Tag Archives: creative writing

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.

Britny Cordera Doane

July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

You may have seen Britny Cordera Doane sitting with her typewriter on Howard Street in the Old Market. The “Old Market Poet” is a common sight, typing up poems on commission.

“I’ve always been interested in doing something with the community in the Old Market, like the musicians do,” she says. “It’s really fun going out there and meeting different people and running into people I know already.”

“Interested” might be the key word here, because the 21-year-old Cordera certainly has many interests. Cordera has been a street poet for almost three years, since she graduated from high school in 2012. You can count on her being in the Old Market most days, weather permitting; barring days when she has school (she’s a full-time student at UNO, studying creative writing and religious studies).

By no means, though, does her interest in poetry begin and end with her work on Howard Street. Cordera considers poetry to be her calling and published her first book of verse and prose, Wingmakers, this past February with Pinyon Publishing.

“Being able to type at the typewriter and get poems written, even if people aren’t coming up, is also a great gift,” she says. “There are some nights where I write two or three poems that aren’t for other people.”

She writes daily and produces at least a couple of new works a week. (I can tell you from personal experience, dear reader, that’s a demanding output.)

“It’s important to write a lot and to write every day in order to get better, in order to hone your abilities,” she says.

When it comes to that honing process, Cordera has a long list of qualities she would like for her poems to have. In addition to being vivid and free of cliché, she wants her poetry to have musicality.

“I see music and poetry as being one and the same,” she says. “The thing with poetry is that if it doesn’t sound right, I’m not going to use it in my poem.”

Indeed, music was how Cordera became interested in street poetry in the first place. In addition to writing, she plays the violin, and it was her violin teacher who suggested she write poems in the Old Market. Beyond being musical, Cordera believes the poem should be deep and weighty.

“I like a poem that says something, that has deeper undertones to it,” she says. “I’m trying to connect a web of themes and ideals of the world. I’m trying to connect things that seem unconnected already, but are actually thoroughly connected.”

More than anything else, perhaps, the idea of a web tying together a large variety of interests sums up Cordera’s aesthetic. Her other affinities include history and mythology. Wingmakers itself is heavily influenced by ancient mythology, as well as the bird constellations.

As if all that weren’t enough, Cordera plans to pursue a master’s in either religious studies or classics after she graduates. She intends to write more poems and books. She’s also learning Latin and Greek and hopes to work as a translator.

You may be wondering at this point how she gets it all done.

“I just do it,” she says with a smile.

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