Tag Archives: Girls Inc.

Baller Artist

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,”

-Aaryon Williams

With an international basketball career spanning Peru, Denmark, Iceland, and Mexico, most 30-year-olds might be tempted to coast. Not Aaryon “Bird” Williams. The prolific artist and arts supporter is in the legacy construction business.

aayronwilliams3Williams has directed well-known local mural projects, such as the Terence Crawford Mural (inside Miller Park Elementary) and the Love Mural (at 24th and Lake streets behind Love’s Jazz and Art Center). He’s a spoken word artist and regular at Verbal Gumbo at House of Loom. His painting “The Butterfly and the Bee,” a tribute to Muhammad Ali pictured in victory over Joe Frazier, was unveiled at Carver Bank, where Williams puts his art management education to use as a program director.

Williams is tall and charming, especially when talking about his passions. He looks equally at ease suited up in the VIP room or paint-splattered in the studio. But when speaking of the past, he looks down as if haunted.

“Born” and “failed” are the two most significant words Williams associates with his old hometown: Gary, Indiana. According to the Department of Justice, Gary is one of six American pilot communities targeted by the federal government for nationally publicized civil rights abuses. A model American ghetto. Not exactly the land of opportunity for a young black man.

“I failed there, miserably,” Williams says of his time in Gary. “After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound. I had no money, no friends, a small group of family members, and a high school GPA of 0.56 as an incoming senior.”

“After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound.”

-Aaryon Williams

Fortune reversed itself when Williams enrolled at North High School in 2004. There, unlike in Gary, he got the palpable sense that people wanted him to do well, motivating him to do better than an F average.

aayronwilliams2“I met teachers and administrators who actually wanted to see me succeed. That was important. Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,” says Williams. “I became the star of our basketball team, one of the leading art students of my class, sang solo for high school a cappella men’s group, and scored a 3.25 GPA my first semester. Turned out, I wasn’t as incompetent as I thought.”

That formative time changed his life, and working with Omaha youth has been a priority for Williams ever since. He’s worked for Girls, Inc., the UNMC Wesley House Leadership Academy, Impact One gang intervention, and Omaha City Sprouts Garden to name a few.

“I always had a passion for working with kids and inner-city youth,” says Williams. “I stepped away from basketball in 2010 because I’m about more than how high I can jump.”

Williams is founder and director of FLIYE Arts Company, a group providing resources and support to talented young artists. “It’s an acronym that stands for ‘Focused, Liberated, Intelligent, Youthful, Extraordinary.’ It’s a combination I used while transitioning from Gary to inspire and encourage myself.”

Williams is also founder and director of the FLIYE Arts Youth Development (FAYD) after school mentoring program at Omaha North High where kids have lined up to learn from metro area experts.

“FAYD specializes in building better artists and intellectuals through mentoring. We want kids at North—and eventually at other Omaha high schools—to have the chance to meet and learn from people who can help them achieve their goals. Kids need a community support system to be successful, and that’s what we give them.”

Visit facebook.com/fliyeartsco for more information. Omaha

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Symone Sanders’ Iowa Odyssey

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Symone Sanders’ childhood dream never came true.

As a young girl Sanders created an alter ego, that of an intrepid news professional she named Donna Burns. She would grab a spoon as a microphone and report live (from the kitchen of her home) in covering breaking news all across the globe.

“I so wanted to be Donna Burns,” Sanders said. “I so wanted to be that person.”

Donna Burns never really left her, she’s just been just turned inside out. Now Sanders is the one having microphones thrust in her face.

Last August the 25-year-old (she turned 26 in December) was hired as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary. At a time when many of her classmates from Creighton University’s class of 2013 were still clawing for that first entry-level position somewhere—anywhere—Sanders was taking the national stage in handling an army of “Donna Burns” for the Vermont Senator.

The Mercy High School graduate who had earlier attended Sacred Heart School is the daughter of Terri and Daniel Sanders. Her first taste of politics came as a 10-year-old through her involvement with Girls Inc. At 16 she would be selected by the organization to introduce President Bill Clinton when he spoke at a 2006 Girls Inc. event in Omaha.

Omaha Magazine caught up with her at Bernie Sanders’ state campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before the Nov. 14 National Democratic Debates at Drake University.

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“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” she demurred in describing her formative years in Omaha. “Things were pretty stagnant in this town at one time. Now Omaha is breeding superstars. This city set me up for everything I’ve done. It’s an amazing place for exposure, opportunity, and access, and there are so many efforts moving the needle in a good direction…Willie Barney at the Empowerment Network [where Sanders was once communications, events, and outreach manager], the folks at the Urban League, the NAACP, Heartland Workforce [Solutions], Inclusive Communities, Women’s Center for Advancement, and tons of others. There are so many great organizations guiding young people and kids in building better lives and a better city. They’re doing it right, and they’re doing it right there in Omaha.”

In 2014, only 11 months after graduating from college, Sanders would become deputy communications director for Nebraska Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

“Symone is the kind of person that people just love to be around,” said Hassebrook, who spent his career at the Center for Rural Affairs, including 18 years as a University of Nebraska Regent. “She’s very smart, but it is her principles and ethics that I perhaps most admire. I’m a huge Symone fan. She’s a person that I hope will be running things someday.”

The day after votes were tallied in the 2014 election Sanders was on a plane to Washington, D.C. to begin a job with Global Trade Watch, an arm of Public Citizen, the nonprofit advocacy think tank founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress.

Also passionate about issues surrounding juvenile justice, Sanders has served on the board of the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice and recently stepped down as the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Committee.

“The system isn’t set up well for minority communities,” Sanders explained as staff and volunteers scurried throughout the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in the run-up to the debate. “Young people need to be involved in juvenile justice because this is so often a young person issue. My brother was incarcerated when he was young. I’ve been arrested myself—I told Bernie all about that right upfront—and this is an epidemic. Black and brown kids are being locked up at a disproportionate rate. It’s a school-to-prison pipeline. What so many of them need is help, jobs—not jail.”

Sanders is also aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was through that relationship that the campaign team first came to know her. She was brought in to advise the candidate shortly after Black Lives Matter protesters had interrupted a campaign rally in Seattle.

She met with Bernie Sanders to help him better understand and connect with a voting bloc that skews toward Hillary Clinton. Two hours later she was his national press secretary.

“The original Civil Rights Movement,” Sanders said, “is a phrase that was coined so that everyday Americans could understand the issues…so they could wrap their heads around it. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. It’s the same movement, the same ideals, but now for a new generation. There’s nothing new about the movement. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same people shaking things up for social justice. Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King didn’t call themselves Civil Rights leaders. They were just…leaders.”

Sanders has a magnetic personality and speaks in a rapid-fire, staccato fashion. Trying to keep up with her words in transcribing the interview from a micro-recorder was a nightmare of stops and starts, pauses and rewinds. But just as she is known for her mile-a-minute delivery, Sanders also knows when to take it down a notch or three.

During the pre-debate walkthrough of the auditorium, spin room, and media center on the Drake campus later that day, she became a deliberate, finely modulated machine that spoke in an even, deliberate tone in asking questions and soaking up every detail of where, when, and how the candidate and campaign team would navigate the crucial debates in the state where America first goes to the polls in the process of nominating and electing the next occupant of the Oval Office.

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And a chance encounter in the spin room had her taking her foot completely off the gas in coasting into a warm, engaging exchange with Donna Brazile, the political strategist and analyst who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now acts as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders demonstrates a razor-sharp grasp of issues, policy, facts, and figures, and only hesitates when the ever-focused media pro is tossed questions about her personal life that take her at least temporarily out of campaign mode.

It took her seemingly forever, for example, to be able to conjure up her Burlington, Vermont, mailing address when that information was requested so that she could be sent a copy of this magazine. And a query about how many nights she’s slept in her own bed since taking the press secretary gig drew—if only for a nanosecond—a blank stare.

And then she was instantly “on” again in flashing her broad, trademark, light-up-the-room smile in replying, “Bed? You mean my air mattress? I don’t have time to furnish a place. The only beds I sleep in these days are in hotels.”

Over the course of the campaign Sanders has spent a lot of time crisscrossing the nation with Dr. Cornel West. The activist, author, and philosopher is a major Bernie supporter and was again stumping with the candidate in Des Moines.

“Symone Sanders is a visionary,” West told Omaha Magazine the next evening moments before he was to take the microphone as the headliner at a pre-debate tailgate rally where, true to its name, he and other speakers addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a well-worn farm truck in the state where agriculture rules and corn is king. “She has the power to be the voice of her generation. She has the intellect, the moral compassion, and the energy to become a great leader.”

Also “Feeling the Bern” at the rally that night was Creighton senior Dawaune Hayes.

“Symone was always involved in everything on campus,” Hayes said. “She was involved in everything all over town. Everyone at Creighton knew she could change the world someday. Now she’s actually doing it.”

Sanders may already be well on her way to becoming a world-changer, but one thing she hopes remains the same is the secret recipe at Time Out Chicken on North 30th Street.

“The first job I ever had was at Time Out,” she said, “and I worked there all through high school and college when I could—even after college. I miss Omaha. I miss my family. I would kill for some Time Out Chicken right now. And I miss the girls at Girls Inc.”

“Symone was the epitome of a Girls Inc. girl,” said Roberta Wilhelm, the organization’s executive director. “She was heavily involved in our media literacy program called Girls Make the Message. That’s where the girls made their own public service announcements and created their own messages to the world. Not surprisingly, Symone took to that like a fish to water. Ironically, the theme was Girls for President, and now she’s working on a real presidential campaign. Symone is doing big things. She’s going to matter.”

And what message will Sanders deliver the next time she has a chance to visit her hometown Girls Inc.?

“Be smart. Be strong. Be bold,” she said in echoing the nonprofit’s tagline. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything. Omaha needs you. The world needs you.”

Donna Burns covered a lot of stories from that kitchen in north Omaha, but it looks like she missed the most important one. Now her creator would be the interview of a lifetime for the ace reporter.

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True Detective

October 29, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The words “private eye” summon up all manner of familiar motifs: smoky offices, blonde dames in cherry-red lipstick and kitten heels, shifty nighthawks, underworld imps, and hardboiled gumshoes with hearts of gold. In these Raymond Chandler-esque noirs, private detective agencies are mythic worlds dripping in sex, dark alleys, and danger at every turn.

The reality, however, is a little more grounded.

“It’s not sexy. It’s boring,” says Tony Infantino, a retired police investigator and founder of Palladin Consulting Group. “A noteworthy day is seven hours, 59 minutes of boredom and one minute of sheer terror. And the only dame around here is my wife over in the other room.”

TonyInfantino2In some ways Infantino fits the P.I. bill: he’s a brusque, forthright gentleman with a fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do and an impeccable taste in luxury sports cars. He also came up with his company’s name sitting in a Port Au Prince bar. It’s a nod to the bon vivant antihero of the classic TV western, Have Gun – Will Travel; a maxim Infantino follows quite literally.

Palladin handles a wide range of private investigations, including missing persons, child custody, financial fraud, and infidelity cases. Though seemingly mundane, modern private detectives are an essential supplement to public law enforcement. Companies like Palladin ensure that thorough investigations happen for cases of all shapes and sizes. “I like getting to be on the defendant’s side of the aisle for a change,” the former cop remarks.

That’s not to say he doesn’t see his share of intrigue and subterfuge. He shared anecdotes of undercover double agents, chronic embezzlers, suspects employing counter-surveillance strategies, and other glimpses into Omaha’s seedy underbelly. He also produced some gadgets of the trade, including a hidden camera masquerading as an unsuspecting automobile remote.

Despite these trappings, the life of a private eye is less “wild west” and more “game of chess,” an ethos corroborated by his company’s ivory knight logo, another nod to Have Gun – Will Travel. Staffed only by a small team of retired officers, Palladin brings vast experience and skill to the table.

“I see a lot of detectives make rookie mistakes because they get invested and want to catch their guy through shortcuts,” he says. “They can end up breaking the law or ruining their own evidence.” To Infantino, his firm’s purpose is to uphold justice and strengthen his community. As a member of multiple non-profit boards, including Girls Inc. and Planned Parenthood, as well as being a founding member of the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, his commitment to a community runs deep.

Infantino’s philosophy follows Palladin’s namesake, who sought justice even for those who couldn’t meet his fee.

“If people find themselves in need, don’t let an investigator’s hourly fee discourage you,” he says. Though Palladin is a private business, he stressed what he called his firm’s uncommon standards of excellence and ethics along with their fairness/transparency in costs.

Still, Infantino warns it’s important for him to keep his distance from clients, a sentiment that would be right at home in a piece of pulp fiction featuring Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

“I’m never surprised,” he says, “by people’s behavior.”

Visit palladinconsultinggroup.com to learn more.

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Emily Mwaja

September 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Emily Mwaja places her hands on the bar, making sure her grip was is right. She plants her feet. It’s time. Time to set a new world record.

Lifts of  264 lbs…286…293…and, finally 301 lbs.  followed. She had dead-lifted almost three times her body weight. And she had broken her own record.

Emily Mwaja stands all of 5’4.”

The pint-sized powerhouse came to the United States from Kenya when she was a young girl and (in 2001) to Omaha to attend Bellevue University. She received her degree in education and science in 2004.

Mwaja had always been a runner, but when her knees began to object she shifted her fitness regimen to the YMCA. It was there that she first encountered dead lifting.

“I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting,’” Mwaja says, “because some of the lifters looked really big and masculine while others were just…normal guys. But all were lifting really, really big weights.”

She began doing her workouts near the men, mimicking their actions. Her efforts were noticed by gym-mate and trainer John Jones, who asked her to deadlift with him.

“I needed someone to tell me what to do in the gym,” she says, “and he didn’t have to tell me twice. I warned him right away that I didn’t want to look like a bodybuilder. I told him I just wanted to be…strong!”

She soon graduated from lifting a mere 45 lbs. to a weight of 225 lbs. with ease. Jones encouraged her to enter competitions.

Strong she became, winning first place in the 123 lbs. weight class with a 286-lbs.-lift at the World Championships in Las Vegas in 2013.

“I’m very competitive,” Mwaja adds, “but it’s really mind over matter when you are lifting.”

That same intensity and commitment carried her from a seasonal position with Girls Inc. to the title of program director. Now she works with girls in winning the national organization’s affiliate awards and, just like her deadlifting, Mwaja is always out for gold.

“I will see another affiliate is recognized and I’ll tell my boss, ‘We gotta get on this! We have to make this happen!’ And she’ll tell me, ‘Emily, we can’t do everything,’ ‘But we can do almost everything,’ I tell her.”

Sizing up the competition, it would seem, is a key to her success both in the gym and with her girls.

“I’ll see a woman from Canada is the current record holder,” Mwaja explains. “She lifted 296. Okay, I can do 296. I can do more. That’s my drive. I tell myself I’m gonna put up 300.”

Mwaja now has 19 trophies, most residing in her office at Girls Inc.

“Some of the little girls ask if I won those in math or something like that. I just laugh and tell them, ‘No, I’m really strong.’”

Just like she hopes her Girls Inc. kids will be in all of life’s challenges—strong.

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Filling Mom’s Shoes

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daughters become inspired, motivated, and awed by their mothers as they see them dash out the door on a volunteer mission time after time. They often follow in their footsteps.

But as daughters trail mothers down the volunteer road, they’re finding the path has veered. More women in the workplace means a different approach to volunteering. Meetings once scheduled for mornings are now scheduled for noon so volunteers can return to jobs. An e-mail sent at midnight is now more likely to happen.

How volunteers schedule their time has changed. The dedication and sense of responsibility that daughters learn from mothers has not. Here we share four stories about the gift mothers give daughters that keeps on giving —the gift of volunteering.

Gail Yanney & Lisa Roskens

Gail Yanney became an anesthesiologist in the 1960s when few women held careers. At the time, the consensus was that working women didn’t have time to volunteer. (We know better now.) But she soon became one of Omaha’s most active volunteers.

Her volunteering career began while she was a busy student at UNMC College of Medicine. Invited to join Junior League, she asked permission from her department head.

“He said, ‘Physicians need to be part of their community,’” remembers Gail, who is now retired.

Passionate about the environment, she was a teacher naturalist at Fontenelle Forest on her day off. Gail is also a founder of the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

 “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.” – Lisa Roskens

With her husband, Michael Yanney, she received the Spirit of Nebraska Award from the Eppley Cancer Center last year.

Gail’s daughter, Lisa Roskens, learned from her mom. “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.”

Lisa is chairman of the board, president, and CEO at the Burlington Capital Group, a company founded by her father, who partners with his wife in philanthropy. Volunteering is a family affair at the Roskens’ house where Lisa’s husband, Bill, and their two children join in. They rally around animals and kids and have helped at the Nebraska Humane Society and at Take Flight Farm.

Lisa tries to pass on to Charlie, 13, and Mary, 10, what her mother passed on to her. “We try to instill that sense of giving back as an obligation to being a citizen in a community. I don’t tell them what charities to support, but foster independence.

“Mom said the only thing you get out of life is what you give away.”

Sharon Marvin Griffin & Melissa Marvin

Sharon Marvin Griffin and her daughter, Melissa Marvin, have received many of Omaha’s top honors for volunteering. For Sharon, they have included Arthritis Woman of the Year, Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor, Salvation Army Others Award, and United Way of the Midlands Volunteer of the Year, among others. For Melissa, awards have included the 2010 YWCA Women of Distinction and honors from the Omaha Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Each has been involved in more than 40 charitable activities over a lifetime. Each presently serves on 10 nonprofit boards. Coincidence? Not likely. Melissa has inherited her mother’s zest for volunteering.

“Mom is a professional volunteer,” says Melissa. “No. 1 is the importance of giving back. No. 2 is the importance of how to be a leader, how to work together in teams. I try to emulate that.”

“Mom is a professional volunteer…I try to emulate that.” – Melissa Marvin

Melissa remembers her first volunteer experience at age 7. She and brother Barney, then age 2, delivered Christmas gifts to shut-ins. “We looked on it as an honor,” she says.

The family, including her father, Sam Marvin, who died in 1997, together rang bells for The Salvation Army.

The mother and daughter also have in common busy careers. Sharon, who is married to Dr. William Griffin, has had a 25-year career in real estate at NP Dodge. Melissa is with the Cohen Brown Management Group and is director of Community Engagement for Metropolitan Community College.

Mom has the final word: “The more you give, the more you grow.”

Susan Cutler, Jeanie Jones & Jackie Lund

Susan Cutler has big fans in her daughters.

“I watch all the friends Mom has made and the rewards you get from giving. I have huge shoes to fill,” says Jeanie Jones. “I don’t think she realizes how big those shoes are.”

Those shoes took the first steps to volunteering in her hometown of Council Bluffs, where Susan lived with her husband, Bill Cutler, a funeral director. They moved to Omaha in 1987. “When I started volunteering, I learned so much about my community,” she says.

She volunteered at her children’s schools. “I wanted to meet other parents, learn what was happening,” says Susan, who was a third-grade teacher earlier in her life. She presently is on the board of directors of the Methodist Hospital Foundation and Children’s Hospital Foundation and is co-chairman for Joslyn Art Museum’s 2013 Gala.

“I have huge shoes to fill. I don’t think [Mom] realizes how big those shoes are.” – Jeanie Jones

Her daughters have their own impressive resume of community service.

“I remember Mom was involved in Ak-Sar-Ben when I was in sixth and seventh grades. I had to go to stuff and didn’t like it,” laughs daughter Jackie Lund. The mother of two children is owner of Roots & Wings Boutique in Omaha. But Jackie now goes to “stuff” and enjoys it. She is guild board treasurer of the Omaha Children’s Museum.

“I met some of my best friends through volunteer work,” says daughter Jeanie, who has three children. She serves in leadership positions for such groups as Clarkson Service League, Ak-Sar-Ben, Joslyn Art Museum, and Girls, Inc.

Susan said she didn’t try to influence her daughters. “Your children do what they watch, not what you say.” She continues her devotion to volunteering. “You learn about yourself, as well as about the community. It all comes back to you more than you can ever imagine.”

Sharon McGill & Kyle Robino

Kyle Robino remembers as a child slapping stickers on hundreds of mailings for charities. That was her first exposure to the world of volunteering with her mother, Sharon McGill.

Their family’s tradition of volunteering has been passed down from generation to generation. Sharon inherited the volunteering gene from her mother, who helped establish the Albuquerque Garden Center, and from her grandmother, a strong force in her rural New Mexico community. “I looked back at their lives and learned how they made things better for others,” she says.

Sharon brought along her talents as a ballet dancer when she moved to Omaha in 1968. Not surprisingly, her first volunteer act was helping to build a professional ballet company. A dancer, teacher, board president, and, later, ballet mistress for Ballet Omaha, Sharon took her two daughters along. They attended ballet classes and absorbed the essence of volunteering from watching their mother. She now serves on the Joslyn Castle board.

“I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models. My mom was a great role model.” – Kyle Robino

Kyle and her sister, Gwen McGill, who resides in Napa Valley, Calif., are following in their mother’s ballet shoes.

The JDRF is the center of Kyle’s volunteer work. Five years ago, her older daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kyle’s husband, Mike, is board president of the JDRF Heartland Chapter.

“As you get older, you figure out what your passions are and what causes are personal to you,” says Kyle, who owns Old Market Habitat flower shop. “I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models,” she says. “My mom was a great role model.”

Kyle is now a role model for a possible fifth generation of volunteers—daughters Olivia, 14, and Ava, 7. These young ladies will have big shoes to fill, too.