Tag Archives: Family Guide

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.

Foxes at Play

October 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Charlie Fox spent years on the road working for rock bands as a tour manager, front-of-house sound engineer, and production manager.

For much of his career, all that time away from home wasn’t a problem. He was single and could go wherever, whenever.

Fox was already used to changing his location.

“I was a military brat, so we moved around a bunch when I was a kid,” he says. His father, a native of O’Neill, Nebraska, was in the Air Force and had long worked toward getting back to his home state.

“When I was a junior in high school [in 2001], he got stationed at Offutt, ” Fox says.

Teenaged Charlie was a drummer in a couple of bands that played the Ranch Bowl and a Papillion venue called The Rock. “Nothing that ever really went anywhere outside of Omaha, or really even drew a whole lot of people to the Ranch Bowl,” he says.

Yet the experience helped spark his interest in recording and sound production.

After high school, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Omaha for a year before transferring to UNL.

Though neither school had a live sound program, his time in Lincoln proved beneficial. It was there that he began working at Midwest Sound & Lighting Inc., where a co-worker who owned the public-address system at Duffy’s Tavern gave him opportunities to run the sound board there.

“It was a great place to start really honing my skills,” Fox says. “That was my first live sound gig.”

The experience led him to a career working for rock bands including Cage the Elephant, Needtobreathe, Yellowcard, Mayday Parade, and The Used.

For more than a decade, from 2005-2017, he was on the road for six to nine months out of the year.

“Even though technically my residence was Omaha, I was rarely in town,” he says.

Time went on, and, on his 28th birthday (Aug. 11, 2013) he met Beth, now his wife of three years. Beth spent several weekends on the road with Fox.

“We had a rule that we didn’t go more than three weeks without seeing each other,” Fox says. “So either I would go home or she would fly out to see me.”

Bothersome though the distance may have been, Beth enjoyed the perks of being part of roadie’s life.

“She had only been in four or five states prior to meeting me,” Fox says. “She’s now doubled, or tripled, that.”

Fox also enjoyed the side benefits of being in rock ’n’ roll. The couple state one or their favorite experiences was spending a week at a resort in Hawaii, courtesy of singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, for whom Fox was then working.

“We still talk about that trip, how much fun and relaxation we had that week,” Fox says.

Another of Beth’s favorite trips was going to New York City when Fox was working for Yellowcard. She had never been to the Big Apple before, and Fox wiggled a day off into his schedule to take her sightseeing.

As time went on, being away for weeks at a time became increasingly bothersome, and by 2015, Fox knew the gig was about up.

“When I got married, we had already started talking about what was going to happen with our future,” he says. “Was I going to stay on the road? Would I eventually get off the road? Would we move out of Omaha? In the line of work that I was in with touring, I wasn’t sure that there was going to be a possibility of staying in the music industry and in Omaha.”

At the time, Fox didn’t see a lot of Omaha-area openings.

“I just kind of assumed I would have to move to Nashville, or L.A., or New York,” he says.

As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.

In May 2017, opportunity knocked when Omaha Performing Arts had an opening for a booking manager.

“I had relationships with agents and promoters from all across the country from my touring days, but really hadn’t done a whole lot of booking,” he says.

Yet Fox wasn’t without booking experience. Earlier in his career, he had booked empty calendar spots at The Rock with local bands.

At Omaha Performing Arts, he is booking at a national level.

“I’m reaching out to agents for these national bands and trying to bring them in myself,” Fox says. “We do work with outside promoters as well on occasion, so I am still using those relationships with regional and national promoters to try and bring the highest quality of artists that we can into our venues.”

He says his focus has been to expand what Omaha Performing Arts offers.

“One of the first shows that I booked here when I came on was St. Vincent (Annie Clark), which I think probably shocked a lot of people when Annie was playing here as opposed to a traditional rock club. But that’s what the agent was looking for, and I think that as St. Vincent had grown, that was where her career was going to. She needed a larger venue.”

He says Omaha Performing Arts venues—the Holland Performing Arts Center and Orpheum Theater—occupy a particular market niche for a mid-level space. One of his goals is to maximize the use of Omaha Performing Arts venues by artists who might not otherwise play Omaha as their popularity increases.

“A lot of artists, they play the small clubs, and then they kind of disappear from Omaha for a few years for a lack of venue space,” he says. “Maybe they play in Kansas City or Des Moines or Chicago. My goal is to try and get those artists to keep coming here so people can see them and not have to wait until they’re big enough to be playing in the arenas.”

In addition to career satisfaction, Fox’s work gives him an opportunity to come home each night to his wife and Theodore, the couple’s nearly 2-year-old son. Beth, now a stay-at-home mom, is expecting the couple’s second child.

“Working with Omaha Performing Arts has been an amazing experience,” he says. “Being able to come home every day at the end of the day and see my family, to sleep in my own bed, to have dinner with my wife and son every night…that wasn’t possible in my old career.”


Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information about Charlie and the artists he is booking for OPA.

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

Clockwise from top: Charlie, 
Beth, and Theodore Fox

Homecoming

September 16, 2018 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and contributed

The origins of the first homecoming celebration are unclear. Baylor University, Southwestern University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Missouri have all made claims, dating back to around 1910, that they originated the concept. 

Regardless of when and where it started at the college level, within a few decades high schools across the country were hosting fall celebrations tied to a football game and dance that welcomed graduates back to visit their alma maters.

Although certain traditional elements like the election of royalty and a pre-game pep rally can be found at nearly all homecomings, among local schools, there’s no one right way to celebrate this event. 

“We do quite a few different things; we’ve made homecoming more into a weeklong celebration rather than a Friday night celebration at a football game,” says Ralston High School Spirit Squads Sponsor Jordan Engel. 

Volleyball and softball games are incorporated, a “Mr. RHS” pageant for male students is a popular tradition, “spirit week” activities, and a pep rally are part of the fun, Engel explains. The middle school hosts its own spirit week concurrently, and in past years the school has organized activities for the residents of Ralston from a recreational fun run to a bonfire with s’mores. “We try to change it up each year for families of the students and the community,” she says. 

Jeremy Maskel, Ralston School District’s director of external relations and engagement, says the community involvement is especially important for the small, close-knit city. 

“I’m not native to the area but when I joined the district it really struck me—the amount of alumni who continue to live in district and send their own children to Ralston [High School],” he says. “That intergenerational pride is something I haven’t seen in any other school community I’ve been connected to. Last year we did our first alumni and family tailgate before the homecoming [football] game and we’re looking for ways we can continue to bring alumni in the community back to really celebrate the district and the high school during that week.”

Westside High School has made its homecoming week a districtwide event, says Meagan Van Gelder, a member of the board of education and immediate past-president of Westside Alumni Association. She was also the 1987 Westside homecoming queen.

“Part of our goal is to keep the connection alive for our graduations, so we have tried to create a pathway for alumni to return home, and one way we do that is [with] a homecoming tailgate the Friday before the football game. In the past we had it in the circular area of the parking lot. Recently we have moved it to the grassy area on the alumni house with a nice buffet dinner. There is a parade in the neighborhood around the high school. There is a pep rally that follows the parade, and [that] is when they announce the homecoming court. There are fireworks after the game.”

Millard School District has three high schools, and each organizes its own homecoming activities. Millard West Principal Greg Tiemann says, “We’ve kept the week relatively the same since the building opened in 1995.” In conjunction with the designated football game, the Millard West Student Council coordinates themed dress-up days, a pep rally, and the elections for junior and senior homecoming royalty. The activities are mainly for the students.

Millard North’s student council also coordinates a homecoming week featuring themed attire days, a dance the week of the football game, and other schoolwide events. This high school, however, has abandoned the practice of electing a homecoming court. 

“As a ‘No Place for Hate’ school, and out of concern for protecting students from being bullied or excluded, Millard North has not recognized royalty since 2010,” says principal Brian Begley. “Instead, they make a concerted effort to engage and involve all students in homecoming activities, including those with special needs.”

Bellevue Public Schools’ two high schools coordinate some activities but most of the festivities are school-specific. Amanda Oliver, the district’s director of communications, says parent and student groups are involved in planning.

“Bellevue East has brought back an old tradition, a homecoming parade, the last two years,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of alumni and former staff, long-time community members.”

Bellevue West now hosts a Unity Rally at the beginning of the school year. Although not technically a homecoming event, “It allows us to feature and highlight all our schools and all our kids, and we’ve seen the community piece behind that,” Oliver says.

Elkhorn also has two high schools that plan homecoming activities independently.

 “We have spirit days, a trivia competition about the school, a powder puff game and pep rally that introduces the homecoming court, the cheerleaders and dance team do a special dance and cheer at halftime together, Pinnacle Bank has a pep rally with hotdogs before the game, and the dance is Saturday night,” says Brooke Blythe, Elkhorn South’s cheer coordinator. She adds. “The middle schoolers always have their own section in the stands at the football game.”

According to Omaha Public Schools Marketing Director Monique Farmer, students at each of the district’s seven high schools organize their own homecoming events—and alumni are invited to them at many schools—and create unique traditions. Benson holds a classroom door decorating contest, Bryan has a pep rally at the stadium, Burke concentrates on targeted inclusion for special education students, and North and Northwest host parades. Last year, J.P. Lord School, an all-ages school for students with a variety of complex needs, hosted what Farmer believes to be its first homecoming dance. Parents were welcome and the evening’s culmination was the coronation of a king and queen. 

“That was pretty neat to see,” Farmer says.

Westside alumni association Immediate Past-president & 1987 Westside homecoming queen


 

Written By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Photos contributed by Glenwood Opinion-Tribune

Homecoming is a huge celebration for this town of 5,300, which more than doubles in size for one fall weekend each year.

“I’ve been in other school districts, and it’s frequently a presentation of the king and queen at the football game and a dance afterwards. This town, this week, is amazing,” says Glenwood Schools Superintendent Devin Embray.

Beyond the coronation of a king and queen, Glenwood recognizes its 25-year reunion class as the “honor class.” Most of the class members return for this weekend in which they are honored at the pep rally and circle the town square twice during the parade. They are also a part of the Saturday-night coronation ceremony, as the past student body president gives a speech to the senior class that is similar to a graduation speech.

While many homecoming parades feature the high school classes, clubs, and athletics along with a few politicians, Glenwood’s parade includes at least 180 entries, with class floats from kindergarten through seniors; class reunion floats from five-year through 50-year and higher, entries from homeschoolers and special interest groups such as tractor clubs, and more. 

Coronation is open to the public and includes the presentation of pages, scribes, and gift bearers along with the king and queen. The prior year’s king and queen come back and sit in their thrones before turning them over to the newly-crowned monarchs.

“I can’t even explain the coronation—you have to see it to believe it,” says high school principal Richard Hutchinson.

Glenwood’s homecoming also includes the Outcasts, which was started by a group of non-native residents who felt like outsiders. This group now crowns their own king and queen each year, has a float and royalty car in the parade, and holds a separate dinner and dance.

“There’s so many people within the town that play a big part in this,” says Hutchinson. “The band parents have been the ones that oversee the king and queen nominations. There are parents in charge of the coronation. We have [community members] that oversee the parade…It is a community event.”


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

Getting a New Sense for Concussions

August 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a linebacker for Omaha Gross High School more than 30 years ago, Stephen Eubanks slammed head-first into an Omaha Westside linebacker.

“I still have a very vivid memory of this,” Eubanks recalls. “It felt like someone opened the top of my scalp and poured warm sand down my neck.”

Eubanks got up and “shook off the cobwebs.”

He couldn’t make sense of the hand signals coaches were giving him as the defensive signal caller. He’s fortunate not to have sustained further damage.

Today, Eubanks is supervisor of athletics for OPS with oversight of sports at seven high schools. It’s in that role that he led a charge last summer to outfit OPS players with Riddell Speedflex helmets—high-tech, data-tracking helmets outfitted with the Riddell InSite Impact Response System.

Inside each helmet is a series of sensor pads that gauge impact. The sensor pads link to hand-held devices that track the number and force of hits players experience—in each practice and game as well as over time. An alert is given when impact exceeds a threshold that is predetermined for each position.

OPS was following the lead of Bellevue West, which started using the helmets in 2016, and Omaha Creighton Prep, which last year purchased the helmets for every player. Prep’s cost was underwritten by alum Jim O’Brien, a former football player for the Junior Jays. Bellevue, which started with 12 helmets, last year was able to purchase one for each member of their teams through the support of donors. 

Whereas Prep had been researching a switch to the helmets for nearly a year, the OPS switch was put into motion in summer 2017. Eubanks (and coaches at other schools) had to learn about the helmets’ technology, their uses, and their cost. Eubanks also worked with the district’s legal team to consider legal implications, and protocols had to be established for what happens when a sensor goes off. He got the input of an OPS sports medicine committee. The sensor-equipped helmets cost up to twice the cost of a standard helmet. Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation paid more than $360,000 for the 800-plus helmets.

Once helmets were received, training was provided to coaches and athletic trainers.

OPS had coaches holding monitors. Prep had its head trainer holding the monitor at varsity games and a coach for other levels. Bellevue had trainers holding monitors. 

Each helmet reports the player’s name, number, and position. A sensor going off does not mean a player has a concussion—only that a force strong enough to cause one has occurred. 

“That first fall it only went off two times,” says Bellevue West head coach Mike Huffman. “Both times it was our running back [current Husker running back Jaylin Bradley] actually running over people. A lot of times its these young men that are bigger, they are faster, they are able to deliver the hits, that cause the sensors to go off.”

Coaches look to see if a player is down or has an observable indicator of a concussion, such as reaching for his head or walking with a wobbly gait. They can call the player to the sidelines and have them go through concussion protocol as outlined by the Concussion Awareness Act that went into effect in July 2012.

So what were results? In OPS it was something of a mixed bag, due in large measure to the compressed timetable in which the helmets were received.

“We wish we had more time on the front end, but we can’t control that or turn back time,” Eubanks says.

Syncing was off between the monitors and the sensors in some helmets. Some had battery issues. A single, malfunctioning helmet went off more than 100 times. 

“There’s some work to do,” Eubanks says. “But we’re very excited, and I think that this next year will be even better.”

Each high school had at least one player whose sensor went off and who, ensuingly, was determined to have sustained a concussion. Other times, sensors went off but no concussion was determined. 

“One time, it went off when a kid was just holding his helmet,” says Huffman.

Overall, sensors went off more frequently for linemen and linebackers—which was expected given the more frequent collisions among those players.

OPS was still pulling numbers at press time, but Eubanks says overall, the number of concussions diagnosed among OPS players was down from the previous year.

At Creighton Prep, Dr. Daniel Schinzel, the schools’ athletic director, couldn’t point to any difference in the number of concussions diagnosed. He did like the cumulative data the helmets give, showing patterns for different positions and for specific individuals.

“If No. 88 has an inordinate number of hits at or near the threshold, you can coach the kid on using proper technique,” Schinzel say. “You can say, ‘Look, your hits are very close to the threshold because you’re not keeping your head up.’”

“It’s definitely a great tool,” says Huffman. “It doesn’t prevent things from happening.”

He continues, “Most of the time, you don’t realize the impact of the head hitting the group. Now, when that device buzzes, it makes you think.”

“I think the technology is great, but technology is only going to be useful as a tool if you have the right people running it,” Schinzel says while praising his school’s head athletic trainer, Bill Kleber. “It just gives him more information as he’s doing his job.”

Another point Huffman made is that costs for these helmets will be ongoing, although the imbedded technology is worth it.

“A helmet is only good for—10 years,” he says, though skeptical of that number. “I keep helmets for about 6. So, starting in two years, I’ll need to start replacing them at about 20 a year.”

Sensors or not, Eubanks says helmets are improved over what he wore when playing. “One-hundred percent,” he says.


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

Stephen Eubanks

Superintendent Letters

August 6, 2018 by

The greater Omaha metropolitan area is home to some of the state’s best schools, educators, and students. Superintendents at six of the area’s largest school districts share their thoughts and reflections for the fall.

School Districts

Omaha Public
402-557-2222
students: 53,000 | schools: 81

Archdiocese of Omaha
402-558-3100
students: 20,000 | schools: 71

Bellevue Public
402-293-4000
students: 10,000 | schools: 20

Elkhorn Public
402-289-2579
students: 9,500 | schools: 17

Millard Public
402-715-8200
students: 24,000 | schools: 35

Westside Community
402-390-2100
students: 6,000 | schools: 13


Cheryl J. Logan, Ed. D.

Cheryl J. Logan, Ed.D.
Omaha Public
district.ops.org

Welcome back to a new school year. I hope everyone has had an opportunity to recharge and prepare to hit the ground running.

In July, I officially took the reins as superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. I’m honored to have the privilege to serve our students, their families, and the citizens of Omaha. During my visits to schools and with community organizations and city leaders these past seven months, I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, that OPS is an emerging leader in urban education. I’ve seen it up close and personal. OPS is a gem in this community, and the recent show of support in the passing of the Phase 2 bond is inspiring.

I’m honored and humbled to serve as the superintendent of Omaha Public Schools and look forward to working with the Omaha community to ensure that every student is prepared to excel in college, career, and life.

As I learn more about the district’s strengths and opportunities to grow and build upon our shared vision for the future, I’ve also shared my entry plan, which explains the goals, objectives, and activities of my early work here in Omaha. My four primary areas of focus include: 1) building a positive, collaborative, and productive relationship with the board of education; 2) establishing trust and confidence amongst stakeholder groups; 3) reviewing and studying our fiscal and organizational health; and 4) reviewing and studying curriculum and instructional practices.

The insights that are gained during this process will help the district leadership team make informed decisions, building upon the foundation of excellence that already exists while finding strategic ways to ensure our continuous improvement.

Michael W. Ashton, Ed. D.

Michael W. Ashton, Ed.D.
Archdiocese of Omaha
lovemyschool.com

We are blessed in Omaha to have high support and enrollment in the largest by-choice school system in the state. Nearly 20,000 students across 71 schools enjoy a progressive, Christ-centered environment that remains focused on those subjects most important to our families: faith, discipline, service, and community.

Our schools continue to uphold the tradition of high achievement in academic, creative, and athletic pursuits. Our students continue to exceed the Nebraska average in ACT scores, graduation rates, and college acceptances. An even more pronounced difference is seen when comparing Catholic-educated students of Latino backgrounds or from less resourced households to their non-Catholic-educated peers. But these measures are only significant in the way they contribute to each student’s pursuit of God’s plan for their lives. We endeavor to awaken the greatness that is within each child by engaging the whole family in a supportive community that focuses on each person as a valued creation of God.

Catholic education has what we have always valued—morals, high expectations, rigor, and service—but did you know that each year we enroll more students with disabilities and those from non-English speaking households? Our families, parishes, and other benefactors provide additional resources each year in efforts to provide environments that serve every child. You can also find STEM/STEAM/STREAM labs, fine arts programs, vocational preparation partnerships with local colleges, dual enrollment courses, and a new Dual Language Academy, Omaha’s first bi-literate language opportunity for children as young as preschool-age.

Jeff Rippe, Ed. D.

Jeff Rippe, Ed.D.
Bellevue Public
bellevuepublicschools.org

Here at #TeamBPS, we are eager to kick-off the 2018-19 school year.

BPS and our stakeholders began work on a strategic plan last school year; we’re going through a final review before the plan is presented this fall. Once fully implemented, this roadmap will guide and challenge us towards even greater success. 

We continue to renovate, rehabilitate, and improve existing facilities through our bond program—allowing us to provide students with access to cutting-edge technology, educational and recreational resources, and safe and secure environments where they can learn and grow.

In addition to the many happenings this school year, our focus is #BeKind 

We want to bring awareness to all of our stakeholders on issues our students or staff may face while simultaneously initiating a focus on being kind. Our initiative is not limited to students and staff; we hope to have the entire Bellevue/Offutt community join us in spreading the word about our #BeKind message. 

Our accomplishments in BPS are many. We continue to be fortunate to have a community that supports and values education. Above everything we put our students first. It is the promise of the community and the mission of this school district.

Bary Habrock, Ph.D.

Bary Habrock, Ph.D.
Elkhorn Public
elkhornweb.org

With a renewed sense of excitement and promise, we will open our doors to more than 9,500 students this fall.  We look back with pride on the past achievements and successes accomplished by our students, both in academics and extracurricular activities, while looking forward with enthusiasm to the possibilities open to us in the year to come.  

As a prime destination for educational excellence, our focus remains on student achievement, and it’s this priority that drives our actions and decisions. Together with our dedicated students, supportive parents, caring teachers and staff, considerate board members, and a community that partners with us to ensure student success, we set an expectation of excellence as a district that has grown from rural roots into a premier educational environment. Our students continually out-score state and national averages, and our high schools maintain outstanding graduation rates.  Our community understands the value of attending schools where the names and needs of students are known and understood, and it is this partnership that allows us to continue to provide our students with the best educational experience available.  

As we move forward in our 31st consecutive year of significant student population growth, our ability to live out our mission remains the same as we “unite students, families, educators, and the community to ensure a challenging and enriching academic environment that inspires students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become responsible citizens and lifelong learners.”

Jim Suftin, Ed. D.

Jim Sutfin, Ed.D.
Millard Public
mpsomaha.org

A new year means a new backpack full of fresh supplies. You can spot the ritual at any of the local stores. The class lists are posted conveniently right as you walk in the door. Along with the required No. 2 yellow pencils, composition notebooks, and folders, we are asking students to tuck one more tool into their backpacks this year. Parents, you’ll like this one. It’s free, it works, and students can keep it for life.

We are asking every student to bring kindness to school this year. You’ve probably already spotted the movement in your community. #BeKind is everywhere. Our neighboring school districts are a part of it. Omaha’s mayor, and the police and fire departments are all part of it. Of all the important lessons our schools can teach, we think this one rises to the top. What you do in this world matters. How you go about it matters even more. Please help us help our students learn how to #BeKind.

Blane McCann, Ph.D.

Blane McCann, Ph.D.
Westside Community
westside66.org

I’ve held many roles in my life: teacher, coach, principal, and now, superintendent. Despite the accolades and awards I’ve been honored to receive throughout my career, nothing will top my most important roles in this world: being a husband and father.

I have devoted my career to public education, yet my proudest moments and fondest memories are those spent with my family. I have been blessed with five wonderful children, several of whom are now adults. I often look back on their younger years and laugh with my wife—how did we do it? How did we survive the sibling rivalry, broken windows, and long car rides on family road trips? The jam-packed schedules. The sleepless nights when they were babies, and the long days when someone was sick.

My wife and I are now empty-nesters. To those who still have little birds at home, I encourage you to enjoy every moment. Soak up the crazy things your children say, and listen when they tell you about their days. Try to remember every day that tomorrow they will be one day closer to adulthood and independence. They need you to listen, to play, to teach them, and to love.

We as educators do our very best to give children all of the tools they need to become happy, productive citizens excelling in their strengths. However, even the best teachers cannot replace your important role as parents and caregivers. And as important as our roles in career and community often seem, nothing can or should compare with family. Your efforts at home make our efforts at school exponentially more powerful and worthwhile.

Here’s to another outstanding school year, and to new summer memories made as a family.


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

From the Editor

July 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fall, for me, is full of guilty pleasures. Back-to-school time means purchasing new pencils, pens, and notebooks. Cooler weather means cooking homemade soup and gingerbread. Halloween means gothic novels to read, gothic-inspired movies to watch, and candy to eat.

Fall also means high school football, and homecoming celebrations, for many people in the Midwest. Anthony Flott reports on several schools that have switched from traditional football helmets to Ridell Speedflex helmets, which include tracking capabilities so that coaches and trainers can detect concussions faster.

Kara Schweiss reports on homecoming celebrations around the metro, from schools where the event is mostly for the kids, to those where the event includes activities for alumni and community members. As a student at a high school in southeastern Iowa, I never thought about the term “homecoming” until my freshman year of college. My school just crowned a queen at the game and hosted a dance.

I now understand the meaning of the term “homecoming,” because I live in Glenwood, Iowa, which boasts one of the largest homecoming celebrations in America. 

A sidebar on this is included in Kara’s article, but from my standpoint, homecoming is a sight to behold.

Parade entries assemble outside my house. Parking comes at a premium—the three available spots in my driveway are reserved by Wednesday of homecoming week, and filled by 11 a.m. Friday in anticipation of the 1 p.m. parade. Dining out is a moot point, even ordering a pizza to carry out takes two hours.

Still, homecoming provides memories for many, myself included. I hope this fall edition of Family Guide conjures good memories for you.


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

Daisy Hutzell-Rodman is the managing editor of Family Guide, a publication of Omaha Magazine LTD. She can be reached at daisy@omahamagazine.com.

Scouts of Honor

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lillian Henry heard something scratching on the rolled-down screen of her cabin door at Camp Catron. She cautiously peered out into the pitch black night. 

Screech…screech.

Lilly jumped when she saw glowing eyes. A lot of eyes. Raccoons? But raccoons couldn’t possibly be way up here. Lilly, along with four other Girl Scouts, were packed into a sky cabin. The wooden structure elevated them into the trees well above the ground and out of reach of raccoons.

“We are all going to die,” one girl freaked out, screaming.

Lilly couldn’t blame her. Lilly wanted gum. It always calmed her down. Her sister, Genavieve “Evie,” had what she needed, but she was far away. Outside was whatever had the glowing eyes and was scratching on their door.  Bravery or impulsiveness rushed through the then-12-year-old-girl.

“People don’t make good choices at 3 a.m., even Girl Scouts,” Lilly, now 14, recalls, laughing.

Along with a friend, Lilly walked out in the cool night air. She banged on the door and woke up her sister.

“I was having a scary dream about a bear eating me,” Evie says.

But she didn’t get angry at her sister and laughed it off.  Pawprints on the screens confirmed the girls’ fear in the morning. The sisters believed the raccoons wanted to share in the fun, be honorary members of the squad. This camaraderie and adventure are two of the reasons why the pair have been in Girl Scouts well into their middle and high school years.

Evie, a sophomore at Gretna High School, started as a Daisy Scout, skipped Brownies, and returned as a Senior Scout. She plans to become an Ambassador. Lilly started as a Brownie. The eighth grader at Gretna Middle School is now a Cadette with Troop No. 44640. They are on the fence about camping. It depends on the weather or the mosquitos.

“Mosquitos get you in places you never knew existed,” Evie says.

This doesn’t deter them from zip-lining, tubing, and other outdoor escapades. In fact, the entire Henry family bonds over their love of all things Scouts. Heather is the leader of Evie’s troop, No. 43855. Matt leads his youngest two sons’ Cub Scouts Pack No. 244. Nick, 12, spends his time in Troop No. 282 with the Boys Scouts.

“It’s definitely a shared experience,” Matt says.

The sisters, dressed in their badge-adorned vests, are adamant their Scouts rule. Boy Scouts focus more on camping while the girls’ program offers a diverse mix of fun and education. It doesn’t matter if someone is a girly-girl or a tomboy.

“It [Girl Scouts] balances the love of outdoors and spa parties,” Heather agrees. “Girls just like to have fun.”

Nick, though, enjoys pitching a tent surrounded by the fresh air of the wilderness.

“You hear the crickets. You look up into the night sky and see a ton of stars,” Nick says.

Nick tells stories around a blazing campfire set by his own two hands. Along the way, he is gaining knowledge about being a leader and speaking in front of a group.

Signature programs are offered for boys and girls all the way to senior year and includes such topics as college applications, conferences, or leadership skills. 

Lilly believes the educational opportunities and activities empower women. She made a car out of candy on Engineering Day and learned how to put together a toilet from the only female plumber in Lincoln. Scouting has opened her eyes to a world of possibilities for young women.

Evie loves to help the younger children and meet fellow “sisters.”

“They are full of energy and have these cute ideas. They don’t know the world will fight them every step of the way,” Evie says.

Evie was once that little girl, sitting around the campfire terrified of her first time without her parents. Only 7 or 8, she wanted to go home.

“Why don’t you have some s’mores,” a leader told her. She helped Evie through her fears while they munched on sandwiches of toasted marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. Leaders like these have inspired Evie to become more extroverted.

Wendy Hamilton, a senior development director, met the sisters through the Girl Scout Advisory Group (GSAG) two years ago. The girls connected with Wendy’s gung-ho attitude, determination, and her love of all things pink. 

“Lilly is so positive and represents her age group in a mature way. Nothing scares Lilly, ever,” Hamilton says.

Except maybe raccoons at 3 a.m.

She says Evie is “always supportive of other girls.” Hamilton has seen her become more comfortable with herself. The sisters couldn’t be more different. Evie wants to be an engineer or a dentist. Lilly wants to be an English teacher or writer. The two still fight over things like socks, but the friendship is tight.

Volunteering, including selling those famous cookies, can stack on the hours, but it’s worth it.  The girls earned a trip to Washington D.C. to immerse themselves in history. The family works together to sell Christmas trees or popcorn. It can be chaotic with five children, but it works when the family can unite over shared interests.

Some days are wilder than others, but the Henrys are happy being together.


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

Front row, l-r: Nick, Johnny, and Daniel Henry
Back row, l-r: Heather, Genavieve, and Lillian Henry

Campfire Stories

July 2, 2018 by

Stories for Kids

Here are two campfire tales guaranteed to captivate those peering into the night sky or glancing over shoulders into the shadows…

The Fisher Stars

Constellations have fascinating histories, and different cultures have their own takes on the figures that can be seen in the stars. One of the more famous constellations is commonly known as the Big Dipper, but the Big Dipper wasn’t always known as such. In the early 1900s, a family might have called it the plough (a cultural remnant from England and Ireland). One of the more interesting explanations of the Big Dipper is this sacred story from the Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa):

Once there was a great man named Gitchi Odjig, and Gitchi Odjig was a great hunter. This was a good thing, because at one time on Earth, there was only winter. The world wasn’t completely unpleasant—if you worked hard, you could get enough; but all the days were cold, and all the days were icy. Your life was basically the freezing and thawing of your fingers. Gitchi Odjig’s skills served him well in this cold world.

Gitchi Odjig and his family had heard a story that explained that the sky they looked to every day wasn’t only a roof, it was a floor as well: a floor to a world in which winter was not present. The water in that world was free of ice. The trees wore green glossy things called leaves. You could walk during the day without a coat or hat. It was a beautiful story to hang on to, but even if people believed it, they didn’t think there was much anyone could do about the cold. Things were the way they were.

Gitchi Odjig’s son, however, didn’t think that way. He wanted to do something to make things better. He thought it would be wonderful if the warm world above somehow opened to this one. He held on to the idea.

Then, one day, Gitchi Odjig’s son was hunting, and he got a good bead on a squirrel. The squirrel stood up and spoke: “Please put away your arrows. There is something I think you’d like to know.”

Gitchi Odjig’s son was surprised, but he dropped his weapon and listened.

“You know and I know the constant cold we both live in is no picnic,” began the squirrel. “This frozen ground doesn’t yield much and is incredibly unforgiving. But there is something called summer, and it exists in the world above us. There is a weather that is warm and abundant. Instead of killing me, let’s work together to see how we can somehow bring that world here.”

The son took this information to his father, who felt that this was a sign and that it was time to hold a feast and discuss the matter. He invited all the animals he knew, and together they decided that they would travel to the highest mountain peak, and break through to the summer world.

They found the peak, and cracked through the top of the sky into the world above. They all climbed through. Gitchi Odjig couldn’t believe what he was feeling—the wind wasn’t bitterly cold; the trees rustled with beautiful drifts of leaves instead of clattering and whistling their bare branches; the ground was lush and green, and hummed with the music of insects; the water in the streams and rivers wasn’t cluttered and scabbed with ice. He was standing in the middle of summer.

But the people of that world did not appreciate these intruders, and they did not appreciate that the edges of the hole these intruders had climbed through had cracked and crumbled, and now summer (and spring, and fall) gushed down onto the earth in a giant torrent of colors, and life, and change.

They fixed the hole and started to chase Gitchi Odjig. In order to go faster, he turned himself into a fisher (which is a like a badger, or wolverine) and he was almost caught when he recognized that the people of this world were some of his distant relatives. He called on this connection, and convinced them to let him go.

Although he had gotten free, he could not break again through to the Earth. This saddened him, but beneath his sadness was a deep peace and satisfaction. He had brought the seasons to the Earth. He laid himself down at the scar where he had entered the sky, and was happy.

You can still see him laying there in the night sky, with the four points of the Dipper as the four points of his body, and the handle of the dipper his lithe tail.

The Cornfield Spider

You might have heard of the Jersey Devil, a beast that haunts the woods of New Jersey. That story involves a woman who was in league with evil spirits. She gave birth to a child which appeared normal at first, but then began to grow and change at awful speed, its head transforming into a goat’s head, its body becoming long and winnowed and serpent-like, and its back sprouting great leathery wings.

This area also has a legend like that. At the heart of this story is a beast that makes the Jersey Devil seem tame. This story involves a 12-year-old boy in league with shadowy forces:

One July night, a farmer who tended 500 acres west of Omaha saw his son at the edge of a field talking to a strange figure. The farmer called to his son, and the boy and the figure turned. The figure dissipated into thin air, but the boy ran, setting off up a slope into the knee-high corn. The father gave chase.

He again called to his son. The boy reached the top of the ridge and turned to look at his father. Then he disappeared down the other side. The father ascended. When the farmer was nearly at the top of the wide hill, something rose up from the other side—but it wasn’t his son.

It was a terrible thing with a long thin torso, great long arms, and wild long fingers that ended in thorny claws. It bent over long thin legs. According to the farmer, it was covered in wiry brown hair, and had an almost spiderlike body, with a small long head, like a human’s head that had been pulled in a taffy puller, then given sharp long teeth and wide lidless eyes. The farmer turned and ran. He could hear the thing loping after him. He made it back to the farmhouse, slammed and locked the door, and heard the wild scratching. Then, nothing.

He never saw his son again. However, a handful of people have seen a similar creature on summer nights, sometimes standing still and watching, sometimes giving desperate chase.


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

Lending Book and a Helping Hand

June 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a recent Monday evening, Omahan Kalli Pettit wheeled a squeaky book cart down a hospital hallway. A pair of teenagers jostled each other as they walked past.

Kalli, not much older at age 18, continued pushing the cart toward a family waiting area where she spotted a father busy on his cellphone and a preschooler bouncing from seat to seat.

“Book on a cart,” the young boy shouted with excitement.

“Would you like to pick out a book?” Kalli asked. 

The father placed the caller on hold to help his son.

“Look, Dad! Dinosaurs!”

Even though the interaction was brief, Kalli says seeing the young boy’s smile stretch from ear to ear was worth every bit of time she spends volunteering at Omaha Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

The Marian High School senior started volunteering with the hospital in summer 2017. Teen volunteer services at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center typically increases in the summer months as young students are on break from school. Kalli started volunteering a few hours each week in June at the hospital’s Kids Camp, which is an area designated for siblings of family members attending routine clinic appointments to long-term care.

Friends and family say she’s always gravitated to helping kids. Perhaps it’s because not so long ago Kalli was in their shoes.

Kalli had a recent episode that forced her to spend a few nights at that very hospital’s sixth floor—the next area in which she planned to wheel the book cart. 

It wasn’t her first trip to the hospital. In 2009, Kalli—daughter of Mark and Kristie Pettit—was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9.

“I remember being so young when nurses and doctors explained what was happening to my body,” Kalli says. “I was worried all of the time, but remember how calm the nurses and doctors were. They really inspired me to give back. It’s why I’m here today volunteering.”

She wants to spread that support and positivity to other kids.

“Having been a patient there initiated the whole idea,” says Kristie of her daughter’s volunteer work. “She loves to work with kids. Always has.”

“These kids have so much going in their lives. They’re trying to stay strong,” Kalli says. “As a volunteer, you can’t show them you’re sad.”

Kalli volunteers in the Teen Connection at Children’s Volunteer Services with roughly 50 other students to help in various capacities from the book cart to kids camps and hospital greeters.

“She’s been a great volunteer,” says Angela Loyd, a spokeswoman who oversees the Volunteer Services department. “She’s so cheerful and nice when helping families.”

“I want to make kids feel welcome at the hospital. Just knowing their minds are at ease a little bit as we play is worth my time,” Kalli says. “Sometimes we would paint or draw or play house. Really whatever they wanted to do that day. I always felt bad when it was time to leave because I didn’t want to leave.”

Knowing she has the power to make a difference in someone’s life is rewarding, Kalli says. She encourages other young people to consider service opportunities in their areas.

“No matter what, always have a positive attitude,” she advises. “How you express yourself can affect the way other people view you and how they’ll react to you.”


Visit childrensomaha.org for more information.

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

Kids Otter Know

June 10, 2018 by
Photography by provided

Summer camps with swimming activities will certainly have safety practices in place, but parents should take steps ahead of time to help their children be safer in and around pools and lakes. According to Tracy Stratman, recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, water safety begins before anyone enters the water.

“You don’t even have to be by a body of water; you learn about the dangers and how to be responsible in and around water,” she says. “Water safety should be taught as the child grows like any other safety discussion we have with our children.”

Stratman recommends that families review pool regulations and swimming rules, including such particulars as depth boundaries, the distance between the child and an adult, and which fixtures (i.e., diving boards, slides, fountains) are permitted, along with the appropriate activities for each.

Formal water safety instruction offered by the city and other sources emphasizes rules. Jenny Holweger, YMCA of Greater Omaha’s vice president of program development, says that YMCA water safety and swim lessons have recently been modified, including stronger emphasis on out-of-pool guidelines that also promote safety.

“We’ve decided we should be intentional about teaching things like asking permission from an adult to get into the water and other fundamentals,” she says. “We have been teaching kids to swim for 175 years; it evolves over time. We always concentrated on personal safety and rescue skills, but the water safety skills we have honed in on for participants now are very practical. And they’re things all kids, all adults—everyone—should know.”

Another important concept for parents to practice, and teach, is respect for others in any public swimming facility or beach. That can mean taking turns on slides and diving boards; not shoving, splashing, or dunking other children; and even curbing exuberant shrieking and yelling.

“It’s just being cognizant of those who are around you,” Holweger says. “Just being aware of your surroundings and who else is in that space, and being polite and courteous.”

“Kids are all out for fun,” Stratman says. “But I do think most people use common sense and etiquette, and respect shared facilities and use them properly—just realize there are other people using them as well. You don’t want to impede on anyone’s enjoyment, and you don’t want them impeding on yours. It’s everybody’s space.”

Basic instruction should start when children are introduced to water, Holweger says. The YMCA even offers parent-and-child classes for families with children as young as six months old. These classes emphasize fun and safety. The City of Omaha provides similar classes along with Josh the Otter Water Safety & Awareness program and Float 4 Life training.

Traditional swim lessons are suitable for children over age 3 and focus on more advanced activities like strokes, breathing techniques, and rescue skills.

Even older inexperienced or marginal swimmers can learn survival techniques like “swim-float-swim” or “jump-push-turn-grab,” Holweger says. And non-swimmers can benefit from basic safety instruction, too.“ You do not have to be a water enthusiast.”

Many of the same rules and principles that make public pools more enjoyable also apply to spraygrounds, Stratman says. Adults should insist on respectful behavior like taking turns and forbid roughhousing. And safety is still an issue. “Even though there’s no standing water, there’s still risk.” Running can lead to falls, for instance. On hot summer days, the pavement of parking lots or walking paths leading to spraygrounds can burn bare feet.

Adults can also help protect children in and around water by being safe themselves, Stratman says.

“Adults need to be responsible around the water and be a good role model when it comes to water safety,” she says. “Saying ‘I know how to swim so I don’t need to wear a life jacket when I’m on a boat’ would be like saying, ‘I’m a good driver so I don’t need to wear a seat belt.’ Accidents happen.”

Teaching good safety practices and respect for others “makes being around water fun and enjoyable,” Holweger says. The learning experience can be fun, too, Stratman adds.

“We really encourage parents to be active swimmers with their children,” she says. “A pool or a sprayground is a perfect opportunity for a parent to engage with their child and play with them.”

Out of all the precautions adults—even young adults like camp counselors—can take to keep children safer in and around water, one rises above the rest.

“Adults should know that supervision is the No. 1 thing they can do to protect their kids around the water,” Holweger says.

“You cannot substitute adult supervision,” Stratman says. “[Adults] need to supervise children and watch and be vigilant.”


Visit parks.cityofomaha.org or metroymca.org for more information.

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