November 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ron Dotzler grew up in defiance. The small town of Defiance, Iowa, that is.

“I’ve been rebellious ever since,” he says with a chuckle.

That’s a good thing for his home of the last four decades—a city some have referred to as the most dangerous place in America to be black.

According to a 2014 report by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center, 30 black people were murdered in Nebraska in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. Of them, 27 were murdered in Omaha. That put the state’s black homicide rate at 34.4 per 100,000 people—twice the national average. And in Omaha alone, Dotzler points out, the FBI reports an average of 23,000 major felony incidents each year.

Dotzler has seen the devastation firsthand. Four years after moving to north Omaha, two girls in his neighborhood were murdered. That’s what got his defiant nature fighting back.

“That was kind of the straw that broke my back,” Dotzler says. “I felt like God was saying to me, ‘Ron, will you give me your life so other children won’t have their lives cut by violence?’”

The murders made him ever more committed to Abide, the inner-city nonprofit he and his wife, Twany, had launched in 1989.

Abide works “one neighborhood at a time,” helping develop healthy communities through four main foci: community building, family support programs, housing, and partnerships. It has become one of the most successful—and increasingly well-known—nonprofits affecting change in Omaha.

But significant change didn’t come until 2007, when Abide altered its strategy. Most importantly, Abide began a holistic, grassroots tactic of “adopting” neighborhoods. With partners and volunteer power, the nonprofit began mowing lawns, cleaning litter, fixing abandoned properties, and more. They got to know neighbors personally. Relationships were built and change followed. People felt safer. Crime went down.

Law enforcement officers wanted to know what was happening. They were pointed to Abide. “The police showed up and said, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working,’” Dotzler says.

With help from partner Lifegate Church, Abide has since adopted more than 100 neighborhoods with help from 15 partners and more than 8,000 volunteers each year. They have targeted 600 other neighborhoods to adopt.

Abide also establishes “Lighthouses,” abandoned homes that are fixed up and occupied by families. More than 30 Lighthouses have been established since 2009.

It has three community centers and offers family support and employee development programs, plus basketball and swimming programs for children. It throws block parties, hosts grill-outs, and stages Easter egg hunts. Abide’s annual budget has grown to nearly $1.5 million.

Dotzler, 57, is board president. Son Josh, the former Creighton University basketball star, now is Abide CEO. Three other Dotzler children—Ron and Twany have 14 total—also are employees. Abide has 24 full-timers and 11 who work as paid, part-time interns. The organization’s work has earned recognition from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Dotzler says Abide doesn’t “market itself as the savior” of north Omaha. “We’re just one entity” among others working to make things better, he says. They’re just trying to “put the neighbor back in the hood.”

And those neighbors include Dotzler and his family.

Abide headquarters is a former Immanuel Hospital boiler facility on Fowler Street. The building doubles as the Dotzler home.

The family originally moved to north Omaha from Millard in 1988. Dotzler had worked as a chemical engineer in the computer industry but felt called “to really invest in the lives of others.” To him, that meant mission work overseas. The Dotzlers sold their house and many of their possessions, but needed a temporary place to live before deciding where they would serve. A friend said he could stay rent-free at his house in north Omaha—if Dotzler fixed it up while he was there. It needed more than a bit of work.

“I had grown up around pests, but not roaches like I saw in that house,” he says.

He was more shocked, though, by what he saw outside. “I started seeing the brokenness of lives like I’d never experienced before,” he says. “I saw more police in a couple weeks living in north Omaha than I saw in my whole life. I’d never dialed 911, and suddenly it began to be on my speed dial.”

In north Omaha today, he says, nine out of 10 homes are headed by a single parent. And at least 70 percent of families, he estimates, don’t own their own homes.

That’s radically unlike his childhood home in Defiance, Iowa, a small, rural community halfway between Denison and Harlan.

“I grew up with a mom and dad in the household, and the whole culture surrounding you had that kind of parental influence,” he says. “There was an infrastructure in rural Iowa. You were on the same page. There was a culture of understanding. We were all working toward the same things.

“In urban settings the autonomy is so greatly individualized and independence is so great that you don’t have those connections anymore.”

Before moving to north Omaha, Dotzler says he was “cold, callous, judgmental, and critical” of those living in the inner city.

No longer.

Now, he abides with them.

“We’ll never see the brokenness of crime and violence transformed,” Dotzler says, “until the brokenness of crime and violence transforms us.”

Visit abideomaha.org to learn more.

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