Tag Archives: feature

The Hidden Menace of Elder Abuse

February 20, 2018 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

During Labor Day weekend in 2014, Jill Panzer and her youngest aunt set out for a seven-hour drive to Hemingford, Nebraska, to pick up Jill’s grandmother, Edna. The two were going under the guise that Edna would be staying in Omaha for a few weeks. Unbeknownst to Edna or her eldest daughter (who was also Edna’s caretaker), the two planned on keeping Edna in Omaha, because they suspected she was being exploited by her caregiver.

Panzer, the granddaughter, suspected something was amiss because her mother (Edna’s second of three daughters) said Edna—who had turned 90 a few years earlier—was appearing more and more confused during visits. Her eldest aunt moved into Edna’s home in the fall of 2011, months after Edna stumbled over her ottoman and injured her back.

Panzer says Edna’s eldest daughter began giving her mother the drug Lorazepam without a prescription to help Edna sleep at night and to help with her anxiety. Edna was later legally prescribed the drug. Then, the granddaughter says her youngest aunt visited Edna in July 2014. During that visit, she reported back to family in Omaha that the matriarch had a gash on her arm from a fall. She appeared extremely confused. Edna’s finances were also showing irregularities, such as missed rent payments that were due to Edna.

“We started looking and realizing there were a bunch of little things happening,” Panzer says.

When they arrived at Edna’s house, Panzer and her youngest aunt noticed Edna wasn’t packed for the trip. Edna’s eldest daughter told Panzer that Edna wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make the trip to Omaha. In Edna’s home, her eldest and youngest daughter began arguing. While Edna and her daughters were talking, Panzer went to her grandmother’s room and began packing whatever clothes she could into suitcases and sacks. Panzer would later find out that many of the things she packed wouldn’t even fit her grandmother.

“I literally just packed up my entire car while those two women were going back and forth about everything,” Panzer says.

As the arguing continued, Edna began to feel ill. She went to the bathroom. Panzer tried to convince her to go back to Omaha with them. Panzer told her youngest aunt, “If I have to call the sheriff, we are leaving this house today with my grandmother.”

Panzer got her grandmother’s walker and helped her into the van. As she buckled her grandmother in, Edna’s youngest and eldest daughters were still talking. Finally, Edna’s youngest daughter got in the van with Panzer.

“I hit my power button, the sliding door in the van shut. I threw it in reverse, and we just drove,” Panzer says.

During the drive, Edna was upset. Eventually, the mood calmed enough that they ate fried chicken at a restaurant in Broken Bow on the way back to Omaha. When they finally arrived, Edna stayed at her youngest daughter’s home.

Panzer and her youngest aunt arranged medical evaluations for Edna. Doctors determined Edna didn’t show signs of physical abuse, but they did note her blood pressure medication was being administered improperly.

Along with scheduling medical evaluations, Panzer began making calls to close any financial accounts that Edna’s eldest daughter had access to, including Edna’s credit cards and bank accounts. On paper, this would appear to be a challenge, because Edna’s eldest daughter’s husband was her power of attorney. All it took was Edna’s verbal OK to close many of her accounts.

“It was that stinkin’ easy. All I had to do was put my grandmother on the phone. It’s almost criminal,” Panzer says.

As Edna’s financial and medical issues were being resolved, the matter of placing her in an assisted living center still loomed. Neither Panzer nor her youngest aunt were able to care for Edna full time. Panzer’s mother (Edna’s middle daughter) lived hours away. Panzer says her grandmother reluctantly agreed to stay in an assisted living center for rehab, but not permanently.

“She’s buried two husbands. She’s always been a fiercely independent, proud woman,” Panzer says.

Since that Labor Day trip in 2014, Edna has continued to live in the same assisted living center. Panzer was able to get a new, independent power of attorney for Edna. Her home in Hemingford was sold, and Panzer had to hire lawyers and go to court to evict Edna’s grandchild (the daughter of Edna’s eldest daughter) from Edna’s house.

“I don’t have a unique story,” Panzer says.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists the forms of elder abuse as the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of an older adult. It also lists neglect and financial exploitation as other forms of abuse. In 2016, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported that Adult Protective Services received 126 cases of elder abuse in Douglas and Sarpy counties.

Attorney Susan Spahn handles estate and trust matters at Endacott, Peetz & Timmer law firm. As people’s life expectancy continues to increase, so does the time when people are living in a “gray area,” which Spahn defines as a place where people are capable of living independently, but at the same time, are vulnerable to exploitation from family members, or telephone and internet-based scams.

“They can tell stories from the past that are accurate, but if you ask them to make a decision that requires thought, they cannot do it,” Spahn says.

When a parent becomes less and less able to make financial decisions for themselves, their children are the most likely to be called to handle the finances. It’s no coincidence that the most common perpetrators of financial abuse for elders come from immediate family members.

Spahn compares the hidden scourge of elder abuse to the rampant spousal abuse that went unreported in the middle of the 20th century. “Nobody would talk about it. And it was viewed as a civil matter,” she says.

Some of the biggest temptations for elder abuse comes when a family member may still be reliant on their parents for financial assistance. Then, when the parent becomes unable to handle their own financial matters, the dependent child suddenly has access to a parent’s bank account and starts writing checks to themselves, Spahn says.

Another issue Spahn has seen is with inheritance, and children who are expecting their inheritance to help them as they age themselves.

“If mom and dad are holding on to 95, then that means they’re approaching their retirement without their inheritance, and they don’t like that,” Spahn says.

Spahn says the best way to prevent financial elder abuse is to appoint someone they trust the most with their bills as their power of attorney.

“I tell my clients the power of attorney is more important than their will,” Spahn says. “The will isn’t pulled out until after they’re gone.”

If a person either doesn’t have children, or has children who live too far away to be an effective power of attorney, Spahn says the next best step is to appoint a corporate fiduciary to handle their financial matters. Most banks have trust departments, where people can appoint independent financial guardians.

If a parent has more than one child, Spahn says one of the best ways to alleviate family tension amongst siblings is to have the designated power of attorney provide copies of banking and financial statements, and use software like Quicken to provide online access to such information.

“If one child is not willing to do that, then that’s a red flag,” Spahn says. “If mom is still alive, and the kids are hiring lawyers, they’ve all just lost.”

To report elder abuse, people are urged to call Adult Protective Services at 800-652-1999. Callers may remain anonymous. Visit the National Center on Elder Abuse at ncea.acl.gov for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Free Space

February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eli Rigatuso has a knack for uncovering beauty. He has been known to stop his car to investigate a particularly exceptional flower in somebody’s yard. He is a man who happily recounts being stopped in his tracks by an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming through the underbrush.

This devotion to the smallest of details in life has characterized Rigatuso’s unique vision from a young age. “I was always fascinated by trying to capture little things,” he says of his earliest explorations of visual art as an 8-year-old with a camera. Prints of close-up photos of the wonders of everyday life, as seen through his personal lens, stacked up as he developed an artistic eye for the unexpected.

Walking into Rigatuso’s North Omaha home is like encountering a surprising glimpse of a lilac decorating your route to work. Now a professional photographer and videographer, his affinity for finding the unexpected extends to his growing collection of works from local artists.

Rigatuso welcomes visitors on a guided exploration of his 21-piece collection. “I’ve had people walk in here who have said the energy in this place is unbelievable,” he says, gesturing to the massive, awe-inspiring painting of a young man with soulful eyes that greets guests. Equally impressive is the drag queen painted on a plastic shower door that divides the living room and kitchen. Next to that are the elegant photos of the annual Metropolitan Community College Intertribal Powwow. The entire collection radiates a peaceful energy that’s undeniable.

Perhaps that energy is a hopefulness—a sense of truthfulness that can only be communicated through the work of local artists. Rigatuso uncovers art everywhere, and throughout his tour, he reiterates that his collection is defined by the profound story behind each piece. His voice trembles as he recounts the moment he first encountered the centerpiece of his collection—the young man with the soulful eyes. “It just literally took my breath away. The moment I saw it, I started crying.” He later learned the subject of the painting was a friend of the artist’s who had died of AIDS.

The artist, John Muñoz, was happy to negotiate with Rigatuso to ensure the work would be displayed in a home where it would be appreciated. When Rigatuso unrolled the painting after purchasing it, he was surprised to discover a second painting in the bundle. “I felt like it belonged to you, too,” explained the artist. Now hanging next to the young man in the living room, the painting is a complementary representation of a mother nurturing her children. It turns out, the paintings are both done on repurposed canvas posters from Muñoz’s day job at Whole Foods.

Many of Rigatuso’s pieces showcase repurposed materials. The collection also contains art done on particle board, a cabinet door, rescued pieces of discarded plastic, and sheet music. The artists run the gamut—a local coffee-shop owner, students, DJs, and everything in between. Each tells a unique story.

Another central piece to the collection features a mysterious woman in shades of blue hanging in the bedroom. It was painted by a stylist who cut Rigatuso’s hair on a day he spent celebrating his trans identity. On the mantle rests a painting of a fiery girl. It was purchased from a 20-year-old he happened to follow on social media. There is even photography from Rob Gilmer, owner of Council Bluffs’ famous home-cooking hot spot, Dixie Quicks.

Rigatuso’s diverse collection has got people talking. He has witnessed his home transform into a museum of Omaha artwork. “Everybody knows that I’ve got a lot of cool art. It’s kind of become a thing.”

But the private museum is about much more than buying art; it’s about cultivating community. “I want people to be encouraged by the fact that people see what they do as something that they want to own.” Rigatuso says. The real goal is “to be able to create an environment for people to come
and be a part of.”

This desire to create a welcoming space for all types of artists comes from a place of love rooted in Rigatuso’s own experience. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” he declares with a laugh. “For the first 50 years of my life, I was something that the rest of the world could accept, and I was dying inside. And when I came out as trans, I feel like I set myself free.”

By creating a space where even beginning artists can feel their vulnerability is welcomed, Rigatuso hopes to free them of any doubts about the value of their creativity. “I really think that when you’re engaged in art, we’re engaging a part of ourselves that is true vulnerability,” he says. “When you paint or you photograph or you capture something and you have the courage to share it, you’re actually sharing a piece of yourself. And that to me is huge.”

As his collection grows, Rigatuso says he hopes to curate an art show next spring or summer. “If anything, I want to leave a legacy of art.”

Visit elirigatuso.me to find out more. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.

Incubators and Accelerators

February 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It takes much more than just a good idea to launch a successful new business. From a comprehensive business plan to office space, starting a new business is no easy task. According to the Small Business Administration, only about half of new startups make it to the five-year mark.

That in mind, business incubators and accelerators offer supportive methods to help convert ideas into viable businesses, boosting startups with capital, a host of support services, and mentorship in exchange for a stake in the business.

Incubators guide a business from its embryonic stages and cultivate early development in exchange for a portion of the business, typically 5 to 10 percent. The time spent in an incubator depends on how long it takes the business to hatch its own workspace, or the amount of time needed to outgrow the current workspace. In many cases, one investor group funds several or all of the businesses in the incubator. Mentorships come from entrepreneurial investors and peers in the co-working space.

An accelerator has distinct differences, one being that the time spent in the central workspace is usually 90-120 days. Accelerators help a relatively well-developed business speed its transition through the final stages of planning and into actual operations. The business owner receives less funding, because the support services are meant to improve the owner’s means of raising capital following the startup’s graduation from the program. Mentorships often come from entrepreneurs affiliated with the accelerator.

Mark Griffis, founder/president of software development firm Aviture, is also managing partner of The Garage by Aviture, a software startup incubator. He says he sees a real need for accelerators and incubators in the community along with increased awareness of their existence and function.

“There are a lot of talented people here in Omaha. But what we found when we opened the doors to The Garage a couple of years ago, we had 200 people pitching to us and out of that there were probably only three who were really actually ready to receive funding and go to the next level,” Griffis says. “There’s just a lot of education that needs to happen.”

Before attempting to apply to an incubator, a startup should have a solid, marketable idea, and often, a solid business plan. The company needs to be able to show potential investors there is something to build on. They must commit to the incubator’s regulations, which often include training sessions and other time-consuming activities.

Griffis emphasizes that while funding is certainly important, the sharing of expertise can save budding entrepreneurs from harsh trial-and-error lessons and is a crucial factor in helping them succeed.

“One of the key differentiators [for The Garage] is how we’ve integrated it with Aviture. In our environment we have such a diverse group of [technology-minded] individuals who can add experience to what these startups are doing. So people who are working…on the Aviture side can help can collaborate with startup guys who are trying to find their way out of the woods,” he says. “It’s not the traditional incubator with a bunch of startups cross-pollinating or creating coalitions.”

Luke Towey is director of finance for Prairie Ventures, a private investment fund and cooperative of entrepreneurs and investors that, at one time, also operated a business incubator. He says that not every applicant will be accepted into an incubator or accelerator, but the business can still be successful.

“It’s not that it isn’t a good idea or that it’s not something the entrepreneur could be successful with, it’s just that they might be better off getting an SBA loan, or grant money, and doing it on their own,” Towey says.

Not all incubators and accelerators are commercial ventures. Steve Bors, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, says the college was one of the first in the state to offer a business incubator on campus more than a decade ago. 

“We’re here to serve southeast Nebraska. That’s our mission, and this is certainly filling a need in southeast Nebraska,” he says. “Here at the Center we will help anybody who’s interested in starting a business. They do not have to be a student. If we can’t help them, we will refer them to some other entity or other service provider who can. Our coaching services are free and then of course we have our incubator on site, which we call our Focus Suites. We have 20 offices that we make available to people starting businesses or who are early in the process.”

Dale Eesley, director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising, says educational institution-based incubators “generally don’t take any equity.”

An entrepreneur who wants to work with a college-based incubator should expect to rent a workspace. While corporate incubators normally require regular meetings with coaches, entrepreneurs at college incubators seek out faculty as a resource for information and coaching.

“The educational institutions oftentimes aren’t set up to easily accommodate the business needs of students. It’s a nice compromise to have an offsite or a nonprofit for venture outside of the university school system. It simplifies intellectual property issues and also it gives students the contacts they need that are outside, like suppliers, customers, and investors,” Eesley says. “I hope that UNO will have [an incubator] in the near future. I’m optimistic that we’ll have space on campus in the next three years.”

Bors says that while many commercial incubators and accelerators are associated with the tech industry, his on-campus incubator fosters businesses in many sectors.

“We think all new businesses are valuable. They’re creating new jobs where they didn’t exist before,” he says. “I’m very proud about how diverse our program is…we have senior citizens, I think over half our businesses are female-owned, we have different ethnic groups, and different religions, etc….There is a lot of collaboration and a lot of leads shared back and forth.” 

Whether commercial or campus-based, incubators and accelerators exist to help businesses succeed, which creates jobs and stimulates the local economy.

Visit garagebyaviture.com, prairieventures.net, southeast.edu/entrepreneurship, and unomaha.edu/college-of-business-administration/center-for-innovation-entrepreneurship-franchising for more information about the organizations mentioned in this article.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

With A Beard and a Smile

October 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walking into Lookout Lounge is a different experience than entering other music venues around Omaha. Admittedly, it feels a little strange driving into a business plaza just south of 72nd and Dodge streets for a punk show. But what distinguishes Lookout (formerly The Hideout) is more than just location. It is the bearded man sitting at the entryway, checking IDs and working on his laptop, that sets this venue apart.

Raised in Copperas Cove, Texas, Kyle Fertwagner knew from a young age that his destiny lay in music. At 6 years old, he was mesmerized by blues concerts in nearby Austin. “Those experiences are ingrained in my memory. There were thousands of people out there enjoying music, sharing that common bond of whatever that music meant to them.”

By the time he moved to Omaha at age 15, he and his younger brother, Keith, were playing together in punk bands. They got their start at The Cog Factory. Like many area music fans, Kyle is eager to share fond memories of that nonprofit venue, which closed in 2002. “That was our stomping grounds,” he says. “That’s where I basically grew up as a musician, as a punk rocker, as a person.” Before their first show at The Cog Factory, Fertwagner recalls that the owners greeted the band and “it just immediately felt like home.”

Recreating that welcoming DIY vibe is what drove him to quit his job as general manager of a local restaurant and take over The Hideout in 2015. Keith had already learned how to work sound systems, and Kyle had learned how to run a business from years in the restaurant industry.

With “a little TLC” and a lot of elbow grease, the brothers made the place their own. Kyle proudly showcases a sign from the original Cog Factory over the pool table. Next to it is the hand-painted mural featuring the venue’s name and the radio tower logo that has become an Omaha icon. Endless layers of screen-printed posters paper Lookout’s walls, and concert-goers have enthusiastically decorated the bathrooms with a vibrant collection of friendly graffiti.

Kyle describes himself as “owner/operator,” but upon attending a show at his venue it is immediately apparent that he does much more than the typical owner. Besides personally welcoming patrons into shows and tending bar, he works the lights and often shadows his brother on sound. But before any of that can happen, “it starts with the band.”

When asked about his work with local promoters and artists, Kyle can’t quite hold back a grin. Lookout is known around Omaha as a starting point for bands that have never played in public before. Its owner is the main reason for this reputation. His voice softens when asked about his role in helping young local artists get their music off the ground: “I think it’s important when you’re first starting out to have a venue you can call home.” This determination to give back to the music community makes Lookout special.

Kyle’s unique philosophy on booking shows is “to not try to take everything on ourselves.” This means more cooperation between venue staff, bands, and promoters. “It’s a team effort.” The additional networking and communication is more work, but well worth it.

From his days in small punk bands growing up, he knows the obstacles and struggles of getting a band onstage. This knowledge helps him guide others through the process.“We try to use our experience to help younger bands grow,” Kyle says. “That’s good for everybody.” He is always happy to reach out to local promoters and say “we’d love to work with you.”

When Kyle works to foster those relationships to put a show together, that’s when the energy of the DIY venue is created. “It’s ‘Alright, cool, we did it, we sold the place out!’ Instead of ‘I sold the place out.’ It’s more of an ‘us’ thing.” Shows that are assembled with teamwork are more rewarding for the band, everyone behind the scenes, and the audience. Those packed concerts are a staple of Lookout’s imprint on the musical community.

After taking care of the band, Kyle’s next focus is his role as head of security. At any show, he can be seen roaming around the audience, keeping out a watchful eye for any sign of trouble. He accepts personal responsibility in creating a positive energy at Lookout, and takes the security of the audience very seriously: “People shouldn’t feel unwelcome here for any reason.”

In order to ensure that everyone feels welcome, anyone exhibiting abusive behavior of any kind will be personally warned and, if need be, escorted out by Kyle himself. He is quick to explain, “Anything that happens here I take to be a personal reflection on me.”

Visit lookoutomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Kyle Fertwagner

Giving Kids 
a ‘Tech-Up’

October 22, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

It’s almost impossible these days to gain employment without some level of technical aptitude and proficiency.

Being able to apply that technical knowledge on-the-job will continue to be required of future high school graduates and subsequent workers to better compete in the 21st century.

And as the most “plugged-in” generation ever, students now and future are eager to learn and apply what they’ve learned in simulated and real-life situations every day.

“Whether they go to college or into a highly-skilled certificate program like manufacturing, transportation, or health care after high school, we want to make them as ready as possible to be successful,” says Ken Spellman, career education coordinator with Omaha Public Schools. “Technology is everywhere and involved with every job in some capacity. We want them prepared to step into any role with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful.”

Through the OPS Career Education program, Spellman, along with certified nursing assistant instructor Tiffanie Wright, engage students to think beyond the classroom into future opportunities no matter if a four-year college education is in their future.

Because skilled labor positions require as much, if not more, specialized technological expertise, training and experience do not end with high school graduation.

If anything, they are just beginning, and OPS wants to make sure its students are on the right track when they do don their caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas.

“Technology is constantly changing, and while CNA job training still tends to be heavily on the physical side (lifting, cleaning, etc.), as a prelude to a career in nursing or health care, being able to use the machines and software needed for patient care is equally, if not more, important,” Wright says.

“Six of the local colleges we work with require CNA certification as a stepping stone to get into nursing. CNAs and nurses are in incredibly high demand, so we want to make sure when our students graduate, they are prepared not only for their current roles but future opportunities.”

Similarly, the Westside School District empowers its students at all levels through its Center for Advanced Professional Studies, with its four strands funded by a Youth Career Connect Grant.

Using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a basis, the four strands include architecture, health science, emerging technology, and business solutions. 

Dawn Nizzi, director of Westside’s CAPS, says the program not only prepares students for future technology in the workplace, but also encourages them to think and connect beyond the actual software and devices that they have had in their lives since they were little.

“We want them to realize that technology isn’t a guy in a basement surrounded by computers and monitors; we want them to realize that technology connects people from all professions and walks of life,” she says. “We don’t silo our students. It’s important that they know how to work and communicate together.

“We want them to leave with vision, and the ability to think critically and collaboratively. Part of being a CAPS is to instill an entrepreneurial mindset—to think innovatively. It’s bigger than just the application.”

Last year, a group of Westside students went to St. Louis to experience and observe a Hackathon, where teams from various schools come together to solve technology problems.

Not only did it put their technological skills to the test, but it also stretched their leadership and critical thinking capabilities. Students decided they would like to host something similar among Omaha’s school districts in the future.

In the Millard Public Schools, students are taught technological competencies at very young ages —starting in the elementary school years—with each step building toward making them more accomplished and ready once they reach high school.

Using One-to-One deployment (in which every student gets a computer for their personal and school use) the Millard Educational Program helps students meet the college and career readiness skills of citizenship, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity to better compete in the 21st century. By using technology, teachers will transform the way students learn by augmenting, modifying, and redefining instruction.

Whatever these future students’ career paths may take as they mature and learn, they will be prepared to not only use technology as it evolves but also work together, whether locally or internationally, to advance that technology even further.

“It’s not so much about the tools as much as it is about seeing students learn through enhanced teaching so they are prepared for the future,” says Ken Kingston Ed.D., Millard School District executive director of technology “We set out on a plan more than four years ago as part of our strategic planning process to enhance teaching and learning. Part of that process is providing choices for teachers and students and making sure they think and act creatively and critically, and can work with one another.”

Bottom line for all school districts in Metro Omaha is that students are more prepared than ever for their future pursuits—no matter what career path they take.

“We’re not only preparing our students, but we’re also preparing our teachers so they can give students the best guidance and instruction,” says Curtis Case Ed.D. Millard Public Schools director of digital learning “Not all teaching is about technology. We leave it up to our teachers to use as much as they want in their instruction. But we make sure that they understand how to use technology to best prepare students to use it as well.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

(from left) Curtis Case, Ed.D, & Kent Kingston, Ed.D

Saving For College

October 1, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Breathe. College can be paid for, and help is available.

When it comes to planning for college, “It’s definitely never too early,” says Joan Jurek, director of college planning for the Omaha office of EducationQuest, a private, nonprofit organization with a mission to improve access to higher education in Nebraska. “Families should start saving as much as they can for college when their child is young.”

For some families, planning for future college expenses may begin as soon as a child is born. This is the optimum time, as putting away $100 per month when a child is less than 1 year old could result in $20,000-$30,000, average, by age 18, depending on the plan.

The myriad possibilities include Coverdell education savings accounts (CESAs), IRAs, custodial accounts, and various investments like savings bonds, mutual funds, money market accounts, and CDs. Professional financial planners and advisers can present the pros and cons for each option. Ample information is also available online.

A 529 Plan is a simple option designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs, says Deborah Goodkin, managing director of savings plans with First National Bank of Omaha. First National Bank is Nebraska’s Educational Savings Trust (NEST) 529 program manager.

On the other hand, not every family can afford to start a college savings plan when their child is born. “It’s also never too late,” Jurek says.

“There’s no wrong time to start; just start when you can,” Goodkin says, adding that not only can any family member start a plan for a child, the NEST system also makes it possible to invite other family members to contribute.

“Whoever opens up the plan is saving for a child’s dream,” she says. “Statistics have shown that kids who know that there is a college account set up in their name are more likely to do well in school and do well in college. You’re setting the expectation for your family member to go to college and do well and think about their career.”

Parents can start saving for college, but at some point, the student will need to become involved in the planning process. This ideally starts in eighth grade, Jurek says.

“This will give them time to make sure the student takes coursework throughout high school to ensure college admission, explore career interests, and research colleges that fit those interests,” she explains. Families can then begin to more specifically assess costs associated with their student’s institutions of interest against available funds.

“The junior year is especially important, as that is when students should narrow their college choices and understand financial aid options. They can do this by attending a financial aid program, going on campus visits, and attending college fairs,” Jurek says. “This will prepare them to apply for college and federal financial aid early in the fall of their senior year.”

One thing parents should not bank on—college scholarships, especially sports scholarships. Only about 2 percent of students receive a full-ride Division I sports scholarship. Further, those full-ride scholarships are only available to boys in men’s football and basketball, and to girls in women’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and tennis. Got a young Alex Gordon? Don’t expect a scholarship to cover the costs of college. That’s because in baseball, like many sports, the team’s available scholarships can be broken into smaller portions, so the “15 available scholarships” may become 20, or even 30, smaller scholarships.

Likewise, be cautious of expecting renewable merit scholarships to finance a student’s entire college career. In some states, as many as half of the B-average students who receive merit scholarships as freshman drop below the acceptable GPA for a merit scholarship by the renewal period for their sophomore year.

Which brings up finanicial aid. Jurek explains that some forms of federal financial aid are need-based, including grants, work-study programs, certain scholarships, and subsidized student loans. Online tools to estimate financial need are available to anyone on EducationQuest.org, but for students to be considered for federal financial aid, they must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.gov.

“‘I can’t afford it’ is a common misconception,” Jurek says. “There are ways to make college affordable including applying for financial aid and scholarships, starting at a less expensive community college, or living at home while going to college.”

Post-secondary education also doesn’t have to begin right out of high school. Adults can start their own 529 Plan, Goodkin says. There is no maximum starting age for college if life circumstances force delays, or if a young person wants to work for a year or two and put away money.

Whether or not a college savings plan is in place early on, the later process of researching college options, finding scholarship resources, learning about financial aid, and completing college applications and the FAFSA can still be daunting.

“Families who are worried about the college planning process—or don’t think college is possible—should be aware that free help is available,” Jurek says.


Alternatives to four-year degree programs

A common theory at this time is “I need a four-year degree!” Do you? Maybe not. In some fields, work experience counts more than a piece of sheepskin. Enjoy working in restaurants? A person could start working right away and work their way up. Many chefs do this, taking jobs as dishwashers or servers and moving through the ranks as they prove themselves.

“In certain areas you can actually earn more than a person who completes a four-year degree, and come out (of college) with no debt or less debt,” says Metropolitan Community College (MCC) Career Services Manager Monique Cribbs.

Others choose career paths that may or may not include some education from a community college:

  • Earning an associate’s degree
  • Earning a certificate of achievement for expanded coursework in a specific area
  • Taking noncredit courses, which can expand a person’s knowledge of one subject
  • Enlisting in military service, which provides career education and paid experience
  • Joining a trade, such as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which allows men and women to “earn as you learn”

A community college also offers core classes at a lower tuition rate.

“Community college is not a second choice or a consolation prize. It’s a valuable option for any person going back and increasing their knowledge or continuing their education,” says Cribbs.

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Deborah Goodkin

A Return to
 the Classics

September 25, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Keyboarding. Computer skills. Microsoft Office. These classes were required of elementary and middle school students 15-20 years ago. Now, there’s typing in elementary school?

Those courses signify just how rapidly digital technology changes, and consequently, how much digital tech impacts the economy and the education system preparing students for careers.

Current and future professionals face some unique challenges in the workforce because of these rapid changes. A recently published PEW Research Center article revealed that 87 percent of workers believe they’ll need further training and have to learn new job skills to keep up with the dynamic demands of technology. The article indicated that some of the most important assets professionals need include creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking.

Multiple schools—at least three in the last two years—have cropped up in Omaha that are able to address these concerns in a unique way. How do they prepare students for an economic landscape that has changed drastically in the last 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down? Not by being cutting edge, but by playing the long game—employing a classical model of education that’s roughly 2,500 years old.

Sara Breetzke, formerly a high school English teacher in Elkhorn, is now the head of school at Trinity Classical Academy, a collaborative, Christian, classical school beginning its second year this fall. Classical education, she explains, is “about teaching kids to enjoy learning and to know how to learn for themselves.”

Classical schooling is made up of three distinct stages of learning that mirror the development of a child. It’s known as the “trivium.” The grammar stage (first through fourth grades), when children are considered “information sponges,” involves memorizing facts and information; the logic stage (fifth through eighth grades), when kids are consumed with “why?”, involves organizing those learned facts in logical ways; the rhetoric stage (ninth through 12th grades), when adolescents want to express themselves, involves critical thinking and persuasion.

Brandon Harvey, newly-appointed headmaster of the two-year-old Chesterton Academy, highlights the importance of the “unity between the content and the method” for learning well. “The goal,” he says, “is that [students] encounter truth, goodness, and beauty.”

Another distinction is the focus on virtue as a fundamental feature of education. A primary goal of the classical education is to create, in Harvey’s terms, “[People] of virtue [who] strive to not just know the truth but to imitate goodness.”

Trinity Classical Academy and Chesterton Academy are Christian schools, though the classical education method began in ancient Greece and Rome and need not necessarily be Christian. Through a variety of sources, classical schooling immerses students at a very early age in great works—from Aristotle to Augustine, Charlotte Bronte to Dorothy Day, Frederick Douglass to Charles Darwin.

Breetzke succinctly summarizes the philosophy behind immersion: “You can’t be creative until you’ve seen people be creative.” While rewarding, this is an extended endeavor—a pilgrimage of learning.

Whereas prevailing models of education assume content should be engaging and fun for students now, and tends toward mass production by teaching to a test, classical schooling assumes content will be engaging and fun once students are good learners, and tends towards character development. So, says Breetzke, “You’re not going to see much standardized testing.”

When it comes to tests like the SAT and ACT, Harvey explains, “Classical schools don’t really focus on standardized tests, and in doing so they actually surpass most other schools [in test scores].” Student success is due in part because the curriculum for each course intentionally integrates with others. Subjects are not treated like cities on a map, unique yet connected. The facts of science relate to the events of history, which are linked to the literature of the time. This method creates curious, critical thinkers. Therefore, Harvey points out, “Classical education is not just for the intellectual elite.”

So how does the classical model prepare students for a tech-heavy business world? By changing that very question. The goal isn’t to prepare students for a type of economy (technological or otherwise), but to create virtuous humans who know how to learn and can take responsibility for themselves and the world around them. Breetzke explains: “Career prep looks different. It’s not skills. It’s character…Skills are much more easily learned than character…We are giving kids resources and riches to draw on that can reinvigorate a tech-heavy business world.”

The wisdom instilled by the millennia-old trivium prepares students for the ever-changing digital-tech economy. Through it, students become people who can discern truth, imitate goodness, and enjoy beauty. While not the skills-based learning most people are used to, classical education instills qualities that a digital economy still needs.

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Visual Narrator

September 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kristin Zahra says she knew from a young age that she wanted to work in film. “Maybe, 12 to 13ish? I remember really loving Pixar animation film shorts,” she says. “So I had a desire to do more of the 3D animation work.”

Despite her dad’s urging to go into engineering, Zahra attended College of Saint Mary and earned her bachelor’s degree in computer graphics.

“He was a civil engineer and also tried to get all my sisters to pursue that path,” she says. “He was one in four for that battle.”

After graduation, Zahra went on to Vancouver Film School, which she says was a great option for her.

Kristin Zahra

“Their program is unique in that it’s essentially a condensed version of traditional four-year film schools. It made a lot of sense to me, being able to invest one year solely to focusing on film, and I viewed it as an opportunity to really do something challenging and completely out of my comfort zone.”

While at film school, she studied 3D animation and visual effects, and kind of fell in love with the city and Canada.

“Vancouver’s film scene was really apparent when I was there, which heightened the experience in a lot of ways,” she says. “My two roommates were extras and had boyfriends that were stuntmen, one was a screenwriter—I’m guessing a lot like L.A. in that way.”

After film school, Zahra moved around the country—Chicago, Houston, New York City, Norfolk (yes, Nebraska)—but she ended up back in Omaha in 2011. She says she knew she would be “calling this home again for quite a while.”

Like most creatives, Zahra struggled when she first started working in the industry. Since she didn’t live in Los Angeles or a place more conducive to filmmaking, she was using her animation degree more in advertising and motion graphics than anything else.

“I realized there was something missing for me,” she says. “What drew me into film was just how alive I felt when I was able to tell stories.”

Over the last few years, she’s been trying to get back into that. She started reaching out to, and trying to work with, local filmmakers.

Which is how she ended up working with Shelly Hollis on his project, The Black O, a film about black crime in Omaha.

Strangely enough, the two happened to run into each other on the street. Zahra says they met one night at a falafel truck downtown. They started talking while waiting for their food and he told her he was in town visiting his family and filming a documentary.

“It piqued my interest and we got to talking more about the work I did and wanting to be involved in film here in Omaha,” she says. “I had been searching for people to collaborate with, especially on film projects that come from a sincere and honest place.”

Hollis’ background is rooted more in the documentary format, which Zahra says brought her back to some of that storytelling she was missing.

For his documentary, Hollis says they spoke with people in the black community—victims of gang violence, ex-gang members, and city council members—and asked them what they thought the issues were.

“We wanted to give the people their voice, to identify their own problems,” he says.

His passion for the project interested Zahra from the start.

“Shelly is that person, void of ego, and his intentions for the film had inspired me from our first conversation,” she says. She adds that working with Hollis, whom she describes as an “exceptional filmmaker,” has been an honor and he has reminded her not to underestimate her skills.

The admiration is mutual. Hollis says Zahra helped him out a lot with the film. “She’s awesome,” he says. “Just incredible.”

“So yeah,” Zahra says, “it seems we were meant to meet, being that we shared an interest in both film and a good falafel pita.”

While The Black O is in its editing process, Zahra still has to make her money. “I keep moving with my projects, that’s for sure.”

She says she continues to do a lot of animation designs that are strictly for income, but adds that she is currently working on a new passion project with a production/animation studio, Edison Creative.

“For me, the passion I have for filmmaking includes that feeling I get when I’m on a set collaborating with a crew or in a studio working on animation or post-production.”

She says this current project is more of a cartoon piece. “It’s got a lot of potential. I’m really excited for it.”

Visit kristinzahra.com for more information.

This article published in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter magazine.

Have Marcey

September 14, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

When North Omaha native Marcey Yates talks about music, his face lights up and it’s as if everything makes sense in his world. From conversations swirling around hip-hop to his wild tales of past encounters with various artists, the 31-year-old lives and breathes his passion for music—and it all started at church.

Yates grew up on 49th and Fort streets, just north of Ames Avenue, where religion played an integral role in his community. The young Yates would often spend time with grandparents, who lived on 19th and Sprague streets, not too far from the home he shared with his mother and father. His grandfather was a pastor at the Church of God and Christ, and would routinely take him to service, where Yates started singing.

“I would say religion was big in my family and the black community,” Yates says. “It was definitely passed on through generations. Church got me into music on both sides of family, and it kept me in church until I was in high school. I sang in the choir.”

After graduating from Benson High School in 2003, he went on to take a few classes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before leaving for Arizona, where he enrolled at the Conservatory School of Recording Arts and Sciences. By this time, his older brother Jeff had already introduced him to underground hip-hop and artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Slum Village, Jay-Z, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. He felt it was time to learn how to make his own signature style of music and establish himself as a credible MC/producer.

“I wanted to focus more on the tech side of music and the other side of the industry,” he explains. “I learned how to make this a business and not just be a rapper. I was able to get a lot practice working on my skill and style doing shows. I got turned down in Arizona, but I had some great experiences. I met Canibus [rapper], who told me about his beef with LL Cool J, and once I was with Method Man passing around a joint in the VIP section.”

Shortly after, the self-proclaimed hip-hop head relocated back to Omaha in 2012. Since then has put much of his energy into the hip-hop collective Raleigh Science Project, which he founded in 2009.

“I established the Raleigh Science Project after my last son [Raleigh] was born,” he explains. “It started as my imprint for my music, but I expanded into a collective after bringing artists on board who shared my vision on hard work and good music. [We had] a focus on building up the hip-hop scene in a positive light, so I wanted to strip the negative vibe associated with hip-hop in my community. That means consistency, quality, showmanship, and being professional.”

The father of three is currently working on the annual New Generation Music Festival—now in its second year—an all-inclusive concert that promotes community awareness, drives traffic and support to other local nonprofits, and provides a platform to retain local talent.

“Our mission is to provide a world-class music festival that promotes inclusion and provides economic opportunities for local businesses, organizations and artists,” he says. “We want to cultivate local talent and artistry as a means to a more secure and sustainable economy in the urban core communities. There are so many resources out here that the people don’t know about because information isn’t made readily available
to everyone.”

Aside from the festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 16 at Aksarben’s Stinson Park, the busy creative is working on a documentary about the life and times of Marcey Yates, a solo EP, a mixtape series titled Chicken Soup, and the Flamboyant Gods II project with local rapper Mars Black.

“I’m constantly working on a new project,” he says. “I want to be one of the hardest-working guys in
the industry.

“Music is the only freedom that is really free,” he continues. “There are no rules to making music. It’s total creativity and a space you can go to anytime. Music is your life soundtrack for every genre in your life—from comedy to drama to suspense. When I get depressed or really bugged out, I create music to pull myself out of the sunken place. Everyone should have a creative hobby or passion because what is important to you, you will cherish and be passionate about.”

Visit op2mus.bandcamp.com to hear Yates’ work.

Roots Down

September 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Keith Rodger where he got his sharp musical tastes and his answer will be simple—from his mother. The 28-year-old Omaha musician, recording engineer, and co-owner of Make Believe Recordings grew up with an eclectic range of influences, which truly shaped his preferences.

“My mother always had a solid taste in music,” Rodger explains. “She gave birth to me as a teenager and I think that had a huge difference on what I was exposed to compared to other kids my age. She was never a musician, but always had an ear for interesting music. She introduced me to the reality of Prince’s lyrics, the anger of Prodigy’s sound, and the essence of Bjork’s personality. There were few limits in our household.”

He also credits his older brother, Alan, with inspiring him to pursue music despite the fact they grew up in separate households.

“When he visited with a guitar and amp one day is when I really wanted to become a musician,” he recalls. “He also introduced me to computer software that was used to make beats, which was what really changed my life forever.”

As he stumbled through various phases of what he refers to as “extreme attachment” to a bevy of different musical genres, he quickly realized there was an infinite amount of exploring to do. He tasked himself with learning the history and adapting to the culture as a young, inquisitive student.

Rodger eventually met Motor City native Rick Carson, another aspiring entrepreneur who was obsessed with music and had recently completed a course in recording/audio engineering at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. The two would establish Make Believe Records and Make Believe Studios in 2012.

“I met Rick in a dusty basement when I was in a band called Lightning Bug while recording our first record,” he says. “I really enjoyed his vision for the music industry and Omaha. What he was trying to build aligned with what I was interested in pursuing as a career. We came from completely different backgrounds and share very different interests in music, but our goals and views are very similar.”

Make Believe Records has been steadily working its way into the publishing realm. The masterminds behind the label have hit a point where their catalog is ready to be launched into the musical stratosphere. With artists like rapper Conny Franko, hip-hop duo BOTH, and soul group Sam Ayer & The Lover Affair—as well as Rodger himself—on the roster, there are several full-length projects on the horizon.

Similarly, Make Believe Studios is buzzing. Carson recently engineered Grammy Award-nominated artist Terrace Martin’s 2016 album Velvet Portraits, and recently mixed and mastered Danny Worsnop’s 2017 effort The Long Road Home. There’s a sense of exciting things coming together behind the scenes.

“We are busy, busy, busy,” he says. “We have some projects coming through this year that I never would’ve imagined getting the opportunity to experience.”

For now, Rodger, Carson, and Tristan Costanzo are hard at work on one of their latest endeavors, the Kismet production team, which recently scored a documentary series for boxing promotions company Top Rank about boxer Terence Crawford and his team at B&B Boxing Academy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ve also been working on an EP and film titled Evoleno,” he says. “This has been a project years in the making. It took me several attempts to try to lock in a concept that was worth pursuing to become my first release. Over time, I got the opportunity to work with a wide variety of musicians that helped me shape my ideas into the concept it has become.”

“I also recently locked in a very small crew for this film to keep our ideas consistent and confident without our own bubble,” he adds. “I tapped Miguel Cedillo to direct and Maria Corpuz as one of our main characters. These people believe in the project as much as I do, and I believe we will make something that challenges everything we know about making a film that is timeless.”

Rodger has undoubtedly blossomed into a key player in Omaha’s consistently evolving music and art scenes. From touring with The Faint as a stage technician and DJing for Omaha Fashion Week to writing music and co-helming the Make Believe Records empire, his tireless work ethic parallels that of any successful artist or entrepreneur. However, he always sees room for improvement.

“I think it’s growing into a scene that is more diverse sonically,” he says. “I’ve noticed there are more younger people embracing new types of popular music, and putting down guitars and picking up synthesizers. My inbox is usually filled with musicians asking me about sound design and I find it exciting and refreshing.

“I truly wish there were more women creating electronic music,” he continues. “I always try to encourage parents to allow their daughters to learn how to program and edit in a DAW (digital audio workstation). Fair balance between genders, race, and cultures helps create better ideas within communities.”

The ambitious Rodger finds surrounding himself with creative individuals, staying focused on his goals, adopting routines that exercise his mental and physical health, and teaching others is the way to reach his ultimate nirvana. He’s ready to put in whatever amount of work it takes.

“Omaha still has a long way to go as far as musicians’ and DJs’ careers being taken seriously by people outside of the music industry,” he says. “We plant seeds and starve during their growth, but when they bloom, we will have a garden to feed families. Music is about to change very drastically for consumers and creators. I’m very excited about the future and want to be a part of it when it happens.”

Visit soundcloud.com/kethro to hear some of Rodger’s music.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Keith Rodger