Tag Archives: Mayor Jean Stothert

Radical Simplicity

November 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ron Dotzler grew up in defiance. The small town of Defiance, Iowa, that is.

“I’ve been rebellious ever since,” he says with a chuckle.

That’s a good thing for his home of the last four decades—a city some have referred to as the most dangerous place in America to be black.

According to a 2014 report by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center, 30 black people were murdered in Nebraska in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. Of them, 27 were murdered in Omaha. That put the state’s black homicide rate at 34.4 per 100,000 people—twice the national average. And in Omaha alone, Dotzler points out, the FBI reports an average of 23,000 major felony incidents each year.

Dotzler has seen the devastation firsthand. Four years after moving to north Omaha, two girls in his neighborhood were murdered. That’s what got his defiant nature fighting back.

“That was kind of the straw that broke my back,” Dotzler says. “I felt like God was saying to me, ‘Ron, will you give me your life so other children won’t have their lives cut by violence?’”

The murders made him ever more committed to Abide, the inner-city nonprofit he and his wife, Twany, had launched in 1989.

Abide works “one neighborhood at a time,” helping develop healthy communities through four main foci: community building, family support programs, housing, and partnerships. It has become one of the most successful—and increasingly well-known—nonprofits affecting change in Omaha.

But significant change didn’t come until 2007, when Abide altered its strategy. Most importantly, Abide began a holistic, grassroots tactic of “adopting” neighborhoods. With partners and volunteer power, the nonprofit began mowing lawns, cleaning litter, fixing abandoned properties, and more. They got to know neighbors personally. Relationships were built and change followed. People felt safer. Crime went down.

Law enforcement officers wanted to know what was happening. They were pointed to Abide. “The police showed up and said, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working,’” Dotzler says.

With help from partner Lifegate Church, Abide has since adopted more than 100 neighborhoods with help from 15 partners and more than 8,000 volunteers each year. They have targeted 600 other neighborhoods to adopt.

Abide also establishes “Lighthouses,” abandoned homes that are fixed up and occupied by families. More than 30 Lighthouses have been established since 2009.

It has three community centers and offers family support and employee development programs, plus basketball and swimming programs for children. It throws block parties, hosts grill-outs, and stages Easter egg hunts. Abide’s annual budget has grown to nearly $1.5 million.

Dotzler, 57, is board president. Son Josh, the former Creighton University basketball star, now is Abide CEO. Three other Dotzler children—Ron and Twany have 14 total—also are employees. Abide has 24 full-timers and 11 who work as paid, part-time interns. The organization’s work has earned recognition from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Dotzler says Abide doesn’t “market itself as the savior” of north Omaha. “We’re just one entity” among others working to make things better, he says. They’re just trying to “put the neighbor back in the hood.”

And those neighbors include Dotzler and his family.

Abide headquarters is a former Immanuel Hospital boiler facility on Fowler Street. The building doubles as the Dotzler home.

The family originally moved to north Omaha from Millard in 1988. Dotzler had worked as a chemical engineer in the computer industry but felt called “to really invest in the lives of others.” To him, that meant mission work overseas. The Dotzlers sold their house and many of their possessions, but needed a temporary place to live before deciding where they would serve. A friend said he could stay rent-free at his house in north Omaha—if Dotzler fixed it up while he was there. It needed more than a bit of work.

“I had grown up around pests, but not roaches like I saw in that house,” he says.

He was more shocked, though, by what he saw outside. “I started seeing the brokenness of lives like I’d never experienced before,” he says. “I saw more police in a couple weeks living in north Omaha than I saw in my whole life. I’d never dialed 911, and suddenly it began to be on my speed dial.”

In north Omaha today, he says, nine out of 10 homes are headed by a single parent. And at least 70 percent of families, he estimates, don’t own their own homes.

That’s radically unlike his childhood home in Defiance, Iowa, a small, rural community halfway between Denison and Harlan.

“I grew up with a mom and dad in the household, and the whole culture surrounding you had that kind of parental influence,” he says. “There was an infrastructure in rural Iowa. You were on the same page. There was a culture of understanding. We were all working toward the same things.

“In urban settings the autonomy is so greatly individualized and independence is so great that you don’t have those connections anymore.”

Before moving to north Omaha, Dotzler says he was “cold, callous, judgmental, and critical” of those living in the inner city.

No longer.

Now, he abides with them.

“We’ll never see the brokenness of crime and violence transformed,” Dotzler says, “until the brokenness of crime and violence transforms us.”

Visit abideomaha.org to learn more.

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Olde Towne Elkhorn

December 4, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As with any small town in America, seasons change and visitors come and go. But one thing that remains the same is the locomotive’s plaintive whistle heard all up and down Main Street in Elkhorn. Just a stone’s throw from the tracks, Olde Towne, as some locals refer to it, has experienced a renewed vitality in the past eight years after a number of new businesses opened.

The town was just recovering from a 2005 annexation by the city of Omaha. The locals fought hard to remain independent but Omaha won out.

“The only thing they did was change the numbers on our street and changed the names of some of the streets,” says Leona Anderson, owner of Little Scandinavia specialty shop.

Across the tracks is a tidy, 3.6-mile stretch of bricks laid in 1920 as part of the Lincoln Highway connecting New York to San Francisco. The secluded and serene stretch was recognized as part of the National Register of Historic places in 2003. “You’ll see the markings on the poles. A lot of bike riders like to take that route,” Anderson says.

A regular at monthly merchant meetings, Anderson has played a revitalizing role in Olde Towne by writing TIF (Tax Increment Financing) grants for Mayor Jean Stothert’s Neighborhood Grants.

“We are the ones carrying the ball,” she says. Soon, they will be receiving more TIF money for streetscaping, planting, and parking. “We’re up for big changes here. It will be fun,” Anderson says. Other projects include funding for such public amenities as trash receptacles and park benches. The benches are certainly comfy, but some of the most prized perches are the bar stools at Boyd & Charlies BBQ, where locals flock for ribs and ribbing. At least a few of the tales told among the slabs and slaw are rumored to have at least an element of the truth to them.

Although much is changing, it’s clear the long-time residents prefer the quaintness of yesteryear. “People in Elkhorn don’t like to be considered part of Omaha, so we respect that. You learn that very early, especially with the oldtimers, ” says Andrea Ramsey, owner of Andrea’s Designs.

There is no shortage of special events to attend in Elkhorn. The Christmas Tree Lighting is a popular event, as well as the crowd-pleasing Elkhorn Days Parade held in June. The area merchants also hold a Ladies’ Day event every month to showcase various seasonal specials. There’s also a Farmer’s Market on Thursday nights throughout the summer.

Ramsey is a merchant who takes part in the ladies’ events and has also had a hand in grant-writing. The opening of her store happened rather organically about five years ago. “I knew I wanted to end up starting a shop somewhere.”  She spotted a building on Main Street that used to be welding business.

“We kept coming out and driving by, trying to get a feel for it.” She noticed tools in the window. After a few months, she realized those tools never moved. It was a challenge for her to find out who owned the building, because it still had the old Elkhorn number system on the window. “Before that, there was never a reason for me to come to Elkhorn, and I’m glad I did.”

Shelley Van Hoozer, a nurse and mother of three, has lived in Elkhorn since the early ’90s. “When we moved here,” she says, “it still had that country, small-town feel and everybody was really friendly.” She and her husband, Ross, chose the small-town vibe of Elkhorn after first checking out Gretna and then Millard.

Her favorite thing about living in Elkhorn is the schools, Elkhorn High School and Westridge Elementary School where her children attend. “The kids are getting a good education. The teachers are really good about staying in contact with the parents.”

Van Hoozer enjoys spending time with her family at Ta-Ha-Zouka Park (roughly translated as meaning an elk’s horn) along the river. “It’s pretty cool. There are soccer fields, baseball fields, and playground equipment.” She also frequents Common Ground Recreation Center for swimming and working out. She says that a visit to Elkhorn would not be complete with a trip to the Dairy Chef. “Everybody goes there. It’s a landmark, I guess you’d say. The Dairy Chef is a big deal.”

She says that Elkhorn feels safe and is a good area to raise her kids. “I think any of our neighbors would agree.”

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Life Through a Lens

January 10, 2014 by
Photography by Rick Anderson

You have seen his work, although you may not know his name. He’s the man behind the iconic aerial stadium posters of the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the last 20 seasons. Whether it’s his peaceful imagery of rural farm scenes welcoming visitors to Alegent Creighton’s Bergan Mercy Medical Center or his engaging shots of Omaha decorating Mayor Jean Stothert’s office, the work of famed photographer Rick Anderson seems to be popping up everywhere lately.

Anderson travels the world in search of the next big “get.” Success in photography can’t be planned, and it can happen in the blink of an eye—the flash of a shutter. Like the moment lightning strikes. He goes island-hopping on cruise ships that he calls “taxicabs.” “It’s like I’m going on an Easter egg hunt looking for the next egg, whether it’s a flower or a palm tree or a chicken running in the street in the Virgin Islands.” He’s sloshed about in the foamy Costa Rican waters capturing waves next to a volcano. He’s camped out in the Yukon National Forest’s wintery white snowscape and has soaked in the dead silence of the scrubby Sandhills of Nebraska. From the sunny coasts of Hawaii to the glacial peaks of Alaska, there is no trek too far for a man who is truly enthralled by the beauty of the world that surrounds him.

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The sign of a true artist, he admits that he is not even in control of his destinations. He’s just along for the ride, much like a tornado. “Then the wind catches me, and I’m caught up in my own tornado, and it’s turning me and turning me,” he says. “It’s like the wind is taking me on this endless journey. In the back of my mind I’m thinking this has got to surface someday where I see the other side of the rainbow, and it all makes sense.”

Anderson speaks in snapshots. He describes his humanitarian mission to Cuba. “I went on a sailboat. We pulled into Havana at sunrise. I pulled into the harbor, and the sun was coming up, and all the lights were glistening in the water,” he says. “It was one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Even as a little boy he was hypnotized by the lens and the eye-catching objects they bring into focus. He remembers being about 8 years old in the mid-’70s and chasing the hot air balloons that would launch near the Miracle Hills area where he grew up, which was the edge of town at the time. “I would run up to my bedroom and get my little 110 camera, run down, hop on my bike, and I would chase those balloons just to take pictures of them,” he says.

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It was later in his life that he would realize photography as his true passion. As an adult, he instinctively picked up the camera after the birth of his son. “I photographed him every day. I had a knack for taking photos.” He next tackled windmills, then sunsets, then sunsets and windmills together. He decided to set up a camera and shoot the lights with the sunset at Gene Leahy Mall. Then he was on to something. His friends were impressed. “They were like, ‘Wow, Rick, this is really good.’ I got goosebumps. I got kind of a high off of that.” It was his “aha” moment. “I had a purpose. I could do something,” he says.

Alaska is his favorite locale to capture the moment. “I have no words for it. You don’t know where to point your camera. There is just so much, whether it was just a simple pinecone or a little trickling stream. I saw 29 bears in three-and-a-half days.” But he is just as happy driving a few hours down the road to the Nebraska Sandhills, where one can hear crickets, prairie dogs, and the occasional cow. “You can hear a meadowlark and a train maybe off in the distance. It’s just a beauty all of its own. People have no idea what they are missing by just going out there and smelling the wildflowers.”

Artists—all artists—have a knack for capturing and expressing magic, but Anderson demurs that luck has at least a little to do with it. “It’s like going fishing. Sometimes you come back with the big one, sometimes you don’t.”