Tag Archives: Emily Kerr

An Honors Course 
in Giving

October 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jenna Liakos has already learned the immense value of volunteerism in her community—having completed countless volunteer hours contributing her time to the Omaha Warriors (her little sister’s softball team), the Aksarben Ball, and the Bickford House (through All Saints Episcopal Church). 

In fact, one of her most valuable experiences, and lasting relationships, has come from working through the Munroe-Meyer Institute and volunteering with their Circle of Friends, a social club for people with autism. She started working with kids who have disabilities because, “my brother volunteered at Munroe-Meyer, then my sister did it and enjoyed it, so I did it and really enjoy it so far.” In this capacity, she works with preschool children all the way up to kids her age. “I like being with the smaller kids, it’s just hilarious. Some of the things that come out of their mouths is so funny.” One girl who she enjoyed volunteering with loved the Husker football team, so she makes the volunteers and other kids stack their hands in a team “huddle.” Liakos enjoys interacting with the kids and their imaginations while doing crafts, exercises, and cooking. 

It is Hayden Sommer, however, who has brought her the greatest joy over their four-year friendship. When he first arrived at middle school in fifth grade, he had trouble communicating with others. According to Liakos, since they started working together, “the amount of progress that we’ve seen is really amazing.” 

Hayden’s mother, Heidi Sommer, explains, “he’s pretty severe. Back-and-forth communication is quite difficult for him, but when he sees Jenna, you can just tell that he really likes her [by] his smile.” What is great about their relationship is that it has continued to grow outside of just the Circle of Friends, and Liakos continues greeting Hayden daily in the hallways at school. She continues in a gush, “I think what’s really genuine about Jenna is that…as kids get older, you see these relationships kind of derail, and she has not done that. She values everybody, she’s showing kids and adults in the community the way it should be done.” 

In fact, during Autism Awareness Month, Liakos and Sommer, along with the other members of the Circle of Friends, put together a public service announcement for PTI (Parent Training and Information) Nebraska, an awareness group for parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs.  

While it seems as though she keeps busy with all these volunteer activities, she also competes with a traveling softball team, sings in two show choirs, and participates in musicals. Yet Liakos truly enjoys the time she spends helping others. She says her parents taught her and her siblings, from a young age, to help out in the community and give back to people. 

And the tenacious student has it in mind to beat her older siblings’ immense numbers of volunteer hours served by the time she graduates from Westside High School. Her brother, Jonathan, accomplished 400 hours in his time, while sister Victoria completed 300 hours.

Liakos is extremely grateful for all that volunteering has taught her, particularly the lesson “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Having seen those who are struggling and going through difficult times, she has learned to not judge, but rather to listen to everyone’s story. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard from them,” Liakos says, “they’ve changed how I look at people and life.”


This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Seeking Counsel of the Wilderness in Summer

May 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spencer Hawkins has encountered bears 24 times in his life.

One encounter happened when he woke up early to fish. Pausing to change his lure, he says, “something felt wrong. I turned over my shoulder, and from where I had just walked, a grizzly bear was walking into the water right at me.” With nowhere to go in deepening river, Hawkins called out for fellow camper Ben Bissell, who immediately came to the rescue, bedecked in nothing but boots, boxer shorts, and a shotgun. Then, the bear picked up a dead salmon from the riverbank and simply walked away.

The vast expanse of nature can be intimidating for some, but for Hawkins, it is his summer home. In the remaining nine months of the year, Hawkins is a counselor at Andersen Middle School. He enjoys telling his students about his travels, enriching their lives with his stories while imbuing them with a respect for nature and its beasts. 

Hawkins’ thirst for adventure started in college, when he and three friends began traveling to national parks in Utah and Montana to rock climb. One friend wanted to fish in the location of the film, A River Runs Through It, which gave birth to their new pastime. This gave way to a rock climbing trip to Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming.

The friends’ first big trip to Alaska was prompted by a friend about to enter medical school. They spent 35 days in the wilderness, relying on nothing but each other and their intuition for survival. Hawkins says, “We were really remote, so we had no help. You couldn’t call on your cellphone, we didn’t have anything that worked, so we just relied on each other, caught and ate a lot of fish, moved camp, got rained on, made a fire, and [moved to a] new camp.” Floating down the river for three weeks, the explorers ate only the plants available and fish they caught, which lead to noticeable weight loss.

Fishing has probably made them more attractive to bears. Once, while Hawkins and his travel companions were sleeping, they heard a rustling outside of their tent, and the sound of something rummaging around the surrounding brush. Hawkins, springing from his tent suddenly, saw a 500-pound black bear that had been rifling through the camper’s equipment take off through the forest, snapping trees in half like they were twigs. Luckily, Hawkins recalls, the bear hadn’t found their inflatable raft full of supplies down at the riverbank, which could have easily been destroyed by the massive beast, stranding them in the Alaskan wilderness with no way to call for help. 

Bears aren’t the only animal Hawkins has seen. While cooking freshly caught fish in the dark one night, Hawkins heard noise coming from the other side of the campsite. He shone a flashlight into the woods, where about 10 pairs of glowing eyes stared back at him from behind the foliage. A pack of wolves had come to investigate the culinary aroma. Following a one-minute stare-down that seemed like ten minutes, the winner of the fish supper was the humans.

Hawkins’ days of asking friends to run after a bear in their underwear may be behind him. These days, his trips tend to be more family-friendly, although he continues to frequent national parks.

“When you are rock climbing you have to focus only on what you are doing and the rocks and trees around you. The worries of the world, your everyday life, you don’t have time to worry about.”


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.