Tag Archives: biology

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Dan Susman

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Behind the glass doors and up the stairs at 2626 Harney St., Dan Susman sits tucked away from the world with just his computer equipment, morning coffee, and a big smile slapped on his face. The ambitious 25-year-old is at work on a dream project that emerged from a fascination with urban farming, and he’s hoping his work will inform and drive others to the trend.

Susman graduated from Central High School in 2006, then headed off to the prestigious Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he earned a bachelor’s degree with dual majors: biology and environmental studies.

After spending some time working on an urban farm in Portland, Ore., Susman’s passion for the farming practice and sustainable agriculture grew. Upon returning to Omaha in 2010, Susman got together with childhood friend Andrew Monbouquette and decided to make a documentary about the trend. Growing Cities has been over two years in the making. It’s taken the crew from Boston to Seattle and 19 other cities in between.

“I got the idea that I wanted to visit urban farms across the country, and Andrew was really more of the film guy at the time,” Susman explains. “He had made some short films, and I just kind of proposed it to him.”

That was it. With Monbouquette onboard, Susman felt confident moving forward with the idea. The partners raised $39,000 for documentary research and production expenses using Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, and got to work.

“We took a giant road trip for about two months,” he continues. “On our trip, we visited everything from rooftop farmers to people with goats, bees, and chickens in their backyards. We have a scene in the film where a guy is walking across the street with his goat in Berkeley [Calif.],” he says with a laugh.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country.”

Susman is not alone in his interest in the ecology trend. Urban farming—the practice of growing, processing, and distributing food all within a city—has exploded in popularity in recent years due to a downsized economy, a local food movement, and a greater push toward healthier eating.

According to the USDA, urban farming is taking off with around 15 percent of the world’s food now being grown in urban areas.

The reasons for the documentary film are several, Susman says. When he came home to Omaha, he noticed several giant billboards that said Omaha was one of the fattest cities in the country. He felt it was his obligation to do something about it.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country,” he says. “We wanted to take those models and potentially apply them here. We wanted to show what you could do with very little space, such as your backyard or a window.”

Susman’s side project, Truck Farm Omaha, sprouted from the road trip the crew took while filming Growing Cities. Throughout his travels, he routinely discovered truck farms, which are little gardens planted in the flatbed of a truck. Once he was back in Omaha, he acquired a 1975 Chevy pickup truck, then planted a truckbed garden, and was soon visiting local schools. The purpose—to educate young people about where food comes from and the benefits of eating locally.

“If you don’t have space or time or tools or know-how to grow food, we want to say, ‘Here are some easy steps you can take.’ You don’t have to have a huge garden in your backyard,” he explains. “You could have a little pot and just have some basil or a tomato in there.

“We’re trying to educate people on the steps they can take to grow their own. That will make the biggest difference.”

Susman plans to finish post-production on Growing Cities in the near future and will be submitting the project to film festivals later this year. For more details on the film and its release, visit GrowingCitiesMovie.com.