how Kastrick feels after seeing his magnificent obsession became homeless after 12 years of pouring so much of himself into it.

 

 

Gary Kastrick holding Time Magazine with Omahan Johnny Goodman on the cover

 

 

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA Lose Home Base

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

One of Omaha’s most honored high school teachers retired at the end of this past school year, and with him a singular history project he gave his heart to retired with him.

In 1999 then-Omaha South High social studies teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies), an innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, which happens to be his alma mater.

After announcing the project and inviting the public to come forward to have their oral histories recorded and to donate artifacts, the positive response that followed took him by surprise.

“We got floods of people and floods of material. A lot of stockyards people came forward,” said Kastrick. “What we have the most material of is the stockyards. I’ve got tons and tons of material.”

But he soon realized his little project struck a chord well beyond the stockyards and South Omaha to include all kinds of people with stories to tell about many different segments of the city.

“There was no rhyme of reason to the people that came down and interviewed. We have such a diversity of people on tape.”

The history and memorabilia added to what Kastrick had been acquiring himself for years. With a museum to put it in, he ramped up the collecting.

“I never expected it to happen like this,” he said, “but stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap. I mean, I almost had to literally stop (collecting) because it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Stuff soon jam-packed the subterranean room given over to the project at South. Every last inch utilized. As far back as two years ago he ran out of space, saying then, “I’ve basically used about every inch of space I can in this room. I’ve got hundreds of artifacts more than this. I’ve got stuff in the back of this room, in storage places…I don’t know what to do with all of it I’ve got so much.”

The interactive space encouraged South High and visiting students to pore through the collection. It was harder for the general public to access the project since it was housed in a functioning school, making it perhaps the only museum in a school anywhere, but occasional open houses were held and tours could be arranged by appointment.

It was a sight to see. Photographs and descriptive panels put history in context. Remnants from famous buildings that no longer exist were exhibited. A popular exhibit recreated one of the famous Christmas window displays of the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store.

“We had an open house here one Christmas and people flocked. We had this place packed. They literally cried in front of the window and started telling their Brandeis stories,” said Kastrick.

Instead of static displays of history that remained distant, this was hands-on, up-close history that students were encouraged to use in multi-media projects that repurposed the material as teaching tools for elementary school students. Working under Kastrick’s direction, South students produced children’s books and videos based on oral history interviews and made these available to 3rd grade teachers and their students.

South students variously described Kastrick as “making history fun” and Project OMAHA as being “different than a regular class.” One student said, “It reminded me of my grandma’s house.” Indeed, it was like the ultimate grandma or grandpa attic overbrimming with things.

While OPS never mandated teachers utilize the project, some 3rd grade classes did make regular treks down there. He enjoyed giving tours of historic Omaha to youths, especially suburban kids who rarely venture that far east. The tours obviously energized him because once he had a captive audience he suddenly turned spry, animated guide and Pied Piper leading his charges up and down South 24th Street or through Prospect Hill Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

His goal was instilling in children an interest in history they could carry wherever they went. On a 2009 tour for Pinewood Elementary students he told the 8-year-olds to note the names and dates on buildings:

“What I really want you to learn is how to look at buildings or how to look at historical places. By the time we’re through here you should have a real good history of this area without even opening a book. Now when you go around the city you have to look for clues on what might have been there at one time.”

 

 

South 24th streetscape today

 

 

Mr. K, as kids call him, always has a story about whatever site he stops to show a group. He often interjects personal anecdotes, like as a boy his hunting rats around the packing plants or his selling bologna sandwiches to livestock haulers stuck in the long procession of trucks waiting to unload their cargo at the stockyards.

“I love the 3rd graders because they’re at that age where they still have that vim and vigor for things, and they still have that appreciation.”

He still leads a popular South Omaha tour for the Durham Museum and even in retirement he may lead school tours again because of all the requests he gets from teachers. Teachers love how Kastrick’s own childlike passion for history, combined with colorful information, resonates with kids. Teachers refer to the project as “a great asset.”

The interpretive center he created within South was his playground. He loved having his own students as well as visiting students immerse themselves in it. Besides the children’s books/videos South students created, an original opera, Bloodlines Sings of South Omaha Immigrants, was drawn from the historically-based narratives South students gathered about the community’s immigrant experience. Former South teacher Jim Eisenhardt took those stories and enlisted then-Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France and composer-in-residence Debra Fischer Teaser, along with local theater director Kevin Lawler, the Omaha Symphony and local actors and dancers ,to collaborate with South students on the product. It had its world premiere in 2001.

The opera showed the potential of Kastrick’s project.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” Kastrick said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities. I’m going to miss that, I’m going to miss the activities, I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and trying to educate people about local history.”

Designed as a multi-media learning experience for students at South, an arts and technology magnet school, the project provided opportunities to hone computer, video, Photo-Shop, editing and writing skills. All that activity is suspended now, leaving many unfinished projects and unrealized dreams. Hundreds of taped interviews need transferring to DVD. Kastrick wanted to publish many stories people shared. He wanted to see completed new book/video projects abandoned as students graduated or funds ran dry, including a planned four-set animated history DVD.

The school and school district helped underwrite the project at times, including a technology upgrade. But Kastrick’s vision and ambition seemingly went beyond where South or OPS were prepared to go. The limbo position the project inhabited was perhaps best summed up by spokeswoman Luanne Nelson, who described it as an “unofficial but valuable resource.”

Much recognition came Kastrick’s way for his efforts in the classroom and with extracurricular activities, including an Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award. Shortly before retiring the Omaha Optimist Club honored him for his work with the organization’s Academic Decathlon competition. In September he received the Nebraska State Historical Society’s James C. Olson award for his contributions to preserving local history through Project OMAHA.

Despite considerable media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded. Chalk it up to a mid-life crisis or to the divorce proceedings he was embroiled in.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser was commissioned to fashion a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he told a reporter, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into an already cluttered storage site.

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture, display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he and others value.

Upon retiring, he grew his gray hair out and sprouted a full beard, giving him a Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. He wasn’t letting himself go, instead he was getting into “character” for his gritty South O tours.

Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That task was put on hold when he had hip replacement surgery, followed by a bout of pneumonia. He may be getting his other hip done. For now then, the collection gathers dust, a sad end to a proud program that seemingly came out of nowhere but that was the culmination of a lifetime fascination.

He and former colleague Dean Flyr conceived Project OMAHA. Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on. Officially, the project was an adjunct to Kastrick’s teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced.

After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. That precarious position left it at the whim of administrators. It’s why he was always scrounging to keep it going.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

 

 

Omaha South High School

 

 

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch at 23rd and M. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive for the project.

Luanne Nelson said that after some preliminary discussion the district decided not to get involved in acquiring the old South O library for OMAHA.

Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

He also wanted to to establish an endowment that put the project’s operations on sound financial footing well into the future. With the project disbanded, it seems a moot point now. A part of him is prepared to move on and let the project rest in mothballs, but another part of him is holding out hope a patron will step up and provide a new lease on life. A grant that Metropolitan Community College is seeking could provide a lifeline for a new exhibition space. He’s not holding his breath though.

He sometimes ponders what might have been. He wonders if the project’s scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt its chances of being endorsed. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make it a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

It was all proof to him that no one cared as much about the project as he did.

His laments are remindful of Bertha Calloway’s. Her grassroots Great Plains Black History Museum struggled on the north side just as Kastrick’s did on the south side. Like him, she found some support but ultimately felt betrayed when she couldn’t get the museum on solid enough ground to secure its future. It’s now closed. The materials Calloway worked so long and hard to accumulate have no permanent home. Kastrick long feared a similar fate for the materials he collected should things not work out and the project forced to move.

For Kastrick, as for Calloway, it’s a legacy thing. It’s about preserving heritage and history for future generations. It’s about saving a lifetime of work. They know without preservation their work’s likely lost forever. After the GPBHM closed, Calloway’s legacy lay in storage for years and only recently a portion of the collection has been archived at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to Kastrick you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his late custodian father Leo Kastrick on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

His father was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this.”

His dream was to have a large enough space to accommodate groups who could come tell their stories — of working at the Martin Bomber plant or dancing at Peony Park or playing the ponies at Ak-Sar-Ben or shopping at the downtown Brandeis department store — and make digital recordings of them.

He rues not having a venue or apparatus for collecting this history. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

He regrets, too, not having a space where all his stuff can be displayed. His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units overflow with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

As a fresh young teacher at Bancroft Grade School in the ‘70s he struggled connecting with its at-risk kids. With the old school slated for closure officials wanted to document its history. He volunteered himself and a group of students to do the job. He peeked students’ interest by telling them their old urban digs were where Omaha began.

“We looked through old city directories and found the original Bancroft school building. One of the kids was actually living in it. Sure enough, downstairs was a blackboard. That intrigued me and so then I thought, Let’s do all of South 10th Street. What I saw happening from this was the kids got a whole different perspective of their own neighborhood. This was no longer ‘Aw, they’re just a bunch of old beat-up houses,’ but instead, ‘Somebody famous lived here’ and ‘This company started there.’ They really got into it.”

Noting how history helps kids see with new eyes, he made it his educational focus.

“When I came to South I put into progress the first local history class” in OPS, he said. “By 1987 I had an Omaha history class.”

Twelve years later Project OMAHA was born. He and Dean Flyr were already thinking about a history project when the stockyards announced it would close in 1999, prompting the pair to have students chronicle its rich past. A World-Herald article on the fledgling project and the educators’ interest in recording stories elicited a huge response.

He and South students sought out artifacts for display, conducted oral/video history interviews and researched various facets of local history to inform educational products they produced. He also accepted materials brought in by staff and the public — artifacts, books, photos, newsreel film. The memorabilia documented everything from the history of organized sports in Omaha to the early struggles for civil rights here.

Kastrick even salvaged the last standing cattle pen from the now defunct Omaha stockyards, which once claimed the title of world’s largest livestock market. He regards the pen as if a holy relic.

“A lot of people wanted this wood,” he said, caressing it. “It took me awhile to get that out of there.”

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Even though the project is homeless and he’s short on space, he still collects things, like Omaha Knights hockey memorabilia he recently came into possession of, adding to his already extensive Omaha sports collection.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

But his heart isn’t in it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories and artifacts to cultivate. It sickens him the old ballpark will soon be gone. He covets a row of grandstand seats.

Beyond that, there’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading South Omaha tours. Besides, people just won’t let him alone, always calling or emailing with requests for tours or Omaha history tidbits. He’s always happy to oblige because in truth he’d be disappointed if people didn’t contact him for his expertise. It’s his passion.

Project OMAHA may now be only a heap of junk in the dark, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

If there’s anyone out there who’d like to help it find a home, Mr. K will gladly listen. Sure, he’s tired, but he’s not dead.

El Perico cover/Reader culture story on Gary Kastrick and Project Omaha

Story sources: interviews w/Kastrick, visits to Project Omaha and his home, etc.

Photo contacts: Kastrick, 905-2538

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, Loses the Home to His Beloved Project OMAHA But His Magnificent Obsession Still Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

In 1999 then-Omaha South High teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies). The impetus for this innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, also his alma mater, was the Omaha stockyards’ closure. The focus soon extended to all Omaha history.

After announcing the project, he said “stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap…it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Artifacts were displayed in a subterranean room at South. In the jam-packed space, South students pored through the collection and, using computer technology, created history materials for 3rd grade teachers in the Omaha Public Schools. Teachers brought their classes to South.

Kastrick loved leading history tours: at the project’s digs; along South 24th Street; at Prospect Hill Cemetery. The activity energized him.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” he said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities.”

Despite media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser fashioned a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he said, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into a storage site already cluttered with excess.

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture , display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he values.

Unbound by school rules, he’s grown his gray hair out to shoulder-length, giving him a mad Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That months-long task must wait until he recovers from hip replacement surgery and pneumonia.

He thought up and did Project OMAHA with former colleague Dean Flyr. Along the way Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on.

Officially, the project was an adjunct to his teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced. After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South High project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. He was always scrounging.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found for the collection. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive deal for the project. Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

It seems a moot point now.

He wonders if the scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt the project’s chances of being embraced. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make OMAHA a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site he launched was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to him you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his custodian father on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

 

 

Gary Kastrick with some of his collection

 

 

His old man was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this,” he said, taking in what’s left of the project, caressing the last stockyards pen salvaged from the Omaha Livestock Market as if a holy relic.

Objects are one thing, interviews are another. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units over-brim with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

But his heart isn’t it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he recently obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories to cultivate. He covets a row of grandstand seats. There’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him that would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading his Gritty City tours. Besides, teachers clamor for him to resume his Old Omaha jaunt. He won’t commit, saying only, “I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and the activities and trying to educate people about local history.”

Project OMAHA may be in moth balls, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

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August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Three years ago I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the first Cristo Rey high school in Omaha.  It’s a school where the students, mostly inner city Hispanic and African-American kids from families of little means, are required to work an office job to help defray the cost of tuition. The job is also an important learning avenue, exposing students to environments and experiences they would likely otherwise not see and helping them develop skills they likely otherwise wouldn’t feel compelled to cultivate. My story focuses on two students in the school’s inaugural freshman class, a Hispanic named Daniel and an African-American named Treasure. Although each tried to downplay it, their attending the school meant a great deal to them and their families.  I may revisit the story of these two young people and their school next spring, when Daniel and Treasure, both of whom are doing quite well in the classroom and at the work site I am told, are set to graduate.

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: As updates go, this one is decidedly sad:  In early February the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha announced that St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School will close at the end of the 2010-2011 school year due to the school incurring a $7 million deficit in its brief four-year history.  It seems the school was never really able to gain enough traction, in terms of numbers of students enrolled. There was a high turnover of students who could not or would not follow the school’s strict standards. Ultimately though the recession of the last three years may have dealt the biggest blow because the school could not find or maintain enough jobs with local employers for its students to work once the economy sagged, thus severely cutting into the revenues the school needed to operate.  Without those jobs, which defrayed the cost of tuition, some families simply could not afford what it cost for their children to attend.  The more financial burden the school and the archdiocese took on to cover the gap and the shorter the school came to meeting its enrollment projections the more untenable the situation became.  I will be filing a story in the spring that revisits the stories of Daniel and Treasure — who were part of the school’s first freshmen class and will now be part of its first and last senior class.  With the impending closing it becomes a poignant, bittersweet story for all concerned, but it doesn’t diminish the quality educational experience students experienced.

St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey, A School Where Dreams Matriculate

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Few school startups have attracted the attention of St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey. From the time plans for the new Catholic high school in south Omaha were first announced in 2005 through the end of its first academic year next week, the institution’s captured public imagination and media notice.

Claver’s housed in the former St. Mary’s school building at 36th and Q Streets, within walking distance of the historic stockyards site, Hispanic eateries and markets and Metropolitan Community College’s south campus. The Salvation Army‘s Kroc Center is going up down the road where the Wilson packing plant used to stand.

 

 

 

That the school’s elicited so much response is largely due to its membership in the national Cristo Rey Network, a branded nonprofit educational association based in Chicago. 60 Minutes profiled it. The private CR urban schools model gives disadvantaged inner city children a Catholic, college prepatory education and requires they work a paid internship in white collar Corporate America.

Wages earned help defray students’ tuition and provide schools a revenue stream. Member schools share 10 mission effectiveness standards. Staff from CR schools around the nation attend in-service workshops.

Cristo Rey’s pairing of high academics with real life work experiences is why the network’s grown from one to 19 schools in less than a decade. Three more will open their doors next fall. The model appeals to families who otherwise can’t afford a private school, much less expect their kids to work paid internships. Communities are also desperate for alternatives to America’s public education system, where resources for urban schools lag behind their suburban counterparts. Students of color in inner city public schools struggle, fail or drop out at higher than average rates. Relatively few go on to college, much less complete it, and most lack employability skills beyond low paying customer service jobs.

So when something new comes along to offer hope people jump at it. That’s what the Mayorgas and Andersons did. The Omaha working class families, one Hispanic and one African American, fit the demographic profile the school targets. Claver’s kids mostly come from poor Hispanic or black households qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program.

Some whites, black Africans and Native Americans also attend. CR schools typically serve small enrollments. Claver’s no exception with 67 students.

The Mayorgas and Andersons saw the school as a gateway they couldn’t pass up. After year one their views haven’t changed. Each family sends a child there. Daniel Mayorga and Treasure Anderson are both honor roll students.

Claver internship director Jim Pogge said it’s easy to see how much this means to families. “I participate in almost all of the application interviews and the hope in the parents’ eyes is evident.”

Families also find appealing the prospect of being in on the ground floor of a new kind of school, a theme embodied by the Claver team nickname, Trailblazers. A sign in front of the school reads, “Become a Trailblazer.” A symbol and legacy in one.

“We call ourselves Trailblazers for all kinds of different reasons,” Pogge said. “This is a trailblazing school, the students are trailblazers in their own lives.”

Daniel Mayorga said, “We’re kind of proud we’re the first class. I guess it makes us feel more special.” Among the downsides, he said, is that Claver “doesn’t offer all the classes I wanted.”

School president Rev. Jim Keiter said Claver’s expanding its courses and staff, hiring full-time music, art and reading teachers for next fall and adding CAD drafting, culinary arts and Microsoft certification classes as early as spring ’09.

 

 

Fr. Jim Keiter

 

 

Christopher Anderson made his daughter, Treasure, among Claver’s initial enrollees last summer. He liked the idea of her being in a school “totally different than what she’s been used to. The structure, the dress, the work ethic. I mean, I wish I could have gone to a school like this. And then you get to thinking she’s going to be part of the first class,” he said, beaming.

Each Claver student works a full-time shift once a week, plus one extra day per month. The school day runs from 7:50 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. Most students stay after school an hour or two. On work days, a student reports to school, is taken by cab to his/her 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job and then returned to school. It might be 6 before they get home.

The curriculum includes a mandatory business class addressing office skills and etiquette. Students apply classroom lessons to the workplace. Back at school they share on-the-job experiences with fellow interns. Pogge works closely with the 22 employer partners in Claver’s Hire-4-Ed program. Student job performance is reviewed and graded. Pogge said, “It’s real. They can get fired.” That’s happened. In those cases students get retrained for new jobs.

“All of our students have to work in order to make this thing work. They have to be employable. The work component actually drives the school,” he said.

Claver sets the tone in the summer with a mandatory three-week long boot camp orientation that introduces students to school-workplace expectations.

When kids can’t or won’t meet expectations they’re asked to leave Claver. A number have been expelled.

“We have a very rigorous academic program. I mean, it’s college prep. There’s no deviation. It’s very linear in its focus. We also have this work component that’s very demanding. These kids have to perform but not everyone’s up to that task. Personally, I have kids this age and I wonder how they would do,” Pogge said.

On the whole, he said, the work study program’s met expectations. “We have had bumps, but we have had far more successes. As of February, 82 percent of our students received ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ job performance ratings.”

Students who do well on the job invariably gain confidence and maturity.

“We see it in changed behaviors here at school,” Pogge said. “They’re all of a sudden more focused, engaged. They communicate more effectively. They’re kind of coming out of their shell.”

Signs that Treasure’s growing up have surfaced since she started at Claver.

“She’s pretty mature. She missed a day of work, which they’re required to make up, and she made the arrangements without me asking her,” Anderson said.

Parents also like the strict dress code. Many students don’t. At Claver’s summer boot camp last August boys loosened or removed their required neck ties and girls pushed the envelope with revealing outfits. Staff reminders and reprimands were common.

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga made Daniel, their youngest child, an early enrollee. A bright boy with a sweet, outgoing personality, he previously attended public schools in south Omaha, where he, his two older brothers and his folks live in a snug bungalow within sight of Rosenblatt Stadium.

His Mexican immigrant parents work blue collar jobs. Their formal education is limited, as is their English. Daniel serves as interpreter. Translating for his mom, he said: “She wanted me to go to a school that was a different environment, a whole new experience. She says the work I’m doing and the interactions I’m having and the skills I’m learning will be really helpful to me in the future.”

His mother’s noticed a change in him now that he comports himself like a little man. “She says I try to correct myself more. She sees me setting more goals for myself. She likes how the school is more disciplined.”

Daniel enjoys being in a brand new school with few students and much diversity.

“It’s like you’re starting all over with a clean slate. You get to know a whole new group of people. You probably get closer to people because you’re going through the same thing…you get stronger relationships,” he said. “In this school you get to know different types of people. You get diverse friends. We’re all scattered. We’re from north Omaha, south Omaha, southeast Omaha. Everybody’s got their own story — where they live, how they grew up.”

He finds Claver more taxing than what’s he’s used to. “I put a bunch more effort into this school,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up a B or A. I come home tired.”

Treasure also finds Claver challenging. She said, “It’s not always easy or fun to get good grades but you have to. I’ve had to learn how to balance school and work. I’ve got responsibilities both ways.”

She and Daniel are keenly aware that “it looks good on a resume” to have a college prep diploma and professional internship among their credits.

Treasure’s native Omaha Baptist family has a history of Catholic education. Her dad and aunts attended Blessed Sacrament. Her aunts then went on to Dominican High. Treasure went a year at Sacred Heart, where her two younger siblings now attend.

Although she mostly attended public schools Treasure’s one year at Sacred Heart gave her an inkling of what to expect at Claver, where weekly Mass and daily religious instruction are the rule. In the end, she said, “it’s still kids. We get along, we don’t get along. It’s high school.”

Most of her friends now attend Marian, a school too pricey for her dad to afford. “I surely couldn’t,” he said. All her Claver tuition’s paid by her job earnings.

A shy, inquisitive girl with a big spirit, Treasure lives with her two younger siblings, her father and his girl friend in a big house on Florence Boulevard in North O. Her older sisters live on their own. The family attends Morningstar Baptist Church.

Her dad is separated from her mom, whom she sees regularly. Chris works at Walgreens. He’s battled kidney disease for 14 years. Last summer both kidneys were removed. He’s now awaiting a transplant. A grown step-daughter may be a match.

Claver Admissions Director Anita Farwell said Treasure hasn’t let her father’s illness stand in her way.

“I love how she keeps her mind focused. She’s not distracted. No excuses. She loves her father. She wants to succeed not only for him but also for herself. He’s a terrific man and he’s built it in her as well.”

Treasure has strong role models. One of her half sisters is in college and another’s gone back. An aunt’s in the Army. Her parents both have some college. Now Treasure’s a model for her little brother and sister. Twelve-year-old Tera and 7-year-old Trey Christopher can’t wait to join her at Claver. Anderson’s already determined they’ll be future Trailblazers.

 

 

 

 

Reporting to a job adds a new dynamic for Treasure and Daniel. They work in guest services at Immanuel Medical Center, where several Claver students intern. They variously escort patients/family members, answer the phone and do clerical tasks.

“It can be boring but it’s preparing us and that’s what we need,” Treasure said. “We’re not always going to like it but it’s the real world. It does help me with my communication and organizational skills. It’s helped me open up a little to people.”

Pogge said students get to see new worlds.

“These kids are now going into buildings they normally just drive by. Now they’re part of the process,” he said. “They’re exposed to jobs, professions they may have never thought of before, and they can transfer skills from one job or industry to another. Communication skills, attention-to-detail, punctuality, stick-toitiveness.”

The work’s not always cut-and-dried, either. In Immanuel’s Diagnostics and Procedures areas the interns interact with strangers — adult patients or loved ones. Worry is etched on people’s faces. Daniel said many of those he escorts remark on how young he is and a conversation inevitably ensues about the school. Staff say having Claver kids in this role disarms people, putting them more at ease. Daniel views it as a life skills learning experience.

“As you talk to them you get to know them and to know a whole different story. You feel so sorry for them and you want to do everything to help them,” he said. “I really do like helping people. That’s probably the most satisfying.”

Once, a woman broke down and cried in the arms of Treasure, who consoled her.

“I had to be there for her, I guess,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave her there. She was going through some hard times. Her husband wasn’t going to live. I’m not the best people person but I did learn I have to suck it up and just be there for people in order to help them.”

The incident reminded her of her father’s precarious condition.

“If my dad just died one day who would be there for me? You gotta give in order to receive. So I try my best.”

“She doesn’t like to talk about it but I’m a realist, I know on any given day,” said Anderson, his voice trailing off. “So I always tell her, You know if something was to happen to me you would kind of be the glue to hold them together,” he said, referring to her younger siblings. “If your sister or brother were doing something wrong you’d say, What would Daddy say? I’ve raised her enough now that she knows what I expect of her and them. We talk about real things.”

Same for the Mayorgas. The family was due to make their next pilgrimage to Mexico this summer but tight finances postponed those plans. His parents don’t hide the fact it’s a struggle these days.

“When Mom’s right about to finish all the bills, to pay the school off, this off, that off, then all of a sudden something breaks down and we have something else to pay,” he said. “We always have this conversation. We feel we’re right about to hit the point when we’re living free and then something else happens. We’ll probably use the vacation money to pay off the truck so next year we’ll be a little more debt free.”

If the Mayorgas don’t make it across the border this year it’ll mark only the second time in Daniel’s memory they haven’t. Their faith sees them through hard times. On Sundays the family attends St. Agnes or Our Lady of Guadalupe churches, whose congregations are filled with aspiring, upwardly mobile young families just like them.

The Mayorgas’ hopes of moving up are pinned on Daniel’s shoulders, an academic star who envisions a medical career, perhaps as a doctor. He’s already found he far prefers office work to the roofing jobs he went on with his father and brothers.

“This is way better than that. I’d rather exhaust myself mentally,” he said.

Conversely, his brother Jesus was a less than stellar high school student who’s now looking for work. His other brother, Renne, a South High sophomore, is not excited by school but does plan on college. The brothers feel while Claver may not be for them, it’s right for Daniel.

“I think it’s good because it teaches the kids how to be responsible,” said Renne, who works at a Hy-Vee. “It gives them a taste of life — of how it’s going to be.”

Daniel said his mother often expresses her fondest desires for her boys.

“She wants us to become kind of independent, finish school, get good jobs, become better people. Even though both my parents work it’s still not enough to pay for everything. She wants us to do our part and to find our own way.”

Maria Mayorga said she dreams of the ranchero she grew up on in a small, isolated village in central Mexico. Life was simple but happy there. She loves visiting home. She sees then how far she’s come. She hopes once her boys move on they’ll return to the family’s Omaha home and appreciate how far they’ve progressed.

Rodolfo Mayorga’s poured his heart, soul and sweat into improving the small house. When his boys leave home they carry his and Maria’s dreams for better tomorrows.

Farwell admires how Daniel’s parents “have raised him to, ‘Do your best son.’ He loves them and he’s so thankful for what they’ve done for him. That is one of the motivating factors for him to do his best.”

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga and Christopher Anderson harbor the classic dream that their children do better than them. Their dreams are bound up in the promise of a school whose Catholic priest namesake tended to black Africans taken off slave ships in Colombia, South America. Claver reaches out to at-risk kids with a step ladder to success. Students, though, must make the climb themselves.

“All we’re really doing here is cracking open the door. It’s up to them to walk through it, run through it, and many of them are sprinting through it,” Pogge said.

As symbols go, what could be more dramatic than a school, with all its promise for new life, situated next to a burial ground, where dreams go to die? The east and south sides of Claver look out over St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Just beyond the cemetery South O’s booming economy is evident.

It’s not only kids and families inspired by the opportunities the school affords but teachers, administrators and corporate internship partners as well. Pogge said businesses see the connection between profit and opportunity.

“The corporate response has been outstanding. These companies have a real need for this clerical work to be done. Why not give our students a chance to perform and develop?  Every decision maker I have met has told me they want to have a hand in developing the future workforce of this city,” he said. “These students will either be a part of that workforce or will fade away from it. If they fade away from it, then everybody loses. If they are actively engaged at a young age, then the future is very bright indeed.

“These companies believe these students have real and tremendous potential.”

Educators and employers want to be part of a journey that propels young people forward — past the traditional barriers in their path. As the Claver mantra says, “to serve those who desire it the most but can afford it the least.”

“It’s inspiring and humbling and exciting,” Pogge said, “It just makes absolute sense to give people a vision of what they can become, and that’s what this school is all about. It’s so tangible. It’s very real.”

“Our kids come from poverty and it’s really hard for them to see the consequences of getting an education or not getting an education and what it means to their future success or failure,” said Claver Principal Leigh McKeehan. “But when you expose them to careers then they can start putting two and two together and create a plan for their lives.”

 

Treasure and Daniel

 

 

 

The needs of Claver students are great. About half arrive below grade level, some two-three grades below in reading and math. While this first year was comprised solely of a freshmen class, some 16-17-year-olds were in the ranks of otherwise 14-year-olds. The older kids dropped out of schools at one time or another and desired what Keiter termed “a fresh start.”

Farwell said some kids come from single parent homes and others from homes where grandparents or guardians raise them. Kids may have moved several times.

“They’re 14 and they have gone through so much in life, they’ve seen so much,” she said, “and we’re trying to give them stability. We want them to know they can succeed. It doesn’t matter what their past has been. Go forward.”

“They can do it,” said Pogge, who refers to the entire staff as having “a calling” to this mission. Daniel said the staff’s dedication to “go the extra mile” is noticed.

Farwell said two of the school’s biggest selling points are its negotiated tuition and the transportation provided students to and from school (bus) and work (cab).

Interest is high. But the application-registration process can be daunting for Spanish speaking newcomers. Many parents work on hourly production lines and can’t easily arrange or afford missing work to fill out forms or go through school interviews. Claver’s simplified things by reducing the number of forms and expanding its hours — making admissions more of a one-stop process. Most Claver staffers speak some Spanish. A few, like Farwell and McKeehan, are fluent, which they say helps build trust.

Then there are the school’s high academic and accountability standards, which extend to students and parents signing a contract. Farwell said many parents expressing interest in the school the first year weren’t aware of its college prep rigor but adds that inquiries today seem more informed. That should mean fewer mismatches between the school and students and, thus, fewer expulsions.

As Keiter said he’s come to realize, “we can’t be the savior school for all students and families. Not every school is meant for every student.” He’s expelled 11 kids since August. Others withdrew after recognizing Claver was not for them. The attrition’s cut deep into the rolls of an already small student body.

When registration closed last summer Claver counted 106 students. Only 95 actually showed for the boot camp. By the time the school year began that number fell to 86. Enrollment now stands at 67.

Back in August Keiter already wrestled with “the savior complex.” One early morning he assembled the students at St. Mary’s Church across the parking lot and tearfully addressed them from the foot of the altar.

“Yesterday was probably one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. I removed four students from this school for behavior.”

He talked about the need to follow directions, make good choices and work together for the common good. Using the bad apple analogy, he said one or two rotten ones can spoil the whole bunch. Removing the students, he said, was “for the good of all of you.” He pledged he’d make more hard decisions as necessary.

“We have only one chance to set the bar and create the reputation of the school, and we want that reputation to be a school that is safe and a great learning environment preparing all our students for college and work,” he said.

Two of Daniel’s friends were expelled. “It was because of the dress code,” Daniel said. “I think for some of them it opened up their eyes. They’re going to come back next year hopefully. Their parents want to enroll them.” The dress code’s been enough of an issue that Claver’s introducing uniforms next year.

Casualties are inevitable.

“We are giving some second chances and they are excelling,” Keiter said. “That is what it is about, but for the whole to excel we will at times have to remove students who are not accepting or not wanting to accept this new way of learning at school and work. If they are disruptive, et cetera, it is not fair to those who are working hard to succeed.”

He said the school’s “being more diligent” about keeping standards high and not diluting them for the sake of “wanting to help or ‘save’ one. We have to be honest about who our school can serve best, not for our betterment but for each student’s betterment.”

Farwell’s actively recruiting freshmen and sophomores for next school year. Applications and acceptances are ahead of last year. June 12 and July 10 All Admissions days are planned. The boot camp’s being revamped to include a several nights retreat away from school that promotes relationship building.

Meanwhile, the school’s secured $5 million in its $7 million capital campaign and has renderings for a planned physical expansion. 

Keiter said the strength of CR schools is their “outside the box” approach of being neither tuition nor philanthropy driven but enrollment and jobs driven. Aside from that bottom line, dreams most drive what goes on there. The long hours and stringent rules are not popular with kids but the ones that stay, like Treasure and Daniel, sense a higher purpose at work. They know how much is riding on this for their folks.

When Treasure omplains how hard it is her dad reminds her, “That’s the reason we chose the school — you’re getting more out of it.” Chris Anderson added, “Me and a couple other parents talk all the time about what a great opportunity it is. I could not be any happier. She’s excelling. I have faith in her and in the school.”

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Strong, Smart and Bold, A Girls Inc. Success Story

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Shardea Gallion, ©photo Girls Inc. Omaha

The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as its go-getter subject was on the verge of womanhood, nearing her high school graduation and looking ahead to college. Shardea Gallion has lived up to the promise she showed as a star member of the Girls Inc. or Girls Incorporated club in Omaha, where she grew up and where she became the poster girl for the mentoring, youth development program’s Strong, Smart and Bold slogan.

I spoke with her last year and I’m pleased to report she’s well on her way to achieving her goal of a media career, studying film and television at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working on video projects outside of class.  Like many of the girls served by the nationwide nonprofit Girls Inc., Shardea comes from a disadvantaged background, but with support and guidance she’s gone far to to position herself for a life and career that might have seen improbable a decade or so ago.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Shardea again some day, and this time she will be a professional film or television director/producer/writer.  You go, girl!

Shardea, ©photo bt Greg Nathan, UNL Communications photographer

Strong, Smart and Bold, a Girls Inc. Success Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

“Strong, smart and bold” is the Girls Inc motto but it may as well be the personal creed of Shardea Gallion, an Omaha girls club member since age 5. In a life full of tests, Gallion, 17, has shown a resilience, intelligence, moxie and what she calls “old spirit” that belie her age and make her dream of a broadcast journalism career plausible. Already the host of her own cable television show — Those in Power – on Cox Communication’s community access channel, this poised hip-hop teen from The Hood makes like a young Oprah conversing with local movers-and-shakers on topics ranging from police-community relations to reparations for black Americans.

Besides holding her own with adults, the devout black Baptist excels at mostly white, middle-class Catholic Marian High School, where she’s a senior honors student, features page editor for the school paper and leader on multicultural-diversity committees. She also volunteers for her church, the YMCA and Girls Inc. In 2002 she was one of eight recipients of the national Girls Inc $2,500 college scholarship award and in 2000 was among 40 school-age girls chosen from 1,000 applicants to participate in the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Workshop in Val-Kill, NY. An upcoming issue of Black Enterprise Magazine will profile her.

Two recent stories she penned for her school paper, The Network, hint at her audaciousness. In one, she asked non-Catholic Marian students to reveal what it’s like being a minority there. In tackling the story she defied administrators, explaining, “I want them to understand that, yes, there are other voices at Marian and my voice as a Baptist is just as important as those other students’ who are Catholic.” The other story explored the implications of teens getting hitched. “I hear a lot of talk about girls designing their wedding dresses and picking out their rings and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous — you don’t even have your college picked out.’ I just wanted to send a message to girls that maybe you should wait and think about it.” Gallion, who said she “doesn’t want to throw away my dreams” by starting a family right out of school is herself the product of a young union.

One of six kids born to a teenage single mother, she endured a chaotic first five years before she, her sister and four brothers were taken in by their maternal grandparents. Ultimately, she and her siblings were placed in foster homes. She is still troubled by the fact they were adopted by separate families. “That’s when I was kind of crushed forever,” said Gallion, who’s been in counseling over the severing. “I never understood why we were separated or why my sister couldn’t join me.” She’s tried putting it behind her. “I know I can’t dwell on being separated because that would have just bring me down.”

Regarding her mother, whom she’s seldom seen since the split, Gallion chooses her words carefully. “I didn’t always have that solid foundation…of someone that was going to be there no matter what. At school, everything was fine, but the thing that gave me the greatest trouble was home life. When things are not OK at home, you’re not OK inside. I guess I always had to rely on myself. My mother was rather young. She has regrets. She does wish things would have played out differently.”

Through it all, the one constant in Gallion’s life has been Girls Inc, a sanctuary and activity center for a largely poor black membership. Located in the former Clifton Hill School building at 45th and Maple, the club is where a young Gallion found the stability and direction she lacked outside its red brick walls. “Girls Inc takes into consideration that all parents don’t teach their children everything they should know, so it steps in and is another mother to the girls here, and that’s exactly what it’s been to me,” Gallion said. “It’s helped me through all the times in my life. When situations come along where I’m the only female or I’m the only minority, I am constantly reminded that I am strong, smart and bold — no matter what.”

The girls club is where Gallion found a flesh-and-blood parental figure in Angela Garland, Girls Inc program director. Better known as Miss Angie, this cool, posh black woman was a confidante and mentor to Gallion before assuming guardianship over her three years ago. In Gallion, Garland saw “a very talented” girl who had “to grow up fast” and “take on adult responsibilities” and who, without the right support, might go the wrong way. “There were a lot of things going on in her home — teenage angst and all the rest — and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, surely somebody will step in,’ and when that didn’t happen I told her she could stay with me. I honestly thought it would be temporary…that things would kind of work out.” When no one else filled the void, Garland made it official by becoming her legal guardian. Living together has taken some adjustment on both their parts.

For Gallion, it meant the woman she never heard a cross word from and whom she idolized as “independent” and “gorgeous” was now Mom. “She’s someone I really looked up to, not that I don’t now, but since taking on a parental role for me I have to look at things a little bit differently,” Gallion said. “I know it was a transition for her to go from me being Miss Angie at Girls Inc to being the parent at home that had guidelines and expectations,” said Garland. “We would go round and round about, you know, ‘Get off the telephone’ or ‘Turn the television off — get your homework done.’ One time, I just had to say, ‘Look, this is my house, this is not Girls Inc — do it because I say so.’ These are things she had never heard before growing up.” Amen, Gallion said. “There were so many things that were so foreign to me. I never had to study. She helped me discipline myself.” When Gardner married, Gallion had to adapt again. “I’ve never been in a household where there was a mom and dad — a husband and wife — and so that’s been an eye-opener.”

Gallion felt self-imposed pressure “to be this perfect person” for Miss Angie. “For a long time I was discouraged,” she said, “because I was doing things for others. The only reason I kept going is because people invested a lot in me. But Miss Angie lightened my burden when she told me I really don’t owe her much except to be the best person I can be. That made things so much easier. I realize she’s taken on a huge role and I do not want to let her down, but now I do things for me first.”

Sometimes Gallion tried so hard to please her guardian that Garland finally told her, “‘Honey, just be a kid — you’ll be grown up soon enough.’” Garland’s only wish for her young charge is for to reach her potential. “All I want is for Shardea to be the best she can be. I always encourage her to dig deeper and to not limit her options.” The experience of shaping a young life has been transforming for the 20-something professional. “It was a tremendous shift for me because when Shardea first came to live with me I was in graduate school and it was like I was an instant parent. But she’s really been a blessing to me. I think she’s made me more passionate about my job and a true advocate for kids. She’s made me respect parenting and she’s helped to kind of give me a new perspective — that there’s more to life than going to work and having things. I realize how blessed I am to be able to pay it forward and say, ‘Now, you go do it.’”

Girls Inc. Omaha

Often taken for older than she is, Gallion has some mature goals. “I plan to get into journalism but, from there, branch out. My ultimate goal is to work with people.” Among the colleges she’s considering is the University of Missouri in Columbia and its prestigious journalism school. Those around Gallion fully expect her to reach her goals. “Her passion is going to get her where she wants to go,” said Marsha Kalkowski, a journalism instructor at Marian. “She’s one of the most enthusiastic student journalists we’ve had here. I see her in front of a camera and I see her making a positive difference in the community.”

Gallion began hosting Those in Power, a project of the Edmonson Youth Outreach YMCA, at the tender age of 14. “Well, at Girls Inc you learn you just gotta take chances and jump in, and so that’s what I did,” she said of her precocious TV debut. She views the program as part of her education. “Once I get involved in a topic I don’t want to learn it just for the show,” she said, “I want to actually know about it so I can carry on a conversation and sound half-way intelligent. I always feel I don’t know enough and I just keep striving to learn as much as I can.”

With college on the near horizon, Gallion is focusing now on her studies and on applying for various scholarships. When things are more settled, she plans reconnecting with her blood roots. “My biological family can never replace Miss Angies’s family — I feel like that’s my family now — but I just want to know who they are. I don’t want to close the door on that. You never know what could become of it. It’s just not a huge priority right now. I feel like I have to get on with my life.”

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

June 19, 2010 1 comment

Straight on, medium shot of Olanda Anderson (R...

Image via Wikipedia

I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing.  Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly.  This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.

It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the CW Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.

Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.

In the case of the CW, there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the CW, which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.

The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the CW Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the CW’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.

 

 

 

 

Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the CW is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.

The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.

As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.

Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.

Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the CW veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”

In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.

 

 

 Midge Minor with his greatest protege, WBO lightweight champion Terence “Bud’ Crawford

Midge Minor, front center, with Bud Crawford beside him

 

He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”

Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.

During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”

Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”

 

Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.

“Drugs had me real paranoid. I thought I always had to be carrying a gun. I had a few convictions for guns and for basically just acting like an idiot. Crime just caught up to me. It was hell. I was basically living in hell on earth. I was in darkness. Finally, I got sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for illegal possession of firearms,” he said. “It was there that I gave my heart to Christ. Inside, I ran into a friend of mine whom I grew up with — Francisco Granados. He had been one of my number one crime partners or road dogs. He had given his life to the Lord a couple years prior to me arriving. He just began to minister to me and I just surrendered.”

For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.

In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”

 

 

Servando Perales

 

When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the CW.

“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”

Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.

Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.

“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”

Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”

 

Dick Ryan

 

Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”

According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”

In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the CW is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.

“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the CW) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”

After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.

“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”

The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.

Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”

The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.

Featherweight Mike Juarez, another CW regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.

“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”

In keeping with the CW’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”

 

 

With his penchant for splash and dash, Abram admits he enjoys ”the attention” that performing in the ring brings him. “When you’re in the ring and you’re doing real good — you’re throwing combinations and looking fast and start dropping your hands and showboating a little bit — then everybody’s cheering for you, and it’s a good feeling.” Nauden, like several young men who have come through the CW ranks, views boxing as a safe haven from the mean streets on the near north side. “I think if it weren’t for the gym I’d probably be in jail or dead or something,” the 132-pounder said. “It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble — for real.”

He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the CW to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”

Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”

While Abram won his weight class (as did the CW’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.

Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the CW strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.

“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.

CW amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”

Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the CW more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”

A Mentoring We Will Go


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond &...

Image by rogercarr via Flickr

Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

Maurtice Ivy

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

Michael Yanney

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

New School Ringing in Liberty for Students


Lady Liberty With Sword

Image via Wikipedia

The thought of a new downtown elementary school housed in a massive former bus barn situated smack dab in a neighborhood rife with social ills caught my attention.  The barn site was only temporary, but that nontraditional location, plus the red light district around and about it, was enough for me to file a story.  Plus, I liked the fact the school would be serving a diverse student body of Latinos, Africans, African-Americans, and whites.  The space was every bit as interesting and the students every bit as diverse as I had hoped.  Then when I met the dynamo principal, Nancy Oberst, mother of indie rock star Conor Oberst, I was officially hooked.  My story, which originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is as much about her and and her staff’s passion as it is about this incongruent site for a school.  Liberty Elementary has since moved into its built-from-the-ground up school building just down the street.

New School Ringing in Liberty for Students

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Like a Pied Piper, Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Oberst set a brisk pace one evening in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was one of several nights when Oberst and staff went door-to-door in the blue-collar, racially-diverse area to symbolically blow the horn about Liberty, the new downtown K-6 public school. Liberty, which opened August 19 with some 360 students (and more matriculating each day) was conceived in part to relieve overcrowding at two other OPS sites — Jackson Academy and Field Club Elementary — which Liberty is drawing many students from. Consistent with the new OPS emphasis on neighborhood schools,

Liberty is serving a growing school-age populace on downtown’s southside. Temporarily housed in a renovated warehouse running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, Liberty is in a kind of incubator phase while awaiting construction of its own building, slated to open in March 2004.

In naming the school, Oberst wanted something that “embraced as many people as possible and spoke to a lot of things inherent in this society.” Above the main entrance is a phrase from Roman philosopher Epictetus that reads, “Only the educated are free.” Fittingly, Liberty is a beacon of hope to a largely Hispanic ward of recent emigres. An education for these children is more than a right of passage  — it is a burden of dreams. “These kids come from working class families that need to invest in something for the future,” she said. “They’re really wanting for their kids that old dream of learning English and being upwardly mobile.” It is why Oberst insists her staff be fully committed. “When I interview applicants, I say, ‘I’m really looking for people that have the will and the desire to make something special for kids who need a leg up.’” The impetus to learn, she said, is made even greater by the fact children often act as interpreters for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Because everyone is welcome at Liberty, parents are not pressed for their legal status. To register a child, a parent need only provide a birth certificate, an address and some record of the child’s past schooling, if any. Serving a highly-mobile population, Liberty expects to see a high student turnover rate.

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Oberst, principal at Jackson the past three years, has many former students assigned to Liberty. During that night canvassing the hood she scanned a roster looking for familiar names. She found one in Diana Ramirez. In a wood-frame house perfumed by the rustic aroma of tortillas and accented by the folksy lilt of Spanish, Diana shyly emerged from a bedroom, bedecked in a fine pink dress, and when her big brown eyes locked on Oberst’s, she warmly embraced her. “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids,” Oberst said. “They’re the nicest kids I’ve ever been in contact with. Just well-behaved, very, very respectful children. They look forward coming to school. It’s very important to their day. I’ve never had one swing at me or push me. Sure, there’s times when one gets mad and tips over a desk or kicks a door, but you’d be amazed at how lovely these kids are. And, you know, the school has to set the tone. Kids have to know this is not just hanging out — this is different. That’s why we call kids if they don’t come and go get them if they can’t get here. They know we love them.”

While children from Spanish-speaking homes predominate, Liberty is also a magnate for area African-American, Sudanese, Asian and Caucasian families. Combined with NuStyle Development’s ongoing renovation of the historic and once stately Drake Court apartments on the north side of Liberty, the school is seen by many as an anchor of stability and a catalyst for redevelopment. The circa 1916-1921 Drake Court, a 14-building complex featuring Georgian Revival and Prairie style design elements, was once the centerpiece of this mixed residential-commercial zoned district. But when the apartments fell into disrepair in the 1970s, occupancy declined and the designated blighted area became a thoroughfare for transients. NuStyle has worked closely with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) to qualify for low income tax credits for the Drake Court project. In anticipation of Liberty moving out in 2004, NuStyle is weighing various reuses of the warehouse, including a day care center, artist studios, a multi-media technology center and condos. It is also eying more area residential and commercial projects.

While most welcome the school and look forward to construction of the permanent Liberty site, a $9.2 million three-story structure to be situated on the corner of 20th and St. Mary’s Avenue, there is concern about introducing a large contingent of children into an area heavily trafficked by motor vehicles and frequented by panhandlers, vagrants, prostitutes and drug users.

“There’s been an undercurrent that this is too tough a neighborhood for a school,” Oberst said. “Some of the families are worried. But OPS is saying we believe in Omaha — we believe neighborhoods can be redeveloped. We know what a renovated North High did on 34th and Ames. That has become a very safe place for people to live. When we held meetings with residents in the spring we said, ‘This is how you do it — this is how you change your neighborhood. You put an anchor in with a school. You make the streets safer for mothers and children to come to and from school.’ I’m a big believer in the community the school is in knowing about the school and being involved in it.”

She said she will do whatever it takes to make Liberty safe, from asking street denizens to respect school property to telling those engaging in illicit behavior to move on. “You want to be a good neighbor. You don’t want people mad at you. You have to do some co-existing. But you also have to draw some lines.” She said when problems surfaced at Jackson, from the school getting tagged with graffiti to men harassing girls, she had students spread the word the school was off-limits and she told harassers their actions were unwelcome. The problems, she said, vanished.

Despite assurances from OPS, extra police patrols and neighborhood watch efforts, some parents still voice concern. “I’m not happy with the location,” said Lisa Arellano, whose son, Gage, is a 5th grader. “We have a lot of homeless people and trouble up on Leavenworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the police tackling someone on the ground. Walking to and from school is too scary. It puts kids in jeopardy. There’s always reassurances, but there’s no guarantees.” Gatdet Tut, whose daughter Hynalem is in kindergarten, said, “I don’t want my child to walk on these streets.” Other parents, like Craig Hinson, hope OPS-OPD vows to keep a sharp eye out are more than “lip service.”

Commerce of all kinds unfolds around the school. Across 20th Street is the 24-Hour Package Liquor Store and the Motor West used car lot. Three blocks east is the Douglas County Correctional Center. On the south side is Precision Industries. A little farther west is a St. Vincent DePaul Super Thrift store.

The eastern front of the old bus barn housing the school has two ongoing businesses — Grunwald Mechanical Contractors and an auto detailing shop — that maintain active garages. Robert Wilczewski, owner of the property occupied by the firms, feels the volume of kids passing by to enter and exit the school, whose main entrance is off an adjacent alleyway, poses hazards and hinders operations.

“It’s starting to complicate life around here,” he said. “We just have some serious concerns about safety and about restrictions on what we do here. It’s become intolerable. We want business back as usual. They’re going to need to find a different route for children to enter the school.” Wilczewski, who owns part of the alley and a piece of Grunwald, said the company and OPS are signatories to a 1930 agreement prohibiting public alley use. The parties are trying to reach an accord.

Harold Wrehe, co-owner of Motor West, echoed other area businessmen in expressing surprise at the number of Liberty students. “I didn’t believe there’d be that many children going to an elementary school in this area. But I like it. It brings people in. Everything helps.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, agreed the school “will, in the long run, probably be a good thing. It could help clean up the neighborhood.”

The consensus is that whatever undesirable-incongruous elements surround it, Liberty, along with the Drake Court, reopening for occupancy next year, is a keystone for an emerging 20th Street Corridor some envision as an Old Market West. Oberst, busily forging alliances between Liberty and the nearby Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, joins others in referring to 20th Street, from Leavenworth to Farnam, as Children’s Row. As Liberty’s provisional site does not have many school amenities, including a gym or theater, students are attending P.E. classes at the Y and performances at the children’s theater.

For Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of the children’s theater, the concept of “a downtown school is a great idea,” with Liberty adding another dimension to the burgeoning arts-educational scene emerging along the 20th Street strip. “I think between the school, the Children’s Museum, the Y, us, and the Joslyn Art Museum, which is not that far away, the synergy is just going to be wonderful. We’re excited to have the school as a neighbor.”

She envisions the theater and school having an intimate rapport. “We see ourselves developing a very close relationship with Liberty,” said Wilhelm, whose home base, The Rose, is only a stroll away. We will be doing our Every Single Child program in their school…which is where every child — in each grade — has a different experience with the children’s theater through drama residency workshops and dance activities. And that, in my opinion, is just the beginning. I think there’s much more we can do with them in after-school programming. We’d like to see the arts infused in their school.”

Oberst wants that infusion as well. “We’re really wanting to bring art into the school, including artists from the community, and to bring our students to the arts. We hope to build relationships with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. We have to take advantage of where we are.”

The idea of placing a school smack dab in the middle of a bustling urban district is not new for Omaha. Central Grade School operated for decades across from Central High School and in the shadow of the Joslyn and other downtown landmarks. Although Liberty is the first school in the Drake Court-Park East-Columbus Park district since Mason School closed in the 1980s, it is repeating history in that, like Mason, which once served a largely Italian immigrant population, it is educating many new arrivals from Mexico.

What makes Liberty different is that the school is operating — at least the next 18 months — from a makeshift site that once served as a maintenance barn for Greyhound Bus Lines and more recently as a paper-printing supply storage facility for Redfield & Co. The top-to-bottom refurbishment of the old bus barn has revealed a 49,000 square foot space highlighted by the second-story’s free-span, cathedral-high, vaulted wood beam ceiling and elaborate iron truss network. A massive skylight and banks of tall windows bathe the upper level in natural light. Large ceiling fans maintain a constant air flow.

The rehab was funded by NuStyle, which bought the structure from Robert Wilczewski, and designed by Alley-Poyner Architects. OPS, which leases the building from NuStyle, is using large partitions to create classrooms and resource centers in a modular, flexible floor plan. By opening day, each partitioned space was outfitted with all the usual fixtures of a traditional school setting.

 

The new Liberty Elementary School building

 

 

 

In the time in takes for the permanent school to be erected — construction starts this fall — Liberty plans being an established player in the neighborhood by building coalitions that Oberst hopes makes the school a vital contributor to and welcome beneficiary of the revitalization happening around it.

“The idea is to form this community now and for the kids to participate in the building of the new school and to have the neighborhood be involved with the whole redevelopment going on with us and the Drake Court,” she said.

Drawing on her experience forging community ties at Jackson, where she found an Adopt-a-School partner in Picotte Elementary, formed a food pantry with ConAgra Foods and sponsored clothing drives with First Lutheran Church in Omaha, she is already lining-up Liberty collaboratives. A food pantry, serving poor residents, is in the works along with clothing and furniture drives. “Our families sometimes don’t have beds and other basic things and, so, we’ll do a lot of give aways. It’s meant to bridge the gap. That networking with the community is part of my job and, besides, it opens more doors for opportunity for our kids and parents. I’m always looking for an angle,” she said.

Opening day at Liberty was marked by two words: diversity and vitality. Beaming brown, black, yellow and white faces mingled in the old-new environs. The sing-song sound of Spanish and hip-hop reverberated throughout the cavernous space.

Craig Hinson, whose daughter Jamillah is attending the 6th grade, said the diverse urban setting is just what he wants for his child. “I think it’s great. To me, it just adds a little flavor. I think being downtown, where you have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Sudanese, it just gives kids a real sense of the real world.”

As a show of faith in Liberty 3rd grade teacher Michelle Grau enrolled her own daughter Jordan there even though her family lives in Field Club. “I think the more kinds of people and the more kind of cultural experiences you can be exposed to, the better,” Grau said. “That’s why Jordan’s coming here. And to be in on the ground floor — I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a fantastic thing once it’s finally completed…if you can just see the big picture.”

The promise of bigger things to come is what led Barb and Jim Farho to place their two children at Liberty. “We’re probably one of the few families choosing to go there even though we’re not forced to,” said Barb Farho. “My husband and I are interested in seeing downtown rejuvenated and we think this is one way to do that. A lot of people are afraid of downtown, but we think there’s a lot of cultural experiences awaiting. We also know the principal is very good at getting the community involved and we just think those partnerships are only going to get better. The surrounding area is going to improve for having a school there. Plus, our kids are excited about the fact the new school will be built before their very eyes. It just seems like a fun place to be in on at the very beginning.”

Assuming the school thrives, Oberst anticipates that once the new building opens and the word spreads more pilgrims will flock to Liberty from around the metro. “We are expecting that once the new school is up and once the real cultural-corporate connections are evident that parents from other parts of the city will want to send their kids here.” The new Liberty will accommodate 600-plus kids, yet another reflection of the confidence school officials have in the enterprising area.

Whatever happens, Oberst is sure to stir the melting pot. “What that woman does for and gets out of kids is incredible,” said Linda Daly, an ESL resource teacher and one of several educators who followed Oberst to Liberty from Jackson. “She makes things happen for the kids. She is absolutely a dynamo.”

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