August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Imagine you’re a child. You spend eight hours at school every weekday, and you return home to an empty house every night. Sometimes, your only meal is the lunch provided at school. Your parents work day and night to provide for your family, but it’s never enough. Meanwhile, you have homework that you desperately need help with, but there’s no one around to help you. You want to talk about school, the friends you’ve made, or your latest art project, but you’re alone.

This is the life of many children in the low-income neighborhoods of the Omaha community. But it doesn’t have to be.

Completely KIDS is determined to make sure it isn’t. Enriching activities, help with homework, nutritious snacks, and people to talk to for guidance—these are all things the nonprofit organization offers to youth and families through after-school and family strengthening programs.

The organization was formerly Camp Fire USA Midlands Council, a nonprofit founded in 1920 as a club for girls and young women. In the 1970s and ’80s, the program admitted boys and young men, reaching out to the needs of the underserved through after-school activities in North and South Omaha. Now, Completely KIDS—which disaffiliated from the national Camp Fire organization in 2011 to keep its funds within the Omaha community—serves more than 2,000 youth from pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as their families.

Penny Parker, executive director of Completely KIDS, has devoted her professional career to serving children and families. Previously, she worked with American Red Cross, the Nebraska Department of Social Services, Child Saving Institute, and Douglas County Social Services.

“I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.” – Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator

“My prior employment focused on working with children who were already involved in the child welfare system, and I wanted to work at an agency where I could work with children to keep them out of the system,” she explains. That’s why she applied for the position with Completely KIDS, which she’s occupied for 22 years now.

Parker believes Omaha needs Completely KIDS because it offers out-of-school programming and family outreach services in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the community. “We provide opportunities for children and families that they would not otherwise experience, [as well as] programming to children who reside in homeless shelters. We [also] provide 385 weekend backpacks of food for children in our programs who may have little or no food to eat on the weekend.”

Making a difference in the lives of youth and families is what Parker thinks is the most important aspect of the organization’s work. If you ask her what her favorite memory of working with Completely KIDS is, she can list several: “The children who tell me that participating in one of our activities is the best day of their life; the youth who have graduated from our program and come to work for us; the children who had to beg for food before they got involved in our weekend food program; the teen who said that we saved her life…”

Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator at Field Club Elementary School for Completely KIDS, can certainly attest to the organization’s impact on the lives of youth, as she herself was helped by the program.

“It was long, long ago,” she says. “I was invited by one of my close friends in fifth grade. She told me about this program, and, of course, it was about a place to hang out other than home.”

Hernandez says Completely KIDS aided her more on a personal level than on a resource level. “Hispanic parents tend to be more at work to make ends meet than with their kids. I know Hispanic parents view this as giving children the necessities—food, clothing, and shelter. But it’s not enough. Youth need guidance,” she explains. “I think this is what [this program] was to me and many of the other youth.”

Today, Hernandez is a senior at the University of Phoenix, where she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in health administration. She’s also a mother to a 2-year-old son, Nazim. She believes her life has gone in a good direction because of the support she received from Completely Kids during her youth.

“Never in a million years did I think I would have ended up working with my community in this manner…I am very happy to be doing what changed my life growing up,” she says. “I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.”

Even if she doesn’t work directly for Completely KIDS in the future, Hernandez plans to remain involved with the organization. “I would love to keep volunteering and donating because I know what their intentions are…I really would love to help them become nationally known and be able to serve more youth citywide.”

“I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer…I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess.” – Lynn Gray, volunteer

Lynn Gray, a special needs paraprofessional at Millard West High School in the Millard Public Schools district, began volunteering with Completely KIDS more than a decade ago after learning about their mission.

Back in 2001, Gray read an article in the Omaha World-Herald about Completely KIDS. “I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer,” he says. Shortly after, he began working with the nonprofit, helping kids with their homework and doing activities with them.

Although he and his wife, Cindy, don’t have children of their own, Gray loves working with kids and always has. As a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln years ago, he helped with a special needs swimming program through Lincoln Parks & Recreation.

These days, Gray volunteers playing chess with Completely KIDS youth. Gray learned how to play chess when he was 11, and it’s a passion he loves to share. “I read that they were playing chess in schools and how important it was for growing children, so I thought it would be neat to implement into the program.”

It’s not a formal chess club, of course. Gray says it’s just for fun. “Working together is a major benefit of chess. For some kids, they learn decision-making and problem-solving; others learn patience.” One of the things he enjoys the most is watching the older, more experienced chess players help the younger, newer kids just learning the game.

“I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess…I’ve got so many memories,” Gray adds. “I’m just very thankful for this opportunity with Completely KIDS.”

Volunteers, as well as donations, are always needed to continue providing quality programs for youth and families in the community. Events, like the upcoming Big Red Tailgate, which will be held Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at Embassy Suites La Vista (12520 Westport Pkwy.), are major fundraisers for the organization. For more information about Completely KIDS, visit completelykids.org or call 402-397-5809.

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