Tag Archives: gala

Splash!

April 20, 2015 by
Photography by Andrew J. Baran

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

Soprano Renée Fleming once lamented “My worry is that opera will become a historic art form as opposed to a living, breathing thing.”

We’ll leave any judgments on the notion of “historic art form” to posterity, but the January 16 Opera Omaha A Flowering Tree Gala was big-big-big in the way of itself being a “living, breathing thing.”

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Commandeering an abandoned wing of Crossroads Mall, the immersive experience in the cavernous, stunningly decorated space was equal parts performance piece and installation art, each delivering a magnum opus worth of “wow” factor.

“We wanted a location that would reflect the opera’s main theme, that of transformation,” says Opera Omaha general director Roger Weitz. “Our aim was to turn the most familiar of spaces—a mall—into something completely new, completely original. We go to these lengths because going to a gala should be not unlike going to an opera: a social environment for people to experience music and theatre in a way that is a daring, original, and moving. Above all, it should be fresh and relevant. Opera has the power to be all these things, and I want all of Opera Omaha’s major undertakings to reflect these values.”

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Ensemble members from such prestigious companies as Joffrey Jazz Contemporary, the L.A. Dance Project, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet were joined by recent Juilliard grads in performing modern dance movements, sometimes while being showered from above by indoor rain. Shamu and Gallagher were famous for dousing the most avid of front-row fans; now Opera Omaha has introduced its own decidedly lithe and lyrical version of a Splash Zone.

Among other cast members performing that night, the dancers were joined by both the Opera Omaha Chorus and Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, who sang the title role in A Flowering Tree. They were accompanied by pianists Timo Andres and Richard Valitutto.

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Members of the creative team included James Darrah, the Los Angeles-based director, production designer, and visual artist, along with designers Adam Larsen, Emily McDonald, and Cameron Mock.

Event chairs Mogens and Cindy Bay hosted the sold-out crowd of 400 in raising over $250,000 for the opera company.

And in words that this writer could never have imagined being put into print, the Opera Omaha Gala (a gala, for cryin’ out loud) was for one brief crescendo of triumphal glory the drop-dead hottest ticket of the season.

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Selfless Selfishness


January 11, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A recent visit to the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS) found volunteer Chet Bressman deep into an adoption consultation with Sara Edwards, Amanda Hoffman, and a pup of questionable parentage named Nina. There had apparently just transpired a minor spat of sorts, and Bressman was setting things aright so that an interview could begin in earnest.

“No big problem,” Bressman explained. “It’s just that she was getting a little mouthy, and we had to…the dog…Nina…Nina was getting mouthy…not either of these nice young ladies,” the amiable Bressman sputtered as the women made an unsuccessful attempt to suppress giggles.

“Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
— Pam Wiese, NHS Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing

Bressman was working adoption duties that day, but his other efforts over the last 15 years have included everything from building kennels to driving the PAW mobile adoption unit and more. His tireless dedication—60 hours a week of volunteering is not uncommon for him— led to him and his wife, Louise, being recognized by NHS with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Chet and Louise are fixtures here at the Nebraska Humane Society,” says Pam Wiese, the organization’s vice president of public relations and marketing. “Chet has been here so long and has put in an incredible number of hours. Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

The couple, both longtime volunteers, met at NHS and dated for four years before being married over 10 years ago. “She came with all her papers and licenses in order,” Bressman quips.

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Bressman was part of the organization’s team that traveled to coastal Mississippi on an animal rescue mission in the devastating wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and he joined the ASPCA team for a similar trek to Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado wrought destruction on that town in 2011.

Bressman’s commitment to animals knows no geographic boundaries, but his heart, he says, will always be for the sprawling NHS complex near 90th and Fort streets.

“I want the Nebraska Humane Society to be the very first words people think of when it comes to new pets,” he says. “There are so many puppy mills and so much bad breeding out there, and we don’t put up any unhealthy animals for adoptions. It’s a win-win situation in every way. It’s a win for the animal, for the adopting family, and it’s a win for the community because every adoption opens a new space here for us to do it all over again.”

“He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”
— Sara Edwards

The Bressmans live with Golden Retriever Buddy (11) and cat Sophie (17). Last year they lost Gracie, but her memory lived on when NHS commissioned a caricature of the Golden Retriever for use as the official mascot of the nonprofit’s annual Walk for the Animals.

Back in the adoption room—one brightly painted in the hue of cheery sunflowers—Bressman was coaching Edwards and Hoffman on some of Nina’s special needs. The dog, a Boxer-Dalmatian mix, was born deaf, and that meant the learning of hand signals along with other tips.

“Fold your hands,” Bressman gently explained to Hoffman, but not before she playfully wiped some of Nina’s slobber onto Edwards’ sweater. “That’s right. Now turn away from Nina. You got it.”

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Safety was also paramount in the discussion because each woman, both recently divorced, had a young child at home. Neither of the kids knew that Nina—an early Christmas present—would be awaiting introductions when they returned from school that day.

“Chet was great to work with,” Edwards says. “He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”

“More like an adoption god,” adds Hoffman. “We couldn’t believe it when we learned he is a volunteer. He should have his own show on Animal Planet.”

“I knew that was going to be a good adoption. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love and care.”
— Chet Bressman

Bressman was equally happy with how Nina’s adoption unfolded. “I knew that was going to be a good adoption,” he says. “I always know. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love 
and care.”

And then Bressman admits that he, the seemingly selfless co-winner of such an august award as the Lifetime Achievement honor, secretly harbored the most selfish of motives in his interaction with Edwards, Hoffman, and Nina.

“Best of all, it’s a big win-win for me, too,” he beams. “That one made my day!”

Visit nehumanesociety.org for more on Nebraska Humane Society adoptions, programs, and events.

Boxes of Cheer

January 5, 2014 by
Photography by Justin Barnes

Northwestern Mutual employees recently teamed with the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Foundation to deliver 170 boxes of cheer to children suffering from cancer and other ailments.

“Look, Mom, it’s a glow sword!” 5-year-old Sammy Nahorny chirps as he digs through a bright green Cheeriodicals box packed to the brim with smile-inducing toys, crafts, and more. Sammy, who lives in Columbus, is battling neuroblastoma.

His mother, Erin, is the recipient of her own Cheeriodicals box, this one loaded with reading materials (including Omaha Magazine and HerFamily) along with other grown-up goodies. “We haven’t seen a smile like that on Sammy’s face in three or four days.” She beams as her son shifts his attention to adorning his fingers with light rings and laser talons. “Whoever came up with this idea is a genius,” she adds. “What a fabulous boost it is to have you here doing this for Sammy.”

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Cheeriodicals is a web-based company offering a wide array of customizable gift boxes for all seasons and reasons. The boxes delivered that day were carefully curated so that each child would receive age- and gender-specific surprises. Two Men and a Truck donated its time and people to transport the treasures to the hospital.

“This was a wonderful event that brought our team together to help give back to the community and spend time with so many special children and their families at Children’s Hospital,” says Michael Tews, managing partner of Northwestern Mutual of Nebraska. “We were honored to have the opportunity to bring a smile to so many families.”

“It was amazing that Northwestern Mutual could join us in this way,” says Alyssa DeFrain, development officer of the Foundation. “We could tell they had a great time getting to know our young patients, but what they didn’t get to see was that those little green boxes continued to bring big cheer to the kids and families for many days after the event.”

Multiply by 50

December 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Opportunity leads to success. Success opens the door for even greater opportunity. Such is the cycle of the American dream. But many youths across the Heartland face more adversity than opportunity. Poverty, suffering, and staggering obstacles are their reality.

“Coming from an immigrant family, my parents only studied up to sixth grade in Mexico,” says Oliver Ramirez-Gutiérrez, a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a dual major in biology and foreign language. “My dad works in a meat-packing plant, and my mom cleans houses. We don’t have the finances for my parents to pay for me to go to college. Even though there are obstacles in the way, you just overcome them because you don’t really have an option of failing.”

As a 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben scholarship recipient, Gutiérrez’s options just expanded in a big way. He was one of 50 winners of $6,000 college scholarships presented at the recent Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation & Scholarship Ball.

Gutiérrez says the scholarship opens a whole new world for him. “There are endless possibilities that you can do once you have your college paid,” he says. “That money is basically my future. If I hadn’t received it, I don’t know where I would have gone.”

Founded in 1895 as a harvest celebration, the Coronation & Scholarship Ball honors the volunteer efforts of families throughout the Heartland by selecting their children as members of the royal court. A civic-minded business leader of the region serves as king and the queen is honored for the civic contributions of her family.

“The ball is a party with a purpose, that being each individual scholar and how we can help each individual succeed,” says Jane Miller, chairman of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Board of Directors.

Ak-Sar-Ben partners with the Horatio Alger Association offering Ak-Sar-Ben scholars access to matching scholarship funds from colleges and universities across the country, including many local institutions. “I’m just really proud,” Gutiérrez continues, “that the people at Ak-Sar-Ben were able to see the potential in me to become something great and to one day give back.”

Now take Gutiérrez’s potential and multiply that by 50.

 

Heartland Family Service’s Salute to Families

November 23, 2013 by and
Photography by Billings Photography Studio

Every year, Heartland Family Service honors families from Nebraska and Iowa with their Salute to Families Celebration during the annual Heartland Family Service Family Week. The local families are recognized for their strong family life, community service, and leadership.

 COMMITMENT TO FAMILY

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Robert and Thresia Hettinger of Papillion and their five children sat down and had a serious discussion about how they could help their family after Robert’s sister passed away from multiple myeloma cancer. After rearranging their home and lives to accommodate a big change, they officially adopted six of Robert’s sister’s children while the others stayed with their father. Recently, the family added their nephew, bringing their family total to 14. Robert, a District Network Specialist for Millard Public Schools, and Thresia, a stay-at-home mom, teach by example. Monday nights are solid family home nights reserved so that everyone can focus on enriching their spiritual lives through lessons, activities, songs, and prayer. The children are respectful and disciplined, big on sports, and genuinely focused on what they can do to help others.

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Pastor Nathan and Tina Sherrill of Council Bluffs, Iowa are intentional role models for their children. Together, they worship, study, work, and play. Nathan is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, where he is an active promoter of Christian education and has helped establish an Early Childhood Center, Music Conservatory, Christ Academy, Camp Creation, and other opportunities. Tina has a degree in elementary education and homeschools three of their six children. Because of her natural love for both children and music, she also teaches 12 piano students, has accompanied church and school choirs, and teaches Sunday school. The oldest three children are piano students of their mother and perform in recitals and local music festivals, as well as with St. Paul’s Children’s Choir.

CHALLENGED AND SUCCESSFUL

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Patti Richardson of Omaha is all about kids. For 30 years, Patti has opened her arms to special needs foster children, adopting several of them. Ragina, 22, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADHD, and congenital heart disease; Wesley, 10, has ADHD after being exposed to methamphetamine before birth; Aidan, 7, has congenital heart disease and had open heart surgery at just 2 mos; Anahla, 5, had a liver, small bowel, and pancreas transplant when she was just a year old; and Lasia, 4, is the only adopted child with no health problems. She also has three biological children—William, Jeffery, and Mikayla—who share her pain in losing son Andrew to brain cancer. The family suffered a second loss with Corey, a shaken baby who Patti fostered at nine months and adopted at 3. While the family has had their share of misfortune, Patti believes the humor they share helps them work through the difficult times.

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Chris and Nicole Shives of Council Bluffs, Iowa met at Iowa Western Community College, where she was a Certified Athletic Trainer and he was the Head Golf Coach. In 2008, an MRI revealed a lesion on the left side of Nicole’s brain. Over the next two years, Chris and Nicole married and had their first child, Jaxson—a pregnancy that required a C-section, a blood transfusion, and hospitalization for Nicole. In 2010, Nicole learned the tumor in her brain was a malignant cancer called anaplastic astrocytoma and began radiation therapy. Meanwhile, Nicole started a new career as a college instructor, obtained a second master’s degree, and kept up her duties as a full-time mother and wife. Chris left his job to be home with Nicole and eventually became a Corporate Events Director with the American Heart Association. Today, Nicole is cancer-free. She also gave birth to their second child, Ashlyn, in April 2012.

COMMUNITY SERVICE

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Joel and Felicia Rogers of Papillion have raised their family to value spiritual growth, family honor, commitment to excellence, heritage, and service to the country. They have seven children—Javin, Clifton, Blake, Darnell, Dwayne, Ryan, and Zoe. Joel is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and now serves as Legislative Policy Analyst with U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. Throughout his 28-year military career, he led outreach and volunteer efforts, earning numerous honors including the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal. Currently, he volunteers with the Papillion Recreation Organization (PRO) and Toys for Tots. Felicia serves as the District Director for U.S. Congressman Lee Terry. She has been heavily involved with Wesley House Leadership Academy, Toys for Tots, Girls Clubs of Omaha, and she served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 99th Pursuit Squadron of Civil Air Patrol.

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Dave and Sheri Smith of Crescent, Iowa felt a calling to reach out to children of fatherless families. Together, they founded Trailblazers of the Heartland Ministry to defend the cause of the fatherless, inspiring hope for their family’s future that is rooted in everlasting love. Today, Trailblazers has programs tailored to all ages from newborns to seniors, involving more than 300 at-risk children and 170 families in building healthy, positive reciprocal relationships with each other. The Smiths and Trailblazers have received many awards and honors including the State of Iowa’s National Guard Family Program Community Award in 2011 and the Iowa Governor’s volunteer award in 2012. In addition to Trailblazers, Dave volunteers about 300 hours a year to the MICAH House homeless shelter, and Sheri has worked part-time for the Phoenix House domestic abuse shelter. All five children follow in their parents’ community service footsteps as well.

 LEADERSHIP

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Dr. James and Nancy Armitage of Omaha have provided leadership in the Omaha community and contributed to the medical profession. Jim is an internationally renowned hematologist-oncologist with expertise in bone marrow transplantation and the management and classification of lymphoma. He is the Joe Shapiro Professor of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received the Robert A. Kyle Award from the Mayo Clinic last year. Nancy practiced psychiatric and intensive care nursing until the demands of family and children took priority. Since then, she volunteered on local boards and committees for schools, churches, and nonprofits. The couple was honored as Samaritans of the Year by the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Midlands, and they currently serve as board members and trustees of several community organizations, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center Auxiliary and Faculty Wives Club, Munroe Meyer Institute Guild, and the Nature Conservancy of Nebraska.

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Dan and Martha Peterson of Neola, Iowa own Peterson Angus Farms and have provided leadership to Southwest Iowa communities for more than a decade. Dan and Martha have supported Iowa Western Community College for almost a decade, serving on several boards and committees, chairing and co-chairing special events and projects, procuring auction items, working with youth, and hosting dinners in their home. In addition to IWCC, they are involved with the Council Bluffs Guild of the Omaha Symphony, Bluffs Arts Council, Alegent Charitable Council, Children’s Square, Visiting Nurse Association, and Heartland Family Service. Their children, Alexandra, Anna, Aiden, and Andrew, all belong to 4-H and incorporate the leadership qualities they learned from their parents in the own lives. The family also volunteers in Red Cross Blood Drives.

 

Salute to Families – Iowa will be held Nov. 14 at Mid-America Center (One Arena Way) in Council Bluffs from 6-8:30 p.m. $25 adults, $10 children. For more information, visit heartlandfamilyservice.org or call 712-435-5350.

Salute to Families – Nebraska will be held Nov. 21 at Happy Hollow Club (1701 S. 105th St.) in Omaha from 6-8:30 p.m. $45 adults, $15 children. For more information, visit heartlandfamilyservice.org or call 402-553-3000.

Susan Koenig

November 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the early evening hours of December 7, Susan Koenig will put a fun party dress on her slender frame, bling on her wrists and strappy heels on her feet. She will then travel a short distance from her gracious second-floor home on South 13th Street at the edge of Little Italy to an art gallery in the Old Market. And, as she has done for the last 20 years, Koenig will greet dozens of people—friends, family, and friends of friends, who have paid to be there. In return, she will offer them much more than beverages and food.

Hers will be one of several pre-parties held across the city as a fundraising prelude to the main event later that evening—the annual Night of a Thousand Stars to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP).

“At the beginning, I didn’t know hosting a party would be something I would always do,” laughs Koenig, a founding partner of the Koenig/Dunne Divorce Law firm, whose offices are downstairs from her home. “But my friends have made it evident that it’s meaningful to them because they show up every year with their checkbooks open.”

Meaningful to her friends, but very personal to Koenig; Night of a Thousand Stars offers a bittersweet time for reflection.

Koenig knew something was terribly wrong when her younger brother moved back to Omaha in 1990. Of eight siblings, Koenig had always been closest to Tim. They shared a special bond as the fifth- and sixth-born. While Tim didn’t dwell on the reasons for coming home or mention his health, Koenig saw through the silence.

“Tim’s long-time partner had just died of AIDS,” explains Koenig, the mother of two sons. “They owned a beautiful home and a successful restaurant in Atlanta. Tim sold them and came back to Omaha. He was diagnosed here.”

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time…” —Susan Koenig

In the early ’90s, a diagnosis of AIDS equaled a death sentence. Baffled scientists hadn’t yet put all the pieces of the headline-grabbing scourge together. There were no life-extending medical cocktails. Koenig, who had spent years successfully helping spouses navigate the shoals of Nebraska divorce laws, suddenly found herself in need of answers and direction. What she did next changed her life.

“I called the AIDS hotline. I contacted NAP.”

Still a young organization at that time, NAP became her family’s lifeline by helping them stay positive.

“Tim’s diagnosis wasn’t the focus of our relationship with him,” says Koenig. “He transcended his diagnosis by continuing to be the best of who he was, by continuing to work. He taught us about living. We appreciated every minute we had with him.”

Koenig and her husband, John Mixan, attended the very first Night of a Thousand Stars in 1992 in support of Tim. In December of 1994, the couple hosted their first pre-party. Tim didn’t see it. He died that Thanksgiving.

Through the years, the couple raised over $40,000 for the HIV/AIDS community. Koenig, who now works mainly as an executive coach, still says “we” when referring to the pre-party planning, as her husband was always by her side. Sadly, cancer claimed John two years ago. But memories of John and Tim bring comfort, and the opportunity to gather friends close for a good cause brings joy.

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time,” reflects Koenig. “And it’s just a great party!”

On December 7, hundreds of people will leave the various pre-parties and gather at the historic Mastercraft Building north of downtown for more beverages, food, music, and a silent auction at Night of a Thousand Stars. If you haven’t been invited, call Koenig. Everyone has a place at her table.

Restoring Hearts Celebration

October 4, 2013 by
Photography by Mitchell Warren

In the spring of 2013, young men and women from Omaha Home for Boys programs spent 18 weeks learning, laughing, and collaborating on the restoration of MishMash, the Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail motorcycle rebuilt as part of the nationally recognized Helping with Horsepower™ Bike Rebuild program. With the steadfast support of Jeremy and Mike Colchin, the father-son duo from Black Rose Machine Shop, MishMash was transformed into a stunningly patriotic motorcycle.

By late spring/early summer, MishMash was ready to travel around the state of Nebraska (and western Iowa) to spread the word about the Home and share a message of hope. MishMash heralded the Omaha Home for Boys mission and message at parades, fairs, football games, various community events, conferences, and concerts. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who hadn’t seen the motorcycle or heard about the youth at the Omaha Home for Boys and this life-changing project.

Several months later, the raffle winner of MishMash—Jeff Waddington of Bennington—was selected to the roaring applause of more than 450 Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts™ Celebration attendees. Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin delivered a breathtaking, inspirational speech to supporters, community members, and friends—some old, many new—of the Omaha Home for Boys.

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Matlin touched on the difficulties of growing up as a young child “who just happened to be deaf” with big dreams of being a star—fueled and supported by long-time friend Henry Winkler. It was a message that resounded well with youth, staff, and supporters alike—you can be anything you want to be, and anyone can make their goals and dreams into realities with hard work and dedication.

Youth also took to the stage, joining Mike DiGiacomo and Mary Nelson, hosts of KMTV-Channel 3’s The Morning Blend, to share their thoughts of the Helping with Horsepower™ project, along with their own dreams and goals.

It was a celebration as much about MishMash as it was about the youth at the Home—and a celebration everyone involved will remember!

With the help of supporters, the Home raised more than $30,000 from the bike’s raffle, selling more than 1,700 tickets. Funds will be used to facilitate the programs at the Omaha Home for Boys—directly and positively impacting the hundreds of youth touched by our programs.

Become a Home Partner and Supporter

With the success of this year’s Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts Celebration, staff at the Omaha Home for Boys are in full gear to prepare for next year’s Helping with Horsepower Bike Rebuild program. Stay tuned for more information to become a sponsor, donate to the bike rebuild project, and buy tickets to attend next year’s Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts!

To become a sponsor for next year’s bike rebuild, please contact Trish at 402-457-7165 or PHaniszewski@omahahomeforboys.org. For more information about Omaha Home for Boys, visit omahahomeforboys.org.

The People Behind the Curtain

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dwyer Photography

Considering that the theme of this year’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball is “On the Golden Road,” a nod to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps it’s time we did pay attention to that man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the people behind the curtain. In fact, six volunteers work together on the ball’s production team for nearly the entire year to make certain that the music, the set, the lights, and the words all meld into one seamless production.

All six have full-time jobs outside of the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball.

In M. Michele Phillips’ case, she has several: “Sometimes I’m acting, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m the wine steward at the bistro at Fort Omaha.” As the team’s scriptwriter, it’s up to Phillips to keep track of the massive script, 45 pages that detail the ball’s many players and their movements.

“It’s such a behemoth!” she says. “There are songs that unify the theme; there are quotes that unify it. Sometimes there are procedural things that change, so you can’t even count on the way things have been done in the past.” Phillips adds that the chairperson of the coronation can have a hundred million ideas or none. “So you kind of have to help them, guide them along. Sometimes their ideas are impossible to execute, and sometimes they’re not thinking as big as they could be.”

When those big ideas do come out, Phillips remarks how Jim Othuse, as set and lighting designer for the ball, is always budget conscious but “always comes up with something really spectacular.”

“Getting [the Pages] to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting.” – Patrick Roddy, choreographer

Othuse, scenic and lighting designer at the Omaha Community Playhouse, states that designing the ball’s huge set does get easier over the years; after all, he’s been doing it since 1979. “That was the year the theme was ‘One Thousand and One Knights’,” he recalls. “I was a little unsure as to whether I could handle such a big project; in those days we had lots of scenic elements, far more than we do now.” Thirty-four years later, his favorite part of the job is still figuring out how to fit in each year’s new pieces.

It’s a sentiment he shares with Patrick Roddy, who by day is a dance instructor at Creighton University. As the ball’s choreographer, Roddy’s had to come up with some creative solutions each year, particularly for corralling 50 youngsters during the Page run. “Getting them to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, we decided to get them out onto the runway, which is about 300 feet long. All the pages were bumblebees, and we played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees.’ I gave them some cues for when they should start a big circle. Everybody had not much faith that I could do it. It’s a huge room, there’s so much stimuli, but, by gosh, they did it. They found their little music cues, they found their spots to spread out.”

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Herding people is a task near and dear to the heart of Stephanie Anderson, the stage director. “Let me think, we’ve got princesses and Heartland princesses and pages and governors and councilors and court of honor and performers and orchestra…” Anderson, a veteran actor-director, pauses. “It’s got to be between 100 and 150 people.”

And the majority of the people who will be on stage aren’t used to performing in front of huge crowds, she adds. “You cannot expect that they’ll remember how to hit marks when they’re facing 2,500 people. Suddenly, the lights are on, and it’s deer in the headlights. It’s very unpredictable, and there’s very little you can do about it.” That can just be part of the appeal of the evening. Anderson states that the young pages are adorable because of their unpredictability. Still, it’s a good thing Roddy plans to give them great musical cues again this year, this time with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“We all get along so great. There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time.” – Tom Ware, sound designer

But if we’re talking about music, well, now we’re getting into Chuck Penington’s domain. It’s his life, after all. He’s a professional bass player, as well as president of PANDA Productions, a music production company in Omaha. As the team’s music director, he recalls that his first association with the coronation was in 1974. “At the time, the music director was a guy named Richard Hayman,” Penington says. “He was the orchestrator for Boston Pops Orchestra.” He recalls that, at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball committee had found an old piece called “The Ak-Sar-Ben March,” a commemoration scored for piano, and they wanted to employ Hayman to orchestrate it. “He said he would do it, but he needed a copyist,” Penington remembers. “So I had a great week with Richard Hayman, copying the parts with him. I got to study his scores close up. It was a very nice opportunity for me.”

Sound designer Tom Ware has his own memories of celebrities he’s met thanks to the old Ak-Sar-Ben Stadium where the ball used to be held…specifically the show where Yanni, performing with Chameleon, winked at Ware’s girlfriend. “I made his monitor feedback,” he says a touch proudly. Even though the story showcases his abilities as the typical sound guy twiddling knobs on a board, Ware (owner of Ware House Productions, Inc.) says there’s a bit more to his job for the ball than that. “I personally do the mix for the whole room, but, wow, getting to that point and figuring out what the show needs with regard to the sound, the acoustics? Are there theatrics and extra sounds that need to go along with that? It’s a mix of music and production.”

With such a job description, Ware obviously works closely with Penington and Othuse, and well, everyone else on the team. “We all get along so great,” he says. “There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time. It’s great to see it all culminate in this show. The individuals are greater than the sum of the parts.”

The 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball will be held Oct. 19 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. For more information about the event, visit aksarben.org.

Completely KIDS

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Imagine you’re a child. You spend eight hours at school every weekday, and you return home to an empty house every night. Sometimes, your only meal is the lunch provided at school. Your parents work day and night to provide for your family, but it’s never enough. Meanwhile, you have homework that you desperately need help with, but there’s no one around to help you. You want to talk about school, the friends you’ve made, or your latest art project, but you’re alone.

This is the life of many children in the low-income neighborhoods of the Omaha community. But it doesn’t have to be.

Completely KIDS is determined to make sure it isn’t. Enriching activities, help with homework, nutritious snacks, and people to talk to for guidance—these are all things the nonprofit organization offers to youth and families through after-school and family strengthening programs.

The organization was formerly Camp Fire USA Midlands Council, a nonprofit founded in 1920 as a club for girls and young women. In the 1970s and ’80s, the program admitted boys and young men, reaching out to the needs of the underserved through after-school activities in North and South Omaha. Now, Completely KIDS—which disaffiliated from the national Camp Fire organization in 2011 to keep its funds within the Omaha community—serves more than 2,000 youth from pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as their families.

Penny Parker, executive director of Completely KIDS, has devoted her professional career to serving children and families. Previously, she worked with American Red Cross, the Nebraska Department of Social Services, Child Saving Institute, and Douglas County Social Services.

“I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.” – Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator

“My prior employment focused on working with children who were already involved in the child welfare system, and I wanted to work at an agency where I could work with children to keep them out of the system,” she explains. That’s why she applied for the position with Completely KIDS, which she’s occupied for 22 years now.

Parker believes Omaha needs Completely KIDS because it offers out-of-school programming and family outreach services in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the community. “We provide opportunities for children and families that they would not otherwise experience, [as well as] programming to children who reside in homeless shelters. We [also] provide 385 weekend backpacks of food for children in our programs who may have little or no food to eat on the weekend.”

Making a difference in the lives of youth and families is what Parker thinks is the most important aspect of the organization’s work. If you ask her what her favorite memory of working with Completely KIDS is, she can list several: “The children who tell me that participating in one of our activities is the best day of their life; the youth who have graduated from our program and come to work for us; the children who had to beg for food before they got involved in our weekend food program; the teen who said that we saved her life…”

Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator at Field Club Elementary School for Completely KIDS, can certainly attest to the organization’s impact on the lives of youth, as she herself was helped by the program.

“It was long, long ago,” she says. “I was invited by one of my close friends in fifth grade. She told me about this program, and, of course, it was about a place to hang out other than home.”

Hernandez says Completely KIDS aided her more on a personal level than on a resource level. “Hispanic parents tend to be more at work to make ends meet than with their kids. I know Hispanic parents view this as giving children the necessities—food, clothing, and shelter. But it’s not enough. Youth need guidance,” she explains. “I think this is what [this program] was to me and many of the other youth.”

Today, Hernandez is a senior at the University of Phoenix, where she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in health administration. She’s also a mother to a 2-year-old son, Nazim. She believes her life has gone in a good direction because of the support she received from Completely Kids during her youth.

“Never in a million years did I think I would have ended up working with my community in this manner…I am very happy to be doing what changed my life growing up,” she says. “I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.”

Even if she doesn’t work directly for Completely KIDS in the future, Hernandez plans to remain involved with the organization. “I would love to keep volunteering and donating because I know what their intentions are…I really would love to help them become nationally known and be able to serve more youth citywide.”

“I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer…I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess.” – Lynn Gray, volunteer

Lynn Gray, a special needs paraprofessional at Millard West High School in the Millard Public Schools district, began volunteering with Completely KIDS more than a decade ago after learning about their mission.

Back in 2001, Gray read an article in the Omaha World-Herald about Completely KIDS. “I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer,” he says. Shortly after, he began working with the nonprofit, helping kids with their homework and doing activities with them.

Although he and his wife, Cindy, don’t have children of their own, Gray loves working with kids and always has. As a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln years ago, he helped with a special needs swimming program through Lincoln Parks & Recreation.

These days, Gray volunteers playing chess with Completely KIDS youth. Gray learned how to play chess when he was 11, and it’s a passion he loves to share. “I read that they were playing chess in schools and how important it was for growing children, so I thought it would be neat to implement into the program.”

It’s not a formal chess club, of course. Gray says it’s just for fun. “Working together is a major benefit of chess. For some kids, they learn decision-making and problem-solving; others learn patience.” One of the things he enjoys the most is watching the older, more experienced chess players help the younger, newer kids just learning the game.

“I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess…I’ve got so many memories,” Gray adds. “I’m just very thankful for this opportunity with Completely KIDS.”

Volunteers, as well as donations, are always needed to continue providing quality programs for youth and families in the community. Events, like the upcoming Big Red Tailgate, which will be held Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at Embassy Suites La Vista (12520 Westport Pkwy.), are major fundraisers for the organization. For more information about Completely KIDS, visit completelykids.org or call 402-397-5809.

Lessons in Transforming Lives

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Ken Merchant

When a group of Omaha Home for Boys and Jacob’s Place residents helped put the finishing touches on a customized 1999 Harley Davidson motorcycle this May, they accomplished something bigger than themselves.

As participants in OHB’s Horsepower Bike Rebuild Program, the youth worked four months under the supervision of adults to outfit a bare-bones bike with all custom features. That bike, dubbed Mish Mash, is being raffled off this fall and will be awarded to a winner at Omaha Home for Boys’ September 26 fundraiser, Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts. Fittingly, the motivational speaker for the 6 p.m. Hilton Omaha event is actor-producer-director-author Henry Winkler, who earned fame playing the motorcycle-riding character The Fonz on the 1970s TV mega-hit, Happy Days. (Editor’s Note: Marlee Matlin has replaced Henry Winkler as the guest speaker for the event, as Winkler had another obligation come up.)

Leading up to the event, the bike is being showcased at parades and shows to help boost raffle sales and raise awareness about Omaha Home for Boys’ and Jacob’s Place’s mission, serving youth. Founded in 1920, OHB is a residential program that provides at-risk boys and young men ages 10-18 with family structure, positive reinforcement, and educational support to help them become successful, independent adults. It’s sister program, Jacob’s Place, has a similar mission serving both young men and women ages 17-21.

OHB events manager Trish Haniszewski says the bike rebuild program, which originates out of Mitchell, S.D., is intended to empower youth through structured, hands-on work rebuilding old or damaged bikes.

She says the work the Omaha youth put into salvaging their bike “is symbolic of ‘refurbish a youth, refurbish a life.’” The person she recruited to be the program’s bike mechanic facilitator, Jeremy Colchin of Black Rose Machine Shop, found the experience more meaningful than he expected.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done…The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.” – Jeremy Colchin, Black Rose Machine Shop

“The joy I had after the first night of working with the kids was like nothing I ever experienced before,” says Colchin. “I didn’t expect to get attached to these kids.”

His father, Black Rose owner Mike Colchin, also mentored the youth.

Jeremy says the connection with some youth was immediate and with others, gradual. “You gotta pull them in…We seemed to pull them in in a good way, and that’s what matters. They were having fun when they were here,” says Colchin, who met with the youth Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howe Garage on campus. “Every single one of them has been extremely polite and fun to be around and easy to work with. It’s promising.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done; it’s about using [the process] as a tool for kids. In the big scheme of things, the bike’s the side note. The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.”

Colchin says the experience reminded him of when he began working under his father at age 16.

Getting the bike tricked out offered many teachable moments. “I thought it was a real interesting way to use what I know to work with these kids and teach them not just about motorcycles, but about how life works,” Colchin says. “That not everything is straightforward. You have to learn to work around problems, work with other people, and have fun doing it. If I can help someone [teaching them] that, that’s a great thing.”

The initial plan was to rebuild a beat-up bike. But when a junker couldn’t be found, the new emphasis became customizing a used one. Learning opportunities still presented themselves.

“When you customize a bike, you run into issues and problems you need to work through and take care of, and we’ve really done a good job accomplishing that,” says Colchin.

Ten to 12 youth participated each week in the bike build, including several girls. Besides taking ratchets, wrenches, and soldering irons to the bike, they came up with a new paint design. Flames on the gas tank include personalized names and sayings from the youth.

Program participant Tony, a Jacob’s Place transitional living resident, says, “It’s been a lot of fun. This was the first time I’ve actually worked on a motorcycle. I’ve always loved taking stuff apart and putting it together just for the heck of it—figuring out what makes stuff work. It’s been a very cool experience.” Tony, 18 and soon to enter the U.S. Marine Corps, says he and his teammates take pride in the work they did.

Of the lucky person who will win the bike in the raffle, Colchin says, “They’re going to be in possession of a Harley that’s customized in a way most guys wish they could afford to do.”

Raffle tickets for the motorcycle will be sold June 28-Sept. 26 and are available by calling Trish Haniszewski at 402-457-7000 or online at omahahomeforboys.org. Tickets to the Restoring Hearts fundraiser can also be purchased on the organizations’s website.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.