August 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ten-year-olds aren’t much known for the use of subtleties in choosing their words. So when Caleb Robinson calls himself “the poster boy” for the NorthStar Foundation, you can bet that he means it in a literal sense.

His image has been used on the nonprofit’s marketing and related materials, so Omaha’s newest celebrity was right at home in yet another photo shoot on the sprawling campus of the boys-only youth center that has risen just south of Ames Avenue at about 49th Street.

“I feel like I’m on the top of the world,” Caleb shouts after reaching the apex of the towering, high-ropes obstacle course that is just one of the world-class features to be found at the facility that aims to guide young boys into a promising and productive future. Along with classrooms and basketball courts, the expansive building also boasts a rock-climbing wall.

Inspired by the Outward Bound model of adventure mixed with a host of complementary experiential programs, NorthStar’s efforts are aimed at 5th through 8th graders, the age group where boys are first recruited into or are otherwise influenced by gangs, says NorthStar president Scott Hazelrigg.

“Try to tell a kid that you want to take him on a river rafting adventure,” says Hazelrigg, “and he doesn’t know how to digest that information. To a young boy living in poverty, they don’t have the worldview to even picture what that would be like. It’s just an abstract idea to them. We’re loosely inspired by the Outward Bound model, but we built the 40-foot high-ropes right here where the kids live. We built the rock-climbing wall right here where the kids live.”

Outward Bound operates in Omaha as a wholly owned, limited liability corporation of the NorthStar Foundation. The connection to Outward Bound means that the foundation has an established and strong footprint in the community, as they’ve already worked with over 6,000 boys in the year leading up to the opening of the NorthStar facility.

“North Omaha is isolated both socially and economically,” Hazelrigg adds. “A secondary goal of our work is to change the perception of a community. People from all parts of the city will come here, and we can give them an experience that they won’t expect, especially if all they know about North Omaha is what they see on the nightly news.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony in May introduced the community to the organization whose mission is to “change young men’s lives through programming that supports, challenges, inspires, and instills a life rooted in education, self-discipline, and service to the community.”

But there’s more than just high adventure to be found at NorthStar. After-school programs in academic achievement, athletics and healthy lifestyles, arts immersion, and employment readiness will be in full swing by the time kids like Caleb return to class in August.

Caleb’s mother, Barbara Robinson, has acted as something of an unofficial consultant in planning the NorthStar vision. She’s a gang intervention program manager for Impact One, a grassroots organization that focuses on addressing issues within North Omaha. And she knows the streets all to well. The ex-crack addict and gangbanger had her children (now returned) taken away from her by the state before she turned her life around.

“Young boys need role models,” Robinson says. “They need someplace to go to after school, someplace that teaches the same values that we live by in my home. NorthStar listens to parents. They listen to the community. They care about the future of this city and its young men.”

“I was maybe just a little bit scared when I got started,” Caleb says of his high-ropes adventure. Growing up in North Omaha can be a scary experience, and it is all too easy for fear to permeate a neighborhood like a contagion. Fear not, Caleb. The NorthStar Foundation has your back.

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