Tag Archives: charity

Young Heroes

July 23, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s good exercise. You get to help people. You get to wear cool boots. And maybe best of all: You get to hang out with horses all day.

But there’s one other advantage to volunteering at the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy: Even teen volunteers are critical to the operation.

“At some volunteer jobs we didn’t always feel useful or needed,” says Sarah Kopsa, 18, the eldest of three teens in the Kopsa family who volunteer at HETRA. However, she says, when the three arrive at the stables, there’s always something for them to do. “We know that if we are on the schedule we better show up because they really will have a problem providing the therapy without us,” Sarah adds.

And so it is, every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. that the Kopsas participate in a variety of activities including mucking stalls, sweeping, grooming, setting up the ring for students, laying out toys, and more. “During the lesson I’m really busy resetting the rings and toys for the next student. It’s good for me to wear boots because it gets dusty in there,” Maria shares.

HETRA’s mission is to improve the quality of life—both physically and emotionally —for adults and children with disabilities using equine-assisted activities. Those with special needs go the HETRA facilities in either Valley or Omaha each week for lessons to help them improve their core strength and balance.

Arriving just after school on Wednesdays, the Kopsa children immediately set out to groom and care for the horses. As kids begin arriving for their sessions, the Kopsas are there to not only welcome them, but also to help get everyone ready to ride, working with anywhere from three to five children each session. “The horses are mild-mannered, but we still have to be at their side at all times, holding the reins and spotting the rider” Sarah says. “The activities, like throwing balls through a hoop or reaching out to take a stuffed toy off a post, may seem simple to us, but to our riders it is challenging.”

While volunteering at the facility may not be forever, it has done plenty to inspire plans for the future among all three Kopsa children. Sarah, who has worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in an assisted living facility, plans on studying nursing and credits her experiences at HETRA and in assisted living for showing her how to support and interact with others. Maria is considering teaching as a career path “so I’ll be able to better help kids with special needs.”

And James? He hopes to go into accounting and eventually, law. “HETRA is strengthening my desire to serve others in need,” he says. “I think I will always be more sensitive people who are disabled, to the parents of disabled kids and to organizations like HETRA. I don’t know how accounting and law will play into that, but it seems like there could be a good fit someday.”

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The Science of Charity

May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kali Baker knows well how the better angels of our nature think. She knows that although they are angels, they still love a little competition. They love variety, too. They love prizes. Like their less-noble brethren, they even like to party.

Omaha Gives 2014, the 24-hour-long, online telethon Baker organizes, is as much a psychological experiment as it is a charity. Still, the bottom line isn’t rocket science: The event raises a heck of a lot of money for a heck of a lot of Omaha charities. Last year, in its first outing in the city, this online telethon put on by the Omaha Community Foundation raised $3 million for charities in the area.

“It was just remarkable to watch,” says Baker, who is director of communications for the Foundation. “It’s such a different type of event, we didn’t know for sure what we were getting into. It just felt so good when we saw the numbers.”

Impressive numbers. From midnight to midnight one day last spring, nearly 11,000 people made online donations to 318 participating non-profits.

This year’s Omaha Gives 2014 will be held May 21. At 12:01 a.m. that Wednesday, you can go to omahagives24.org and donate to any one of more than 500 charities in the region.

Here’s how it works. Area non-profits sign up to be a part of the event. All the participating charities are then included on a sort of “Big Board” on the Omaha Gives website. On May 21, people can begin going to the website and donating to any one (or, of course, any number) of the charities listed. Each charity’s name on the board with have a real-time running tally of the money they’ve received.

So, here’s where the mind games come in. The website becomes a scoreboard. All of a sudden, somebody is winning. As is human nature: The volunteers and donors for the five hundred or so other charities decide it would be neat for them to be the leader.

Baker calls that “incentivizing” the event. It gets better.

Last year, many of the charities held events during the day. Donors and volunteers gathered, had fun and very often got on their smart phones and donated. Also, as the excitement built through the day, they contacted their friends, who contacted their friends. That social media thing. Pretty soon, the event was drawing hundreds of new donors and volunteers to the charities involved.
Then came the prizes for hitting certain donation targets. This year, non-profits will compete for prizes in three categories depending on the group’s annual budget.

The Omaha Community Foundation also will be offering matching funds. In addition, each hour, one donation will be randomly selected to be augmented with an additional $1,000.

That’s yet another clever carrot.

“Things can get a bit slow at some points, especially in those early hours of the day,” Baker says. “But that $1,000 each hour should get people fired up to stay involved all day long.”

One group that benefitted greatly was The Union for Contemporary Art. The young non-profit (started in 2011) hosted a lunchtime pizza party the day of the event last year as well as an open house for donors. Numerous donations were made from donors onsite, but most of the donations came through social media, says Brigitte McQueen Shew, The Union’s executive director.

“I basically spent the entire day jumping online and reminding people that even a gift of $10…would make a huge difference.”

More than 200 people donated a total of $13,000, “A huge amount for us,” she says. The Union’s effort earned them one of those $1,000 bonus prizes.

“Omaha Gives basically enabled us to launch (programs) years before I thought we’d have the funds available to make it happen,” she says. “We are truly looking forward to the event this year.”
Sara Boyd, president and CEO of the Foundation, echoes that sentiment. There’s good reason to believe Omaha Gives could grow exponentially in coming years.

“As we look at these event in other communities, the second year presents a huge opportunity to get more people involved in giving,” she says. “People who didn’t know it was happening last year or didn’t understand the premise have a greater opportunity to participate.”

The Omaha Gives day is modeled after a few similar 24-hour, online fundraisers that have popped up in recent years around the country. Because of the immense success of this fundraising formula, Baker says, more and more will likely be showing up around the country.

“It just has been proven to work on numerous levels,” she says. “It has an amazing way of getting people involved, even people who have never been involved before.”

That may be the greatest power of this fundraising formula. Thanks primarily to that intense social media burst, it’s estimated that 30 percent of last year’s donations at the Omaha event came from first-time donors.

“I think one of the great things about Omaha Gives is that it gave us a vehicle for raising awareness about our programs and work,” McQueen Shew says.

That new awareness, and all those first-time donors, means a whole new army of volunteers and donors for those charities as they move forward.

“It’s not just about the money raised, it’s about introducing a great number of new people to a great number of non-profits,” Baker says. “All these neat incentives are just ways to promote giving and bring the community together in new ways.”

Omaha Gives “is empowering, accessible, and meaningful,” Boyd says. “That’s especially important as we seek to develop a new audience of givers in our community.”

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Powering Across the Finish Line

January 6, 2014 by

It was man versus machine. An epic competition of tug-o-war. A true test of physical and mental strength. An all-out battle to the finish line where everyone who competed was a winner.

On May 18, Performance Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of Bellevue hosted a truck pull for charity. Six local teams pulled heavyweight Ram trucks, competing to raise money for their favorite charities. The dealership gave away more than $4,000 in cash prizes at its first annual Performance Community Truck Pull. The grand prize of $1,500 went to the wrestling team from Bellevue East High School. The team raised money to support the costly medical treatments for their fellow East graduating senior, Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with lymphoma last year.

Tyrone Williams, president and general manager of Performance, says the concept for the truck pull was devised by his managers and Carroll Communications. “We are having discussions about this being an annual event. I was looking for an event to introduce the dealership to the Bellevue community as well support the community,” he says. In a family-friendly atmosphere that boasted food, fun, and face painting, the dealership encouraged the community to not only support their favorite competing team but also to simply take a look around the new facility.

The team from Bellevue East High School pulls a 2500 Ram truck at the Performance Bellevue dealership to raise money for graduating senior Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma last year. East Principal Brad Stueve runs alongside the team cheering them on.

The team from Bellevue East High School pulls a 2500 Ram truck at the Performance Bellevue dealership to raise money for graduating senior Jake Pannell, who was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma last year. East Principal Brad Stueve runs alongside the team cheering them on.

Performance ensured that none of the six competing teams walked away empty handed. Teams included Bellevue University, Bellevue East High School, Bellevue West High School, Bellevue Community Foundation, Offutt Police, and Bellevue Fire and Police. “The turnout was excellent, and the store donated over $4,200 to the charities. Carroll Communications, the Bellevue Chamber, and Mayor Rita Sanders were very instrumental in helping us pull the event off,” Williams says.

Matt Briggs, head coach of men’s soccer at Bellevue University, says he was grateful that his team competed in such a charitable cause. “We raised money for the Wounded Warrior Family Support group and raised $750,” he shares.

The Bellevue Community Foundation also competed, winning $250 to support the city of Bellevue. Mayor Sanders says she was thrilled with the funds raised and equally excited that they would be going toward the newly created Bellevue Community Foundation. “It came about through the City of Bellevue strategic plan,” she says. “I was tasked to start a community foundation so we can help the community raise money individually or privately. The Community Foundation can help aid with some of the support systems through the city.”

Allie Baxter

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Allie Baxter, The Salvation Army, and Prudential

Since she was a little girl, Alexandra ‘Allie’ Baxter could be heard ringing bells next to The Salvation Army’s iconic red kettles during the holiday season, taking donations for those in need. Now, her relationship with the signature red kettle takes on new meaning as the founder of the Red Kettle 5K Run.

Baxter, a recent graduate of Millard North High School who will be attending Northwestern University in the fall, started the fall charity event in 2010. Assigned to come up with a project for school, Baxter turned an idea for a charity event into a full-fledged business proposal, which she pitched to The Salvation Army. The inception of a run as a charity event, however, happened earlier that year while partaking in her favorite hobby.

“I was running another 5K charity event, and I noticed there were tons and tons of people there. And I thought to myself with that many people, you can really spread a message to lots of different people but also bring in lots of money and food,” Baxter says.

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The 5K run takes place at Lake Zorinsky and asks that participants pay a $10 or 10-food-item entrance fee. This year’s run will take place on Oct. 12. While the format of the run has not changed in its three years, fund- and food-raising efforts have skyrocketed. The first year brought in 16,000 food items for The Salvation Army, while last year garnered 45,000 items.

“Since we do a low-cost, high-benefit event, where we put in as little as we can to get the most out of it, whatever we bring in goes straight to the pantries and is immediately helpful,” Baxter says. “There seems to be an increasing need every year with the financial situations as they are. More people need the help and they all need it at the same time, especially going into the winter season.”

Omaha is not the only city where Baxter’s influence runs deep. The Salvation Army has started Red Kettle 5K Runs in major cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

“We’re trying to maintain a blueprint for the event. In Des Moines, they don’t need food because someone else helps them, so they bring in toiletry items. It adapts to what you need, and that’s what’s great about it,” she says.

For her efforts, Baxter received The Prudential Spirit of Community Award this past spring. The award, created in 1995, recognizes young people for their outstanding volunteer service. Baxter traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive her award, meeting Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey along the way.

Allie Baxter meeting actor Kevin Spacey at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in May.

Allie Baxter meeting actor Kevin Spacey at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in May.

“[The recipients] were put into groups, and we all were able to present our projects and hear what other people thought of them. I like hearing feedback from other people and learning how I can improve what I’ve started,” Baxter says.

Baxter is uncertain what her future holds for her at Northwestern, but she admits that through working with The Salvation Army, the business world has piqued her interest. Whatever she decides to do, she wants to continue working with The Salvation Army in Chicago and help combat hunger.

“There is this divide where people don’t realize there is a need, that there are people going hungry, there are people without homes. There’s a nonattachment between teens and what’s actually happening,” Baxter explains. “Hunger and homelessness are issues that are tough to fix. And when they are hard to fix, it makes people give up trying.”

Allie Baxter is one person who refuses to give up.

American Cancer Society

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Being “the official sponsor of birthdays” doesn’t mean the American Cancer Society shows up at parties to oversee the unwrapping of presents or the blowing out of candles on the cake. It’s a tougher sponsorship, one that requires copious amounts of fundraising, long-term research, and dedicated volunteers. Because they believe everyone deserves to have a full life without the looming threat of cancer.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century,” says Joy King, regional vice president of ACS in Omaha, who previously worked as a regional executive director in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “We want to change the stats from two out of three people surviving today in the U.S. to three out of three surviving. As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.”

The organization, which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, holds 47 Relay for Life events, two galas, and a breast cancer walk each year in Nebraska. Besides the events, ACS also supports several awareness campaigns and collaborative efforts, including Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March and the Great American Smoke Out each November.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century…As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.” – Joy King, regional vice president

“We’ve played a role in nearly every cancer research breakthrough in recent history,” adds King. “Each year, we help cancer patients get the help they need when they need it. For example, last year alone, we assisted more than a million people who called us for help providing free services, like a place to stay while traveling for treatment, rides to treatments, emotional support, and so much more.”

King knows from years of working with ACS that silence and a sit-back-and-watch attitude don’t finish the fight against cancer—it’s action that accomplishes these breakthroughs.

Another person who understands the importance of action is cancer survivor Michelle Belsaas. She was 20 when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “I thought cancer was an elderly person’s disease,” she says. “It came out of nowhere. There’s no known cause, so no one really knows how I got it. I was just reaching down to start the shower one day, and my neck cramped up…I went to the doctor, and he was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lump.’”

Belsaas had two cancerous nodules in her neck, but the doctor told her not to worry. After all, thyroid cancer is one of the lesser evils with about a 96 percent survival rate. “They took my thyroid out the next day, and then they gave me radioactive iodine to kill off the thyroid tissue.”

Although Belsaas didn’t need chemotherapy or lose her hair during her treatment, her thyroid cancer reared its ugly head once more about 10 years later while she was getting a check-up. This time, the treatment made her very sick and required her to be quarantined to a room in her home for weeks. “They had me withhold from foods with iodine for six weeks over Thanksgiving, which was really tough. You don’t realize how much food has iodine in it until you can’t eat it.”

“For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” – Michelle Belsaas, cancer survivor

Today, Belsaas is 100 percent cancer-free. She still goes in for blood tests and ultrasounds every year to make sure her hormone therapy is regulated well—something that she will have to deal with for the rest of her life—but otherwise, everything is back to normal.

When she lived in Lincoln, Belsaas stumbled across Relay for Life. “I thought, ‘I’m a cancer survivor…let’s go!’” she says with a laugh. But when she did the survivor lap at her first Relay event, it suddenly dawned on her that what she had survived was a big deal. “I couldn’t emotionally handle it,” she says. “For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” That’s when she decided ACS was the organization for her. She started getting more involved with ACS, volunteering her time and chairing events, like ACS’ newest fundraiser, Hope in the Heartland Gala.

This year’s Hope in the Heartland Gala takes place on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village and is themed “An Evening at the Races.” In its first year, the event raised over $201,000. This year, ACS hopes to raise at least $300,000 through auctions, honorary luminaries, and more.

Connie Sullivan, who is chairing the gala alongside husband Tim and co-chairs Addie and Robert Hollingsworth, hopes to make this event the premier gala in Omaha. She says she can’t think of another charity that affects more people—both those suffering and those who know someone suffering.

Sullivan herself can attest to the effect cancer can have, as she lost both her parents to lung cancer in just three years’ time when she was in her early 20s. “I hadn’t ever been involved with anyone personally with cancer,” she says. “I was devastated. It happened so quickly between diagnosis and death.” Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, she lost her aunt and her cousin to cancer as well.

“It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.” – Connie Sullivan, chair of Hope in the Heartland Gala

Following the overwhelming grief of losing loved ones to cancer, Sullivan got involved with ACS. She and Tim lived in Lincoln at the time, but they helped out with a jazz festival event for ACS. “We just called and said that we’d like to volunteer, and we started going to meetings. I love the cause. It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.”

Since moving to Omaha, Sullivan and her husband have only gotten more involved with ACS. “ACS does so many good things for people with cancer…Diagnosis is overwhelming. [ACS] is there to help.”

The American Cancer Society Omaha will host its annual Hope in the Heartland Gala on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village. For more information, visit cancer.org or call 402-393-5800.

Bringing Community Responsibility to Life

May 25, 2013 by

Pythons. Hooded Pitahuis. Pygmy Marmosets.

Omaha is known by many across the nation because of Wild Kingdom, Mutual of Omaha’s primetime television show that brought animals to life in our living rooms.

But the show’s impact has been more profound for us (Omahans) than it has ecologically speaking. We identify with and claim the show’s reputation as our own. We feel community pride because, after all, it’s Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This pride generates a strong sense of community responsibility. So maybe not coincidentally, community responsibility is accepted as one of the five Omaha City Values.

Wild Kingdom is one of the coolest examples in Omaha of what is called “traditional philanthropy.” This kind of philanthropy refers to the age-old practice of companies making cash donations or in-kind contributions to worthy causes. Most companies participate in traditional philanthropy because of their sincere desire to be involved in their communities and/or to give something back. Traditional philanthropy promotes reciprocity that produces important business benefits, including increased customer loyalty, higher employee retention, and enhanced corporate reputation.

As compared to traditional philanthropy, strategic philanthropy is a concept that has grown in prominence since the 1990s. This kind of charity involves a process where companies align their community relations initiatives with their core business products and services. Instead of a Wild Kingdom animal television show sponsored by an insurance firm (What’s the connection there?), corporations donate to specific community projects that align with their core competencies. For example, ConAgra does strategic philanthropy by focusing its charity on food and hunger issues, like Kids Cafés.

Some organizations are finding ways to impact their communities through employee engagement practices. Firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) recognize that young professionals crave choice. So they’ve created an innovative program for performance incentives that offers a choice to support a cause in their name. Every staff member gets to choose how they receive their incentive—cash, a charity match, a tech package, or a gift card. This is an ingenious way to bring community responsibility to life.

At the furthest end of the community responsibility spectrum are social enterprises. These organizations flip the capitalist model on its head. Maximizing profits is no longer the purpose of these businesses. Profit is a means to a broader end of enhancing the well-being of the community. Nonprofits, as well as for-profits like Herman Miller, Grameen, and PlanetReuse, are bringing community responsibility to life in this way. Their employees and clients are supporting their model with extreme loyalty.

From traditional philanthropy to social enterprise, we challenge Omaha businesses to continue to enjoy the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that come from bringing community responsibility to life. And don’t forget—a sense of community responsibility starts with our kids. One of the ways the Business Ethics Alliance has promoted this is with our team of moral superheroes who live in the Itty Bitty City at the Omaha Children’s Museum. Take your kids to the museum and kick-start their sense of community responsibility by spending time with superhero Reese.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.

Project Everlast

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first time Akeeme Halliburton was placed in foster care, he was in middle school. His infant brother had been born with drugs in his system, so he and his siblings were removed from their mother’s care and taken into protective custody until alternate care was found. He and his younger brother jumped between foster homes for a few years before they were allowed to return home. But when Halliburton was attending Central High School, his mom became physically abusive, so he called Child Protective Services, who placed him and his siblings back into the system.

“There were good memories and also some bad,” Halliburton, now 20, says of his years in foster care. “When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.”

Halliburton was placed with a foster mom the first time, though their relationship was often strained. “I volunteered at Creighton [Hospital] a lot and always got home pretty late, so she called the cops on me.”

The second time was with a foster dad, who let him volunteer and have more freedom, but Halliburton only received one meal a day, never had proper clothing for winter, and spent a lot of his time alone.

Fortunately, the last foster home he was in was with a woman who provided quality care. “She understood and listened,” he says. “I was a lot more obedient, too, because of the good environment. She didn’t just want me there for money; she cared about me.” But, eventually, Halliburton grew old enough that he was no longer able to remain in foster care.

“When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.” – Akeeme Halliburton, former foster child

While there is always concern for children within the foster care system, there has been a surprising lack of concern in what happens to the youth who age out of foster care when they turn 19. It’s a frightening thought for many former foster care youth, who no longer have a home, steady income, emotional support, medical care, transportation, or education. Worse, the statistics are against them. One in five young people who age out of foster care will be homeless before age 21.

Fortunately, Halliburton heard about Project Everlast, a grassroots effort that promotes community resources to improve a youth’s opportunities and networks for housing, transportation, and health care during the transition to adulthood.

Project Everlast formed in 2007, when the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation met with a steering committee of Omaha youth, the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services, the Sherwood Foundation, and the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation. Together, the youth and the representatives of the organizations developed an innovative plan to help aged-out foster care youth with resources for housing, transportation, health care, education, employment, personal and community engagement, and daily living.

Now, with youth-driven councils all across Nebraska—in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Geneva, and Kearney—Project Everlast is able to provide a source of peer-to-peer support and mentoring to members, as well as allow foster care youth to have a voice in advocating for changes in agencies and systems, locally and statewide. The councils are open to any youth or young adult with foster care experience between the ages of 14-24 and are supported by a Youth Advisor, who provides training and support.

Project Everlast also has several community partners in Omaha that work with them to create a network of support for youth in transition, including Family Housing Advisory Services, Child Saving Institute, Central Plains Center for Services, Omaha Home for Boys, Lutheran Family Services, Heartland Family Service, and Youth Emergency Services.

“Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.” – Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast

“My foster mom told me about [Project Everlast],” Halliburton says. “I didn’t know what it was, but I had seen some fliers outside of my school. We went to a group one day, and after that, I just started going more often and getting more involved. They gave me all kinds of numbers to call for help and resources on how to age out of foster care. If I hadn’t found them, I wouldn’t have aged out with as many benefits.”

“Our work is guided by young people in foster care and alumni of foster care,” says Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast.

Higgs, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, had some past experience in launching new initiatives for domestic violence, homelessness, and HIV prevention. When she heard about Project Everlast, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it and add child welfare into her career expertise. “I was instantly drawn to its philosophy and was really energized by the amazing group of young people who were involved,” she adds.

Although she provides oversight and direction to the Project Everlast initiative of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation, Higgs’ primary responsibility is to convene with community members, nonprofit agencies, the government, and young people to address barriers faced by youth in transition from foster care to adulthood.

“While there is still work to be done, we are well on our way to creating a culture that seeks out and honors the inputs of [those with foster care familiarity] in administering services for youth in foster care and alumni…People who have experienced foster care have important insight to share as we write child welfare policy and create new programs.”

Other organizations focused on foster care often talk about transitioning foster care youth to adulthood through achievements of independence, but Higgs thinks that’s inaccurate. “Hardly anyone lives independently,” she states. “Most people have a network of trusted friends and family that they depend on for advice from time to time or even just for a social outlet. Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age,” says Mary Jo Pankoke, president of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Pankoke, who holds an undergraduate degree in education and a graduate degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been with the foundation from the beginning of its creation in the 1990s. “We bring public and private sectors together throughout the state to prevent problems that threaten the well-being of our children. It’s a wonderful mission that motivates me every day.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age.” – Mary Jo Pankoke, president of Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Having seen the results of Project Everlast’s work, Pankoke knows the initiative is going in the right direction. “In just two years, measuring success in Omaha, more youth received a high school diploma or GED and went on for more training…the number of youth with a paying job [went] from 55 percent before Project Everlast to 68 percent…[and] an increase in youth having full-time, stable employment [went] from 26 percent to 53 percent.”

Higgs and Pankoke both believe that it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that all youth have a fair shot at becoming successful adults.

“I always encourage people to think about how they support their own children as they prepare for adulthood—youth in transition from foster care need exactly the same things,” says Higgs.

“We all win if youth can receive a high school diploma, prepare for meaningful work, find emotional support and connection when they need it, and have a safety net when money or housing becomes an issue,” says Pankoke.

As for Halliburton, his time in foster care and with Project Everlast has left quite the impression. He’s currently looking at colleges where he could study sociology and social work. “[Project Everlast] has been phenomenal,” he says. “Everything they’re doing is for the good of foster care…Any kids aging out of foster care should really think about coming in and getting involved because it’s a great asset.”

For more information, visit projecteverlastomaha.org.

Gesu and Brother Mike

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately, those actions have helped put several first-time homebuyers in new houses.

After years of coaching and teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade, he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high-poverty northeast Omaha.

Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.

“I got to know many Jesuits who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do, we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”

“Everybody should have a decent place to live.” – Brother Mike Wilmot

Wilmot’s work in Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America, he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house [that] their family owns are much better off.” He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.

Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working-poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.

He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr, Jr., grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.

“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting Gesu and raising funds. A recent direct-mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into Brother’s vision,” he says.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”

Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low-income buyers to obtain low-interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments. Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.20130114_bs_0907_Web

Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant, but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.

Barr says Gesu isn’t as well-known as older nonprofit players in the field, but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job, and you qualify for a $70,000 loan, you’re going to get into a brand-new, three-bedroom, energy-efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.

“It’s not just people getting houses…It’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing—to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods. “We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”

Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway, and five new ones scheduled for construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the ‘American Dream’.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here. We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.” – Dan Hall, contractor with Hallmarq Homes

“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four, and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr. “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it…we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.

“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”

Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.

“Neighbors that watch houses for me, I give a gift card. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved, if somebody isn’t supposed to be here, they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”

It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, and now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”

One house at a time.

For details about how to support Gesu, visit gesuhousing.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Filling Mom’s Shoes

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daughters become inspired, motivated, and awed by their mothers as they see them dash out the door on a volunteer mission time after time. They often follow in their footsteps.

But as daughters trail mothers down the volunteer road, they’re finding the path has veered. More women in the workplace means a different approach to volunteering. Meetings once scheduled for mornings are now scheduled for noon so volunteers can return to jobs. An e-mail sent at midnight is now more likely to happen.

How volunteers schedule their time has changed. The dedication and sense of responsibility that daughters learn from mothers has not. Here we share four stories about the gift mothers give daughters that keeps on giving —the gift of volunteering.

Gail Yanney & Lisa Roskens

Gail Yanney became an anesthesiologist in the 1960s when few women held careers. At the time, the consensus was that working women didn’t have time to volunteer. (We know better now.) But she soon became one of Omaha’s most active volunteers.

Her volunteering career began while she was a busy student at UNMC College of Medicine. Invited to join Junior League, she asked permission from her department head.

“He said, ‘Physicians need to be part of their community,’” remembers Gail, who is now retired.

Passionate about the environment, she was a teacher naturalist at Fontenelle Forest on her day off. Gail is also a founder of the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

 “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.” – Lisa Roskens

With her husband, Michael Yanney, she received the Spirit of Nebraska Award from the Eppley Cancer Center last year.

Gail’s daughter, Lisa Roskens, learned from her mom. “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.”

Lisa is chairman of the board, president, and CEO at the Burlington Capital Group, a company founded by her father, who partners with his wife in philanthropy. Volunteering is a family affair at the Roskens’ house where Lisa’s husband, Bill, and their two children join in. They rally around animals and kids and have helped at the Nebraska Humane Society and at Take Flight Farm.

Lisa tries to pass on to Charlie, 13, and Mary, 10, what her mother passed on to her. “We try to instill that sense of giving back as an obligation to being a citizen in a community. I don’t tell them what charities to support, but foster independence.

“Mom said the only thing you get out of life is what you give away.”

Sharon Marvin Griffin & Melissa Marvin

Sharon Marvin Griffin and her daughter, Melissa Marvin, have received many of Omaha’s top honors for volunteering. For Sharon, they have included Arthritis Woman of the Year, Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor, Salvation Army Others Award, and United Way of the Midlands Volunteer of the Year, among others. For Melissa, awards have included the 2010 YWCA Women of Distinction and honors from the Omaha Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Each has been involved in more than 40 charitable activities over a lifetime. Each presently serves on 10 nonprofit boards. Coincidence? Not likely. Melissa has inherited her mother’s zest for volunteering.

“Mom is a professional volunteer,” says Melissa. “No. 1 is the importance of giving back. No. 2 is the importance of how to be a leader, how to work together in teams. I try to emulate that.”

“Mom is a professional volunteer…I try to emulate that.” – Melissa Marvin

Melissa remembers her first volunteer experience at age 7. She and brother Barney, then age 2, delivered Christmas gifts to shut-ins. “We looked on it as an honor,” she says.

The family, including her father, Sam Marvin, who died in 1997, together rang bells for The Salvation Army.

The mother and daughter also have in common busy careers. Sharon, who is married to Dr. William Griffin, has had a 25-year career in real estate at NP Dodge. Melissa is with the Cohen Brown Management Group and is director of Community Engagement for Metropolitan Community College.

Mom has the final word: “The more you give, the more you grow.”

Susan Cutler, Jeanie Jones & Jackie Lund

Susan Cutler has big fans in her daughters.

“I watch all the friends Mom has made and the rewards you get from giving. I have huge shoes to fill,” says Jeanie Jones. “I don’t think she realizes how big those shoes are.”

Those shoes took the first steps to volunteering in her hometown of Council Bluffs, where Susan lived with her husband, Bill Cutler, a funeral director. They moved to Omaha in 1987. “When I started volunteering, I learned so much about my community,” she says.

She volunteered at her children’s schools. “I wanted to meet other parents, learn what was happening,” says Susan, who was a third-grade teacher earlier in her life. She presently is on the board of directors of the Methodist Hospital Foundation and Children’s Hospital Foundation and is co-chairman for Joslyn Art Museum’s 2013 Gala.

“I have huge shoes to fill. I don’t think [Mom] realizes how big those shoes are.” – Jeanie Jones

Her daughters have their own impressive resume of community service.

“I remember Mom was involved in Ak-Sar-Ben when I was in sixth and seventh grades. I had to go to stuff and didn’t like it,” laughs daughter Jackie Lund. The mother of two children is owner of Roots & Wings Boutique in Omaha. But Jackie now goes to “stuff” and enjoys it. She is guild board treasurer of the Omaha Children’s Museum.

“I met some of my best friends through volunteer work,” says daughter Jeanie, who has three children. She serves in leadership positions for such groups as Clarkson Service League, Ak-Sar-Ben, Joslyn Art Museum, and Girls, Inc.

Susan said she didn’t try to influence her daughters. “Your children do what they watch, not what you say.” She continues her devotion to volunteering. “You learn about yourself, as well as about the community. It all comes back to you more than you can ever imagine.”

Sharon McGill & Kyle Robino

Kyle Robino remembers as a child slapping stickers on hundreds of mailings for charities. That was her first exposure to the world of volunteering with her mother, Sharon McGill.

Their family’s tradition of volunteering has been passed down from generation to generation. Sharon inherited the volunteering gene from her mother, who helped establish the Albuquerque Garden Center, and from her grandmother, a strong force in her rural New Mexico community. “I looked back at their lives and learned how they made things better for others,” she says.

Sharon brought along her talents as a ballet dancer when she moved to Omaha in 1968. Not surprisingly, her first volunteer act was helping to build a professional ballet company. A dancer, teacher, board president, and, later, ballet mistress for Ballet Omaha, Sharon took her two daughters along. They attended ballet classes and absorbed the essence of volunteering from watching their mother. She now serves on the Joslyn Castle board.

“I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models. My mom was a great role model.” – Kyle Robino

Kyle and her sister, Gwen McGill, who resides in Napa Valley, Calif., are following in their mother’s ballet shoes.

The JDRF is the center of Kyle’s volunteer work. Five years ago, her older daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kyle’s husband, Mike, is board president of the JDRF Heartland Chapter.

“As you get older, you figure out what your passions are and what causes are personal to you,” says Kyle, who owns Old Market Habitat flower shop. “I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models,” she says. “My mom was a great role model.”

Kyle is now a role model for a possible fifth generation of volunteers—daughters Olivia, 14, and Ava, 7. These young ladies will have big shoes to fill, too.

Pam Stanek

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Boundless energy has always been part of my makeup,” says Pam Stanek, co-owner of Omaha’s The Interior Design Firm, “I’m happiest when I’m busy.”

As the oldest of six girls, Stanek was bound to attain the leadership skills needed to succeed in the ever-creative and competitive world of interior design. “Entrepreneurship is evident in my family,” Stanek explains. “My family-owned businesses, my husband is a retired business owner, and four of my children own businesses.” This would explain her talent as an entrepreneur and the success of The Interior Design Firm, which she became part-owner of over 30 years ago with now-retired Charlotte Dann. Stanek is also an active member of the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) Nebraska-Iowa Chapter, is on the board for UMB Bank, and supports many charitable organizations.

01 Febuary 2013- Pam Stanek is photographed for Omaha Magazine.

However, it’s never ‘all work and no play’ for Stanek. She enjoys golf, travel, and spending time with her family at her lake house in Fremont during the summers. Health is also an important aspect of her life, as she says, “I attempt to keep healthy by walking, exercising, and doing light weights several times a week. I do stretching exercises every day, which I feel is necessary as one ages.”

Aside from her business and hobbies, Stanek prides herself on being the matriarch of her family. She has five children and 14 grandchildren with husband Ed, and says, “I feel I have accomplished many things, the greatest being my family. Ed and I watched our children grow into amazing people.” Stanek adds, “It’s great to be in our 60s and have the opportunity to enjoy our family and friends.”