Tag Archives: helping others

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

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.”

Looking for Trouble

January 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Eighty eastbound…four four nine…ten sixty two…occupied,” went the call over the radio. 60 Plus in Omaha was only a little more than a mile out from base in a ride-along with the volunteers of the Metro Area Motorist Assist program, and 65-year-old Wayne Fry was calling in the first incident report.

A vehicle—the “1062” in the cop-talk lingo above—was pulled over at mile marker 449 of Interstate 80, and a young man named Kenny was about to make the mistake of pouring engine coolant into the wrong receptacle of his overheated and smoking junker.

20131118_bs_2927“I obviously had no idea what I was doing,” says Kenny. “Those guys are lifesavers.” The red-faced man was more than happy to have his last name shown in print as simply “Occupied,” the designation from Fry’s radio report indicating that the car had at least one person in it.

Over the last 13 years the Motorist Assist program has come to the rescue more than 85,000 times. Based on the most recent census report, that’s the equivalent of coming to the aid of one out of every 10 people in the metro area.

“It started as a public safety initiative so that law enforcement can concentrate on what you pay us to do—enforce the law,” explains Lt. Kevin Bridges of the Nebraska State Patrol. “It doesn’t take a trained officer to give a lift to someone who is out of gas, so that’s where our great Motorist Assist volunteers come in.”

Omaha’s State Patrol Troop A office has 21 Mobile Assist drivers, but Lt. Bridges has a duty roster that calls for twice as many. Volunteers go through 12 hours of training and are required to have a current CPR card. All ages are welcome to explore becoming a Motorist Assist volunteer, but the normally wide-open schedules of a retired person, Lt. Bridges says, is the most common profile of the volunteer he seeks.

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Mobile Assist uses the buddy system, and 84-year-old Gene Tschida was riding shotgun the day of the interview.

“It’s a lonely, helpless feeling to be stopped by the side of the road with all that traffic buzzing past you, so people are glad to see us,” says Tschida. “The big thing is the personal satisfaction we get in helping people.”

“Especially because so many of the folks we encounter are maybe less fortunate than we are,” adds Fry. “That young guy, Kenny, was an excellent example of a great stop. He was polite. He gave us a nice ‘thank you’ and a big smile,” one that broadened when he learned that Assist services carry no fees.

Tschida is a veteran of 15 years volunteering behind the wheel of a Motorist Assist vehicle. “I’m still kinda feeling out this job,” he quips. “The pay is pretty lousy, but I figure it might improve with seniority.”

Fry returned to the radio to call in a “1098,” the code for “all clear.” Fry and Tschida were back on the road, once again looking for trouble.

To learn more about volunteering with the Metro Area Motorist Assist program, contact Lt. Kevin Bridges of the Nebraska State Patrol at 402-331-3333.

Top 10 Positive Parenting Resolutions

The start of a new year is the perfect time for a fresh start in many areas of your life, including parenting. Chances are if you’re like me, you had your fair share of parenting dilemmas this past year. Here’s my Top 10 List for positive parenting resolutions we can all work on together:

  1. Spend less. Spend less time nagging, pleading, and bribing your child. Instead, spend more time teaching them what you expect so you can spend more time together making memories.
  2. Eat right. Take time to eat together as a family. Meals eaten around the family dinner table help children learn important social and life skills.
  3. Get organized. My family can be extremely disorganized, which causes our days to be crazy! Work together to make fun and workable routines. My suggestion: Have each person create index cards with their activities and put them on the fridge.
  4. Get out of debt. De-stress your life and reduce greedy behavior by spending less on gadgets that kids don’t need to be successful. You get to save money and spend time as a family.
  5. Help others. Be a role model and help your children learn what’s really important in life. Have each person choose their favorite community charity and learn as a family the important lessons of giving to others.
  6. No bad language. Do not call your kids names like lazy, bratty, stupid, wimpy, or grumpy. Negative words can hinder a child’s potential to grow and learn. If they have a behavior that has you frustrated, let them know, but don’t let it become the description of your child.
  7. Kick bad habits. I have the bad habit of losing my temper with my teenager. This year, I’m going to try doing the opposite of what she does. In other words, whatever she does that pushes my buttons (rolling her eyes, arguing, or raising her voice), I will do the opposite (focus calmly on her eyes, talk less, speak calmly) to teach her the skill of being calm.
  8. Read more. There are many great television programs out there now for kids, but nothing can replace reading and learning together. Pick out Julia Cook’s latest book to help teach social skills to your young child.
  9. Reduce your screen time. Turn your smartphone off. I know you feel like you need to be connected all the time and always be available. When you’re home, though, that’s time reserved for your family. The only ones you should be available to are your kids.
  10. Keep your resolutions. If you need some help or additional parenting tips, check out one of our Common Sense Parenting classes in your neighborhood, visit Parenting.org, or order a DVD to watch in your home.

Bridget Barnes is the Boys Town Common Sense Parenting® Director