June 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The poet Longfellow famously wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall.” By that logic, Omaha poet Traci Schacht has survived a series of torrential downpours.

At age 12, Schacht’s mentally ill mother left her negligent father, forcing Schacht to care for herself. That same year, she would turn her first trick and enter her first foster home.

“It was an easy way to make money, but I was too young to know what it all meant,” she says. “To me, it just meant food—chicken versus corn flakes. The cops picked me up and that’s when ‘home’ changed from home to group homes to foster homes.”

Though they’ve since reconciled, Schacht vividly recalls being rejected by her mother, who swiftly remarried and took in her siblings but told a troubled 13-year-old Schacht that she wasn’t welcome.

“My family didn’t want me. That’s when I changed, stopped caring, became violent,” says Schacht, who also escalated her experimentation with drugs. “I so badly wanted my mom to rescue me, to come hug me, tell me everything would be okay. I was so scared and alone.”

TraciSchacht1She was headed to lockup when Boys Town accepted her, moving Schacht in a better direction. After graduating she attended Nebraska Wesleyan, earning a theater degree.   

Next, Schacht moved around a lot—Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—but the places she’s been emotionally and intellectually are the most compelling parts of her story. For example, she traveled vast distances politically, from serving as V.P. of the college Young Republicans in Nebraska to fighting against the death penalty with “a bunch of Marxists” in San Francisco.

In 2007, back in Omaha, the storm continued. Schacht survived a horrible car wreck that crushed her legs, arm, and part of her neck. Her legs were saved but she had trouble walking. In 2010, Schacht requested and received a right leg below-knee amputation, hoping to resume some favorite activities like kayaking as a result. After a subsequent total knee replacement went wrong and infection set in, the leg was amputated above-knee.

“I just bawled. I didn’t want to be an above-knee amputee because it’s harder to walk and you can’t do everything. But eventually I got this cool, computerized leg,” Schacht says, hiking up a pant leg to proudly display the high-tech limb she got in 2013. “Now I’m walking, after years in a wheelchair. I’m
so thankful.”

Schacht’s also grateful for a fateful meeting with a medical van driver who, in the course of transporting her home from the hospital, changed her life.

“He offered to read me a poem he’d written,” says Schacht. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is gonna be some cheesy poetry.’ But it was this awesome, political slam poetry I hadn’t heard before, and I loved it.”

Schacht befriended the driver, who convinced her to try writing poetry. He saw skill in her work and encouraged her to perform the piece at Verbal Gumbo, a monthly open mic welcoming “various artistic expressions.”

“[My poem] was met with such wonderful warmth, and they said I should do another,” says Schacht. “So I did another, and then another, and another, and have continued since.”

Schacht’s discovery of her talent at performing rhythmic, defiant, evocative slam poetry added great joy to her life, but she still wrestled with personal demons. Schacht, a Gemini, says she has two sides, one wanting to perform and another bent on withdrawal. She plotted suicide and eventually had a PTSD break—a bottom from which to rise.

“It all hit me at once and I just broke, and actually, that was a wonderful thing. I took the chance to finally stop and assess everything I’d experienced,” says Schacht, who credits good friends for crucial support.     

“Omaha saved my life. Literally. The community here saved my life,” she says.

That life-saving support inspired Schacht to help others. She coaches Bryan and Northwest High Schools’ teams for the youth poetry festival “Louder Than a Bomb” and has worked with Poetry Out Loud Nebraska and Project Everlast, a group for former foster youth. She’s training to be an amputee peer support counselor and mental health first responder. Schacht is also finishing a book of poetry, tentatively titled Tequila, Twerking, and Other Things a One-legged Poet Should Never Do, and establishing a healing through poetry group.

“I’m blessed to use poetry for healing and to share that with others,” says Schacht. “I needed to heal myself from everything I’ve experienced in my life.”

Routinely taunted in childhood as “ugly girl,” Schacht performs lots of body-positive poetry.

“I worked really hard for this body and so did a lot of other people, so I want to be really proud of it,” she says.

Through her poetry and service to others, Schacht has found confidence and value in her accomplishments. She’s finally discovered that, as Longfellow also wrote, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.”

“It’s meaningful when people come up in tears telling me my words helped them. It’s a gift. When that healing happens and you can share that with others it’s amazing, and that’s what I’m about now,” she says. “I’m learning to let that help center myself and to realize that is success.”

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