Tag Archives: Columbus Nebraska

Mission,Passion, & Joy

August 18, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Roger Garcia has a lot of work to do—relationships to build, programs to create, grants to obtain, and people to help.

Yet the 29-year-old dismisses the notion that his role is “work.” He prefers words like mission, passion, and joy; all of which compelled Garcia on his daily commute to Lincoln’s outreach center for Hispanic and Latin Americans.

Garcia served as director of Lincoln’s El Centro de las Americas from 2012 until recently, when he accepted a similar role as the executive director of Centro Latino of Council Bluffs. Although Garcia is happy to “work” closer to his wife, Yanira, and their south Omaha home, his drive to help the community still borders on obsessive.

In each person that Garcia helps, he sees the struggle that his mother, Margarita, endured decades ago.

Initially an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, Margarita gained a path to citizenship through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Roger’s father, a documented Mexican immigrant, was psychologically abusive and controlling. By 1994, Margarita had enough of him and Los Angeles. She took her youngest of three sons and left for the third and final time.

She grabbed 8-year-old Roger and packed up the few things she owned. Somehow, she coaxed a beat-up old Buick nearly 1,500 miles eastward into Nebraska. She eventually landed in Columbus for a job with the meatpacking industry. Holding only one job satisfied neither her work ethic nor demands on her pocketbook. She took up welding, baking, even cosmetology—whatever it took. Today, her knees are shot, but she owns and manages three rental properties between Omaha and Columbus.

Roger-Garcia-2“She loves this country, and she worked her butt off,” says Garcia, who remembers his mother going to work at 4 a.m. so she could get him to school every morning during her break. “People like my mom just want to work hard and provide for their family.”

The people who come through Garcia’s door are reminiscent of his mother. They are looking for the same things. They want a better life for their children. They don’t readily ask for handouts, he says.

Garcia’s commitment to the region’s Latino community runs deeper than esteem and pride for his mother’s accomplishments. He grew up in rural Nebraska. He feels compelled to help those enduring similar experiences.

He encountered racism in childhood. Once, a pair of white adults accosted Garcia and his fourth-grade classmate with racial slurs. The adults kicked the kids off their bicycles. Such experiences motivated a short-lived denunciation of his heritage in the fifth grade. “I said, ‘No, I’m not Mexican. I’m not Honduran,’” says Garcia, clearly pained by the memory. “I didn’t want to be discriminated against.”

Thanks to music, Garcia eventually found solace and comfort in his own skin. “Through American rock music, I learned that it doesn’t matter how you look,” he says.

His sense of ethnic identity became more complex while pursuing dual degrees in psychology and Latino/Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The occasional volunteer worker at the Omaha Boys and Girls Club found his calling. By the time he finished his undergraduate studies, he had earned UNO’s vice chancellor award for student leadership.

He moved on to Bellevue University to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, and became more immersed in Omaha’s Latino community. He met with elected officials, served as a community liaison for then-Mayor Jim Suttle, and met with other college campus groups and leaders.

He joined El Centro de las Americas in Lincoln as the center’s director and quickly elevated it to new heights. Beatty Brasch, the executive director of Lincoln’s Center for People in Need and a board member of El Centro, laments Garcia’s recent departure.

“He did a remarkable job. He brought the community together and developed programs there for a lot of people,” she says. “We’re sorry he’s leaving. I wish he stayed.”

His list of accomplishments garnered a new accolade in 2015 when he was listed as one of the Jaycees’ Ten Outstanding Young Omahans in the 83rd annual TOYO! awards.

That’s what happens when a passion becomes “a calling on a spiritual level.”

As Garcia and his future wife, Yanira, built their relationship, they also forged a deeper connection to their Christian faith.

“On our first date he asked me if I would ever date anybody who wasn’t a believer,” she says. “I said, ‘No.’”

Two years later, in 2015, they were married, and Roger is now pursuing a doctorate in theology with an eye toward possibly launching his own ministry.

Until then, there is indeed a lot to be done, but none of it should be confused with toil.

“It’s what we should all be doing as believers,” he says. “It’s not an obligation. It’s a joy. It’s a joy to spread His love.”

Visit sucentrolatino.com for more information.

Mark Erikson

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Don’t bother trying to contact Mark Erikson on a Monday night.

From now until, well—forever—he’s booked.

On Monday nights, you’ll find Erikson and more than 100 other Nebraska men singing their hearts out at a Presbyterian church in Fremont. They travel in from all over. Erikson drives from Papillion, an 80-mile round trip. Other members make the trek from South Sioux City, Beatrice, and Columbus. Erikson’s work life may take him to another state, but he’ll fly in just for practice, then back. He moves mountains to make sure he’s in his spot on the riser.

“Just a solid fact of life,” he explains.

There’s always a quorum for rehearsal of the Pathfinder Chorus.

“Every Monday at practice, we put all of life’s challenges aside. It’s like a three-hour break in the week. I’m with my buddies. And we’re singing really well,” says Erikson. “I guess it’s kind of a guy thing.”

That “guy thing” is an award-winning, nationally-recognized barbershop chorus. Erikson’s modesty masks the uniqueness of this ensemble. Widely diverse, both in age and professions, the 43-year-old group first qualified to perform at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Competition in 2010. They’ve continued to qualify and place every year since, a rare feat for a group made up of non-music professionals.

Barbershop harmonizing and a cappella singing in general have enjoyed resurgence in popularity in recent years, thanks to movies like Pitch Perfect and Jimmy Fallon’s “Ragtime Gals” skits.

“It really has made a difference,” says Erikson. “It’s bringing barbershop to the forefront of a new generation, introducing a music style that can fit them too. They don’t have to stop singing after high school. They can keep singing their whole lives.”

The youngest member of Pathfinder Chorus is 13, the oldest, 85, with all ages in between represented. Professions range from student to dairy farmer to military veteran. There are even a couple of pilots on stage. One flies B-52s, the other flies commercial jets. All have one thing in common: a love for music, harmony, and fellowship.

Erikson discovered his passion for barbershop singing while he was in the military, almost by accident. He was stationed at Norfolk Navy Base. An elderly lady who sat near him in church kept urging him to join the choir. So he did. Later, he downloaded a four-part men’s arrangement of “The Irish Blessing,” encouraged friends to sing with him, and never looked back. That was 11 years ago.

At 63, Erikson now serves as district president. He really wants to leave the chorus—and his community—better than he found it. He also umpires baseball. And many of the Pathfinder concerts are fundraisers. In 2014, they donated over $10,000 to the Salvation Army and Goodfellows charities.

“Mark has been crucial to the success of the group,” says retiring music director Pete “P.D.” Stibor. “Mark has the passion.”

The passion and the practice pay off—and not just at competition. On a sunny Saturday this summer, the Pathfinders performed at Burke High School. Despite beautiful weather, the auditorium was full of fans and groupies eager to spend the next 90 minutes enjoying perfect harmony. It was delivered with only voices as instruments, exploring great pop tunes, ballads, and the Beatles, complete with choreography—even “jazz hands.”

“I want to do this as long as I can,” says Erikson. “Then have the good sense to step down when the time is right. We give ourselves goose bumps on the risers. We look at each other and say…We just did that…It’s such a personal thing. Such an emotional thing to be able to share that with your friends.”

MarkErikson