Tag Archives: nonprofit

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

July/August 2018 Giving Calendar

June 20, 2018 by

July 7 (8-11 a.m.)
Superhero 5K!
Benefiting: CASA for Douglas County
Location: Stinson Park at Aksarben Village
casaomaha.org 

July 7 (9 p.m.-1 a.m.)
Ladies of Hip Hop Night
Benefiting: Women’s Center for Advancement
Location: Reverb Lounge
onepercentproductions.com 

July 9 (10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Angels Among Us/Bland Cares Golf Outing
Benefiting: Angels Among Us
Location: Champions Run Golf Course
myangelsamongus.org 

July 9 (11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)
25th Annual Golf Classic
Benefiting: Keep Omaha Beautiful
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek.
keepomahabeautiful.org 

July 12 (5:30-10 p.m.)
Links to a Cure Golf Gala
Benefiting: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Location: Omaha Marriott Downtown at the Capitol District
nelinkstoacure.eventscff.org

July 13 (8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Links to a Cure Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Location: ArborLinks Golf Course
nelinkstoacure.eventscff.org

July 14 (5-11 p.m.)
Relay for Life of Greater Omaha
Benefiting: American Cancer Society
Location: Stinson Park at Aksarben Village
relay.acsevents.org 

July 15 (noon-3 p.m.)
ULN Guild Men Who Cook
Benefiting: Urban League of Nebraska
Location: OPS Administrative Building Cafeteria
urbanleagueneb.org 

July 19 (5-9 p.m.)
Iowa Western Reiver Athletic Golf Dinner
Benefiting: Iowa Western Student-Athlete Scholarships
Location: Bent Tree Golf Club
iwcc.edu/foundation

July 19 (6:30-9:30 p.m.)
Songs and Suds 2018
Benefiting: Merrymakers Association
Location: Pitch Pizzeria West Omaha
merrymakers.org 

July 20 (8:30 a.m.)
Iowa Western Reiver Athletic Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Iowa Western Student-Athlete Scholarships
Location: Bent Tree Golf Club
iwcc.edu/foundation  

July 21 (4 p.m.-midnight)
Block Out After Dark 2018
Benefiting: Cancer Alliance of Nebraska
Location: Sinnott’s Sand Bar
cancerallianceofnebraska.org 

July 21 (5-9 p.m.)
Joslyn Castle Unlocked
Benefiting: Joslyn Castle Trust
Location: Joslyn Castle
joslyncastle.com

July 22 (8-11 a.m.)
Head for the Cure 5K Run/Walk
Benefiting: Head for the Cure Foundation
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
headforthecure.org 

July 27 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Ninth Annual La Vista Community Foundation Golf Classic
Benefiting: La Vista Community Foundation
Location: Tara Hills Golf Course
lavistacommunityfoundation.com 

July 28 (8:30-11 a.m.)
PurpleStride Omaha 2018: Walk to End Pancreatic Cancer
Benefiting: PurpleStride Omaha
Location: Stinson Park at Aksarben Village
support.pancan.org 

July 28 (6:30-11 p.m.)
Seventh Annual Blue Water Bash
Benefiting: Boys Town Okoboji Camp
Location: Boys Town Okoboji Camp, Milford, Iowa
boystown.org

July 29 (7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.)
2018 Packer Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Omaha South High School Alumni Association
Location: Eagle Hills Golf Course
omahasouthalumni.com

July 30 (9 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Fresh Start Classic
Benefiting: Fresh Start for All Nations
Location: Shadow Ridge Country Club
freshstartclassic.org

July 30 (10 a.m.-7 p.m.)
19th Annual CINCF Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Council of Independent Nebraska Colleges Foundation
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
nicfonline.org 

July 30 (11 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Swing 4 Kids Golf Benefit
Benefiting: Partnership 4 Kids
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
p4k.org 

July 30 (11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.)
Help Build a House Golf Event
Benefiting: Gesu Housing
Location: Champions Run Golf Course
gesuhousing.com 

Aug. 3 (11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Fairways Fore Airways Fifth Annual Golf Scramble
Benefiting: Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
lungs4lifefoundation.org

Aug. 3 (4-11 p.m.)
2018 New American Arts Festival
Benefiting: Lutheran Family Services
Location: Benson First Friday, Military Avenue and Maple Street
bensonfirstfriday.com 

Aug. 3 (6-9:30 p.m.)
10th annual Dance for a Chance: “Diamonds in the Rough”
Benefiting: Youth Emergency Services
Location: Omaha Design Center
yesomaha.org  

Aug. 3 (6-11 p.m.)
River Bash ’N’ Brew
Benefiting: Visiting Nurse Association
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
thevnacares.org  

Aug. 4 (8 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Spirit of Courage Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center Charitable Patient Care Fund
Location: Dodge Riverside Golf Club
jehfoundation.org 

Aug. 4 (6-10 p.m.)
Spirit of Courage Gala
Benefiting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center Charitable Patient Care Fund
Location: Mid America Center
jehfoundation.org 

Aug. 4 (9-11:30 p.m.)
OwL Ride: Omaha with Lights
Benefiting: Meyer Foundation for Disabilities
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
owlride.org 

Aug. 5 (noon-3 p.m.)
Spirit of Courage No Limits Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament
Benefiting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center Charitable Patient Care Fund
Location: Mid America Center
jehfoundation.org 

Aug. 6 (10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Shootout for Cancer
Benefiting: Various local pediatric cancer organizations
Location: Champions Run Golf Course
omahanm.com 

Aug. 6 (10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
A-United Golf Classic
Benefiting: Scare Away Cancer
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
aunitedglass.com 

Aug. 6 (11 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Swing with Pride, A. Len Leavitt Memorial Golf Open
Benefiting: Roncalli Catholic High School
Location: Indian Creek Golf Club
roncallicatholic.org

Aug. 9 (7 a.m.-1:30 p.m.)
19th Annual Release Ministries Bill Ellett Memorial Golf Classic
Benefiting: Release Ministries
Location: Iron Horse Golf Club
releaseministries.org

Aug. 11 (8 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Fourth Annual Aqua-Run 10K Relay and 2K Walk
Benefiting: Aqua Africa
Location: Elmwood Park
aqua-africa.net 

Aug. 11 (5-9 p.m.)
Joslyn Castle Unlocked
Benefiting: Joslyn Castle Trust
Location: Joslyn Castle
joslyncastle.com 

Aug. 13 (11 a.m.-6 p.m.)
QLI’s 14th Annual Golf Challenge
Benefiting: QLI Tri-Dimensional Rehab
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
teamqli.com

Aug. 17 (8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.)
Step Out for Seniors Walk-A-Thon
Benefiting: Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging
Location: Benson Park
stepoutforseniors.weebly.com 

Aug. 17 (6-10 p.m.)
EXPOSED: That’s How We Roll Annual Benefit
Benefiting: Project Pink’d
Location: Hilton Downtown Omaha
projectpinkd.org

Aug. 17 (6-9 p.m.)
Jefferson House “Stand Up for Kids” Comedy Night
Benefiting: Heartland Family Services
Location: Fremont Golf Club
heartlandfamilyservice.org 

Aug. 18 (9-11:30 a.m.)
20th Annual Remembrance Walk
Benefiting: Grief’s Journey
Location: Miller’s Landing/Pedestrian Bridge
griefsjourney.org 

Aug. 18 (day-long)
Paint-A-Thon
Benefiting: Brush Up Nebraska
Location: Various
brushupnebraska.org

Aug. 19 (7-11 a.m.)
Boxer 500 Run/Walk
Benefiting: Great Plains Colon Cancer Task Force
Location: Werner Park
coloncancertaskforce.org   

Aug. 19 (7:30 a.m., end times vary)
Corporate Cycling Challenge
Benefiting: Eastern Nebraska Trails Network
Location: Heartland of America Park
showofficeonline.com

Aug. 19 (10 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Vintage Wheels at the Fort
Benefiting: Douglas County Historical Society
Location: Historic Fort Omaha
douglascohistory.org

Aug. 20 (10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Heroes for the Homeless Golf Benefit
Benefiting: Stephen Center’s Pettigrew Emergency Homeless Shelter
Location: Shadow Ridge Country Club
stephencenter.org 

Aug. 21 (10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Annual Golf Classic
Benefiting: Methodist Hospital Foundation
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
methodisthospitalfoundation.org 

Aug. 23 (5:30-8:30 p.m.)
World Bash “Global Homecoming”
Benefiting: Intercultural Senior Center
Location: Mainelli Center at Saint Robert’s
interculturalseniorcenter.org 

Aug. 24 (5-10 p.m.)
Wine and Beer Event
Benefiting: ALS in the Heartland
Location: Shops of Legacy
alsintheheartland.org 

Aug. 25 (5:30-9:30 p.m.)
12th Annual Summer Bash for Childhood Cancer: An Evening in Paris
Benefiting: Childhood Cancer Campaign
Location: Embassy Suites La Vista Conference Center
summerbashforccc.org

Aug. 25 (5:30-9:30 p.m.)
One Sweet School
Benefiting: Madonna School
Location: CenturyLink Center Omaha
madonnaschool.org

Aug. 26 (1:30-4 p.m.)
Grow With Us Gala
Benefiting: City Sprouts
Location: Institute for the Culinary Arts, Metro Community College
omahasprouts.org

Aug. 27 (noon-8 p.m.)
11th Annual Jesuit Academy Golf Tournament
Benefiting: Jesuit Academy Tuition Assistance Fund
Location: Indian Creek Golf Course
jesuitacademy.org 

Aug. 27 (noon-6 p.m.)
20th Annual Goodwill Golf Classic
Benefiting: Goodwill’s Real Employment Assisting You (READY) & Business Solutions Programs
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
goodwillomaha.org


Event times and details may change. 

Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

Coffee for the Greater Good

April 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Coffee is as much a concept as a consumable. The late 20th century into the 21st century has certainly seen coffee as a business concept turn into a multi-billion dollar venture, with those billions of cups resulting in business deals for yet further billions of dollars.

Jason Feldman founded Open Coffee Omaha when he saw an opportunity more than two years ago through talking with some of the area’s brightest community leaders. He sought to bring like-minded people together and remove barriers among people who generally work alone or in small groups but need outside expertise to help their businesses grow.

This casual get-together, held at No More Empty Cups on south 10th Street, starts at 8 a.m. each Tuesday with about 20 minutes of time to meet with these like-minded individuals and chat, followed by a presentation by an influential leader, who provides stories, insights, and connections with fellow entrepreneurs, developers, designers, investors, and folks interested in building a better startup community.

“Originally, the intent was to connect high-growth entrepreneurs, largely millennials, in an open coffee to bring together people with different backgrounds, discuss ideas, and network,” Feldman says.

Dell Gines, a past presenter at Open Coffee Omaha, sees great value in the connection that happens among people with common interests and passions.

“This is important for entrepreneurs because network building is an essential element of building a successful business,” says Gines, a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “In the ecosystem world they call it ‘collisions,’ but more importantly, I think these sessions are beneficial to the city as a whole. They provide unique perspectives on a wide variety of economic and social issues that can help Omaha move from good to great.”

The original concept was to bring people together to network, but it has become more than a place to glad-hand.

“That has since expanded for us to think about who is an entrepreneur and who do they serve? That can be someone from a tech company or someone who has started a nonprofit or a community initiative. Ultimately, we want these innovators to value the social impact they are making just as much as the economic benefit in the communities where they live.”

Fellow entrepreneur Kent McNeil, who joined Feldman as a co-organizer and producer of Open Omaha Coffee after its inception, says he views Omaha as having all the right components for these types of meetings to be successful and contribute to the greater good—noting a large presence of people wanting to solve problems as well as a strong philanthropic and investment community. 

“Entrepreneurs tend to be independent thinkers, so gathering them together is a great way to share ideas and build momentum to launch new innovations,” says McNeil, who left a career path in medicine to follow his entrepreneurial calling. “It’s an incredible thing to see when people align their passions with ways to create a living.”

“There isn’t a lot of public education for people who think and want to start social enterprises.  We’re often directed toward career paths. But we give these people an opportunity to learn from other like-minded people and succeed to not only identify what their passion is for their communities but also how they can turn that into a business to solve for that challenge.”

Feldman and McNeil say they are working on opening meetings to streaming talks for those who aren’t able to attend, and they’re contemplating occasionally changing the meeting time to an early evening gathering so those entrepreneurs who may not be morning people, or are more available in the evenings, have the opportunity to benefit from Open Omaha Coffee.

Right now, they are focused on creating opportunities for inspiring people to interact with other inspiring people and being a catalyst for thoughts outside of the box.

“Our next step is continuing to build our already robust programming to offer what the entrepreneurs who come to our coffees need and want,” Feldman says. “That includes social impact investing, business incubation programming, business pitch competitions, etc.

“Entrepreneurs come from all different backgrounds with varying levels and areas of expertise. We see it as our mission to connect them with each other and other resources so they can fulfill their calling in business and positively impact the communities where they live and work.”

From left: Kent McNeil and Jason Feldman

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Giving a Helping Hand to Nebraska Greats

March 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Memory-makers.

That’s what former Husker gridiron great Jerry Murtaugh calls the ex-collegiate athletes whose exploits we recall with larger-than-life nostalgia.

Mythic-like hero portrayals aside, athletes are only human. Their bodies betray them. Medical interventions and other emergencies drain resources. Not every old athlete can pay pressing bills or afford needed care. That’s where the Nebraska Greats Foundation that Murtaugh began five years ago comes in. The charitable organization assists memory-makers who lettered in a sport at any of Nebraska’s 15 universities or colleges.

“All the money we generate goes into helping the memory-makers and their families,” Murtaugh says.

Its genesis goes back to Murtaugh missing a chance to help ailing ex-Husker star Andra Franklin, who died in 2006. When he learned another former NU standout, Dave Humm, was hurting, he made it his mission to help. Murtaugh got Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to endorse the effort and write the first check.

“The foundation has been a source of financial aid to many former Huskers who are in need, but also, and maybe equally important, it has helped bind former players together in an effort to stay in touch and to serve each other,” Osborne says. “I sense a feeling of camaraderie and caring among our former players not present in many other athletic programs around the country.”

The foundation has since expanded its reach to letter-winners from all Nebraska higher ed institutions.

By the start of 2018, more than $270,000 raised by the foundation went to cover the needs of 12 recipients. Three recipients subsequently died from cancer. As needed, the foundation provides for the surviving spouse and children of memory-makers. 

The latest and youngest grantee is also the first female recipient—Brianna Perez. The former York College All-America softball player required surgery for a knee injury suffered playing ball. Between surgery, flying to California to see her ill mother, graduate school, and unforeseen expenses, Perez went into debt.

“She found out about us, we reviewed her application, and her bills were paid off,” Nebraska Greats Foundation Administrator Margie Smith says. “She cried and so did I.”

It’s hard for proud ex-athletes to accept or ask for help, says all-time Husker hoops great Maurtice Ivy, who serves on the board. Yet they find themselves in vulnerable straits that can befall anyone. Giving back to those who gave so much, she says, “is a no-brainer.”

The hard times that visit these greats are heartbreaking. Some end up in wheelchairs, others homeless. Some die and leave family behind.

“I cry behind closed doors,” Murtaugh says. “One of the great ones we lost, a couple weeks before he passed away said, ‘All I’m asking is take care of my family.’ So, we’re doing our best. What I’m proud of is, we don’t leave them hanging. Our athlete, our brother, our sister has died, and we just don’t stop there—we clear up all the medical bills the family faces. We’re there for them.”

“We become advocates, cheerleaders, and sounding boards for them and their families,” Smith says. “I am excited when I write checks to pay their bills, thrilled when they make a full recovery, and cry when they pass away. But we’re helping our memory-makers through their time of need. Isn’t this what life is all about?”

Smith says the foundation pays forward what the athletes provided fans in terms of feelings and memories.

“We all want to belong to something good,” she says. “That is why the state’s collegiate sports programs are so successful. We cheer our beloved athletes to do their best to make us feel good. We brag about the wins, cry over the losses. The outcome affects us because we feel a sense of belonging. These recipients gave their all for us. They served as role models. Now it’s our turn to take care of them.”

Murtaugh is sure it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Right now, I think we’re the only state that helps our former athletes,” he says. “Before I’m dead, I’m hoping every state picks up on this and helps their own because the NCAA isn’t going to help you after you’re done. We know that. And that’s what we’re here for—we need to help our own. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Funds raised go directly to creditors, not recipients.

He says two prominent athletic figures with ties to the University of Nebraska—Barry Alvarez, who played football at NU and coached Wisconsin, where he’s athletic director, and Craig Bohl, who played and coached at NU’s football program, led North Dakota State to three national titles, and now coaches Wyoming—wish to start similar foundations.

Murtaugh and his board, comprised mostly of ex-athletes like himself, are actively getting the word out across the state and beyond to identify more potential recipients and raise funds to support them. He’s confident of the response.

“We’re going to have the money to help all the former athletes in the state who need our help,” he says. “Athletes and fans are starting to really understand the impact they all make for these recipients. People have stepped up and donated a lot of money. A lot of people have done a lot of things for us. But we need more recipients. We have some money in the bank that needs to be used.”

Because Nebraska collegiate fan bases extend statewide and nationally, Murtaugh travels to alumni and booster groups to present the foundation’s work. Everywhere he goes, he says, people get behind it.

“Nebraskans are the greatest fans in the country and they back their athletes in all 15 colleges and universities,” he says. “It’s great to see. I’m proud to be part of this, I really am.”

Foundation fundraisers unite the state around a shared passion. A golf classic in North Platte last year featured the three Husker Heisman Trophy winners—Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, and Eric Crouch—for an event that raised $40,000. Another golf outing is planned for July in Kearney that will once more feature the Heisman trio.

Murtaugh envisions future events across the state so fans can rub shoulders with living legends and help memory-makers with their needs.

He sees it as one big “family” coming together “to help our own.”

Visit nebraskagreatsfoundation.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Omaha by Design

July 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a new West Omaha Wal-Mart was being proposed in 2000, Connie Spellman remembers, someone questioned the difference between its uninspired, big-box design and a Wal-Mart with gabled parapets, lots of windows, and other visual details seen in Fort Collins, Colorado. An attorney responded that the Colorado community had adopted a set of design standards, sparking a conversation that eventually led to the 2001 establishment of Omaha by Design as an initiative of the Omaha Community Foundation.

“Omaha by Design was founded by three leading business owners in the community: Bruce Lauritzen, Ken Stinson, and John Gottschalk. They had the foresight to see that Omaha needed this capacity,” says Julie Reilly, who has been Omaha by Design’s executive director since 2015. “Without their leadership we would not have started down the path when we did and the way we did.”

Omaha by Design, now an independent nonprofit, works to improve the physical places in the community, using urban design principles and best practices as tools to address the issues of revitalization, development, environmental sustainability, and mobility while encouraging the creation of engaging and attractive places. Their projects range from the Benson-Ames Alliance, on which Omaha by Design serves as the project manager, to Public Art Omaha’s website and app.

“You need to have that voice that brings together the community, the city, developers, artists, the passionate environmental people,” says Spellman, Omaha by Design’s initial executive director. “It’s all about collaboration, engagement, and working together.”

In the beginning, it took “faith and patience,” she adds. At the time, there were no urban design professionals in city government.

“We were able to work with the community, and the developers, and everyday citizens, and the city [government] to create an urban design for the entire city,” she says.

That was the easy part.

“We learned you have to change the existing codes to implement the master plan…this is where it became more difficult. But after two years of constant negotiation, especially with the development community, the citizenry, and the city—who were wonderful—we passed all of the zoning codes and the urban design plan unanimously,” Spellman says.

Zoning code changes ultimately adopted via City Council approval were widespread. For instance, requirements for tree planting on new streets and individual lots became more stringent. A new designation, Area of Civic Importance, was created to allow for special guidelines protecting these designated areas and governing their development, from site layout to landscaping of access roads and parking. Another designation, mixed-zone, made possible walkable neighborhoods that connect to pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use centers at major intersections.

“We thought we would be lucky if we would see changes in 20 years,” Spellman says. “Well, we started seeing changes in two years.”

Since 2001, Omaha has seen neighborhoods revitalize and business districts resurrect or develop, and the people of the community now not only understand the term “urban design,” they see it firsthand, Reilly says.

“Looking at what Omaha by Design has done over the years, I think the most important thing is contributing to the concepts of urban design and policy, becoming part of the conversation for our city,” she explains. “The actual citizens and residents understand what urban design and policy best practice can bring to making their lives better in Omaha.”

The current membership of the board of directors and advisory committee represents more sectors of the community than ever, Reilly says. As a new nonprofit, “We’re still finding our way to a recipe that will allow our board of directors and our advisory committee to have the best impact for the organization but also be conscious of their volunteer contributions in terms of time and energy,” she explains. “We’re bringing people together from different sectors to discuss issues that are ultimately common between those sectors…We all want a better Omaha, a better greater metro area, a vibrant, livable city for all. Who wakes up every morning and thinks about the future of Omaha? We do.”

Visit omahabydesign.org for more information.

Julie Reilly

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Anne Hindrey’s Helping Hands

March 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Nonprofit Association of the Midlands is a resource dedicated to helping the thousands of nonprofit entities scattered across Nebraska and western Iowa.

CEO Anne Hindrey stands at the helm of the organization that connects so many disparate nonprofits—from sports (Omaha Fencing Club) to social services (United Way of the Midlands). Roughly 330 total nonprofits hold a registered membership to NAM. Each works to serve the community in its own way.

Hindery’s job involves helping nonprofits navigate the often sticky world of public policy. It is a role she is well-qualified to assist with.

She started her career as the law enforcement coordination specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha.

“I wanted to change the world, but I realized that, in government, every four years someone changes the world back,” says Hindery, a Missouri native with a bachelor’s degree from Creighton University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her previous job in the Nebraska branch of the Department of Justice involved writing grant applications. Her grant-writing experience carried over to her next role as program director at the Omaha Community Foundation. She served on boards, and deepened her involvement in the community. She eventually joined NAM in 2008.

“I was on the board for five minutes,” Hindery says, half-jokingly. “I took someone’s place on the board in November, and they just had a staff change. Because NAM had a good staff policy in place, they needed someone on the board to step in. I said I could do it, and after a time, I was hired full-time.”

Hindery and her staff at NAM develop relationships with various nonprofits. They offer assistance with human resources, insurance, and legal needs; create partnerships between advocacy and public policy groups; and provide tools and training to members. NAM is also part of the National Council of Nonprofits, which keeps Hindery at the forefront of industry trends and changes in public policy.

“We find our membership in the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands very beneficial,” says Peg Harriott, CEO and president of the Child Saving Institute. “We use the annual salary and benefits report to make sure that our salaries are competitive in the market, and we participate in the health insurance trust to help moderate the cost of health insurance for our employees.”

CSI’s 150 employees benefit from NAM’s insurance trust, but Hindrey and her team make sure they offer services to small nonprofits as well as large ones.

Joining NAM is not free, however. According to the organization’s website, the cost to register ranges in eight tiers from $50 (for nonprofits with an annual budget less than $49,999) to $1,000 (for nonprofits with an annual budget greater than $10 million).

The Inclusive Life Center offers Christian rituals to people who may not belong to a church but want a minister for a wedding, baptism, or funeral. The center’s staff of one says he has greatly benefited from belonging to NAM.

Chaplain Royal D. Carleton says, “We work off of donations, and it helps us to be mindful that we have to be very transparent and good stewards of the funds that are bestowed on us.”

“I went to my first NAM conference [in 2016], which was ‘Who’s telling your story?’” Carleton says. “I learned more that day about marketing than I have in some ways in six years [of running Inclusive Life]. There were very strategic marketing insights that I did not know before.”

He also learned that his audience is wider than he originally thought.

“I’ve never marketed to those who are religious, because I figured they have a church they belong to,” Carleton says. “I had people stand up and say, ‘Listen, I’m Catholic, but I have friends who are not religious, and I need to know who you are so I can share that resource with my friends.’ That was a big eye opener for me.”

That connection to people, and other nonprofits, is one of the biggest resources that NAM offers.

“We encourage our members to not reinvent the wheel,” Hindery says. “In many cases, someone has gone through the same problem, and the solution is already available. You may want to tweak it, but it’s there.”

Visit nonprofitam.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Vernetta Kosalka

January 20, 2017 by
Photography by Ani Luxe Photography

This sponsored content appears in the Winter 2017 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/b2b_0217_125/56

Being trusted with the most important day of a couple’s life or executing the planning of companies event or non-profit’s gala is humbling,” says event planner & designer Vernetta Kosalka, who began her first business in 2007. “In 2013, I added floral design services, the brand, Florist of Omaha, specializing in wedding and event design.

“Also in 2013, I began working with a committee to plan the Omaha Police Officer’s Ball, which ignited my passion for planning and designing full-time. We work annually to raise funds benefiting Special Olympics Nebraska.”

She turned her attention to helping nonprofit and corporate groups.

“I want to have a legacy known for being a trusted source in the management of events and design, helping nonprofits reach their goals. Additionally, I want to be known for giving back to the Omaha community by helping women realize their potential and leadership.”

She has realigned her business and services, additionally offering corporate/nonprofit event planning and design services. All services are aligned under the name, “VK Events | Floral | Planning.”

“I know couples and companies have a choice, and I am so thankful they choose me and my services to assist them,” says Kosalka. “Our clients appreciate and need professional help to guide the planning process.”

“Nearing the end of my senior year at College of Saint Mary, I landed a job at one of Omaha’s largest full-service hotels as a catering administrative assistant, assisting one of Omaha’s leading and sought-after event professionals.”

She says her company is a one-stop shop for couples and clients. “I also pride myself in taking an active role with my nonprofit and corporate clients by being active on the committee and boards. Therefore I fully understand the goals and guide the planning process internally.”

Her service and attention to detail keep referrals coming. “I take the planning off your shoulders but not out of your hands. My couples and clients know I will work hard to anticipate needs, follow through on responsibilities and protect their interests.”

She is the first in her family to graduate from college. “A quote that stands out to me most is by Catherine McAuley, ‘No work is more productive of good to society than the careful education of women.’”

Kosalka holds a Master of Science in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary, She received the college’s Queen of Heart Award based on values, character, and service.

And that’s not all of her bragging rights. She has received the Wedding Wire Couple’s Choice Award annually for Event Planning and Floral Design. She is the recipient of the 2016 Volunteer of the Year for the Ralston Chamber of Commerce.

“Our design work is regionally published in Nebraska Wedding Day Magazine: home of award winning services—The Wedding Planner Omaha LLC & Florist of Omaha,” she says.

“As a child, I knew I wanted to own businesses and plan events. ‘Wow’ that’s a big picture for a 7 year old,” says Kosalka. “Many of America’s greatest businesses were started in homes with a dream and faith.”

801 S. 75th St.
Omaha, NE 68114
402.510.2241
vernettakosalka.com

 

The Essence of Oikos

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

These pages often feature nonprofits that have the power to draw from scores of volunteers supported by a paid staff backed by a who’s-who-in-Omaha board infrastructure in serving broad and far-flung community needs. Sponsored events and fundraisers may attract hundreds, even thousands, of generous, like-minded people in raising big money to propel mission statements.

Eric Purcell’s role is…well, a little different. He’s an army of one.

“I certainly don’t feel alone,” says the area’s sole representative of Beta Communities. “Sure, this is my job, and I’m the only one that happens to be doing this for Beta here in Omaha, but when your thing is to work in the community, you can never really be alone.”

Beta Communities, the organization’s website explains, is a missionary order—embedded locally and sent globally—that develops leaders to deeply inhabit their place in the way of Jesus and, in doing so, live out their vocational call in the world.

Purcell points to a photo collage in his living room in making a point on Beta Communities’ values. He took five snapshots of random objects (the letter “O,” for example, is rendered in the form of an overhead image of a coffee cup) to spell out oikos, the ancient Greek word for household.

“But the word goes beyond the idea of a mere structure or a home,” Purcell adds. “It speaks more to the idea of family, extended family, and the wider community. The word ‘economy,’ for example, is also derived from oikos, and indicates a system of interactions, just like the interactions we have in our mission.”

The “we” in Purcell’s thoughts above is a nod to his wife, Lisa, who is Eric’s constant companion in his work. She is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools the couple’s children, Norah (9), and Brennen (5) in their home that overlooks Gifford Park (see related story on page H24 for more on the Gifford Park neighborhood).

“There’s something almost countercultural in what we do,” says Lisa. “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m a homeschooling mom. Because of that, it’s sometimes hard for me to easily define my role in Eric’s work, but this ministry is something we birthed together,” she says as Eric nods his head in agreement. “We are in this together, even though he’s the paid staff member. He has the ‘office hours’ [even though there is no office], but together we find a way to fill things in. His work has no context unless everything points back to our life together; our life with the kids, our life in the community, our life in this mission. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, but I know that isn’t really the case at all.”

“And neighborhoods,” Eric explains, “can never be looked at as a one-man anything. It just doesn’t work that way. Being a neighbor, most importantly, starts with a lot of listening.” Eric adds that they believe that a community’s strength is measured in the number of people who, as the Beta values state, “deeply inhabit” their surroundings, the people who are invested in a neighborhood on all levels.

The couple recently hosted their own little “investor meeting,” what Beta Communities calls a Cohort. It’s a weekend immersion experience with friends and neighbors that features a slate of guided conversations in sessions that center around the idea of imaging better communities and the individual’s power to affect change. Their most recent Cohort had a decidedly local, even walkable flavor, but two friends involved in community arts efforts in Wichita, Kansas, also travelled for the Cohort to learn more about what was happening in Omaha.

Just like the area’s community gardens that will soon sprout with the promise of another leafy bounty, Eric explains that the couple’s work is equally organic. “That’s because a lot of our involvement comes through our work with the [Gifford Park] Neighborhood Association,” where Eric just completed two consecutive terms as president of the group. “Very few people in this neighborhood know what Beta is. They may never have even heard us use the word, and we’re okay with that.”

The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association is one of the strongest and most active in the community, but even the most robust of programs face challenges, Eric says. The area is home to neighbors hailing from more than 20 nations. Income levels are all over the map. Many of the Purcell’s neighbors are learning English.

“Maybe it’s getting kids to kick a soccer ball around,” Eric says in pointing across the street to Gifford Park’s used soccer nets donated by the city. “That’s one way to connect. Maybe it’s our Summer Tennis Program or the community gardens. That’s how it works.” You find a way to bring people together, he says, and good things start to happen.

And that, these most non-traditional of missionaries believe, is the very essence of oikos.

20150123_bs_7471

Joy Johnson

January 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It wasn’t a funeral. Or a viewing. Or even a celebration of life.

When Joy Johnson’s husband Marvin passed away earlier this year, she held a roast. “We had what Marv would have called one hell of a party,” Johnson says.

Johnson, who co-founded with her late husband the Centering Corporation, a nonprofit grief resource center, has spent the last three decades trying to change the language of death, or at least improve the way we communicate about it: you know, that fate we cannot escape, when we bite the dust or cash in our chips so we can be called home to sleep with the fishes…?

“We don’t have a language of grief yet,” Johnson says.

Seated around a table eating breakfast with a few old friends—hospice nurses and chaplains who have also spent years around death and dying—Johnson continues. The root of the word, ‘widow,’ she says in citing just one example, is ‘destitute.’

“That’s not a good word,” Johnson says.

She and her husband worked with counselors, crisis centers, hospitals, and funerals at Centering Corporation to provide books on death and other grieving resources meant to help people find comfort in the right words. Along with their daughter and former son-in-law, the couple also founded Ted E. Bear Hollow, a nonprofit focused on working through grief with children, who may need different kinds of consoling words. Johnson has also written several books on the subject. But when her husband passed after a battle with esophageal cancer, Johnson found herself on the other side, and those accumulated coping skills were tested. “I like to say I’ve had 37 years of research and writing,” she says, “and now I’m in my practicum.”

Johnson knew there were places to turn and people she could talk to, and she knew what she needed: to get out and do things. So she wrote up a list, which she named ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’—30 names of people she could call to go out with, or meet for breakfast.

“Every grief has its own note,” Johnson says, and dealing with each type is different for everyone.

Long-time friend and retired hospice worker Marcia Blum says a sudden death can be much harder to handle than a prolonged illness. “There’s no anticipatory grief period,” she says. Blum says her parents died within five months of each other; her mother after a long battle with Parkinson’s, and her father shortly after, suddenly. “They were two totally different griefs,” she says. “It was the wrong death in my mind.”

But even in hospice, where one might imagine family members would be prepared for the inevitable, Blum says people are so often surprised by death. It occurs behind closed doors—in hospitals and hospice; it’s not discussed openly. “Nobody sees it,” Blum says. “I think people still avoid real death. There’s the gruesome death that we see on television, but real death is different.”

Words didn’t work for Johnson’s daughter when she faced a sudden and up-close death. Janet Roberts, the executive director of Centering Corporation and the daughter behind the founding of Ted E. Bear Hollow, grew up around the family business and started helping out when she was eight. “I was always comfortable with grief as part of the life cycle,” she says, leading a brief tour of the center’s offices—small and unassuming; shelves of books, boxes and packaging tape stacked behind a circle of couches where visitors can warm themselves with hot coffee and tea. But at 18 years old, Roberts’ boyfriend was killed while she was with him, and the shock threw her into a depression and PTSD. She recalls her mother offered books to help work through her grief, but they were geared to adults, and she couldn’t relate. She left the business for a while, and when she returned decided to start Ted E. Bear Hollow to help teens and children dealing with grief. Teens respond differently, she says; they often they need to write through their grief, or just acknowledge they’ve had a loss.

When Roberts went through that loss, there were few books or resources available for teens, she says. But today, she explains in gesturing to the piled-high shelves, there are thousands.

Back at the breakfast table, Johnson and her friends said attitudes about death have changed significantly in the last couple decades. Communally tragic events like the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11 have made grief and death more public, and people are able to connect through social media as they mourn. But our words are still lacking and our condolences can seem trite—particularly to a group of people who deal with death and its aftermath on a daily basis. I’m sorry for your loss—that’s one Johnson grew tired of hearing. I know how you feel—that’s another. “Don’t assume you understand,” says Blum.

Johnson has her own words for her grief, like DTT, or Designated Tear Time. She’s not a public crier, she says, so she gives herself time alone to let it out.

And aside from ‘hello’ when Johnson goes through her list and makes the call, the words of condolence that she’d like to hear?

“What a bummer.”

20141205_bs_2095

Marian Fey

December 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Marian Fey moved around a lot as a kid. “I always say my mom’s a gypsy,” she says with a laugh.

But wherever she landed, one thing remained constant: dance.

“I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Fey says from her office Downtown. But it was sometime around middle school that dance crossed the line from “I don’t want to go,” she recalls, “to how many times a week can I go? It’s not enough.” By the time she was in high school, Fey danced four days a week and taught for another two. She danced all the way through college and then taught dance and choreography at the Omaha Academy of Ballet after she and her husband settled in Omaha. “I’ve had that connection my entire life to the arts,” she says. “I know personally the impact that arts education had on me and the engagement it caused me and my family to have towards education.”

Today, Fey is president of the Omaha Public Schools Board and heads the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, a fundraising position she assumed in May after leading the Nebraska Arts Council for a year. Before that, Fey founded The Artery, a small nonprofit that brought the New York-based Dancing Classrooms to Omaha. As she expands her scope, Fey hopes to provide opportunities for more children to get involved in the arts—inspiring their passions and encouraging them to engage in their education.

“There’s such a growing body of evidence about the impact that arts education can have on student achievement,” she says. Other than increasing engagement and parental involvement, sometimes the arts simply provide motivation, she says. “I think a lot of kids—and I wasn’t any different—need a reason some mornings to get up and go to school.” That goes for her kids, too. “For at least three of our children,” she says, “if they hadn’t had music to look forward to everyday at school, it could have been a tough sell getting them up and going.”

Fey’s interest in her children’s education led her to run for a seat on the OPS board in 2011, where she advocates for more arts education. Her tenure has been consumed by searches for superintendents and board structure changes. But despite the setbacks, she says she’s proud “OPS has never abandoned the arts.”

Add her role as elected official to fundraiser, and Fey’s transition from participant and teacher to behind-the-scenes mover and shaker is complete. At the Cultural Endowment, Fey travels around the state building relationships with senators and donors, and she manages a private fund that should reach $10 million (with its public match) by 2016. The fund provides grants to arts and humanities organizations around the state, impacting thousands of Nebraska kids.

It’s a new role, but Fey says she still feels like a teacher articulating ideas and concepts—just to a broader audience. And the passion that stirred her as a child—her reason to get up every morning—will never stand down.

20140918_bs_2015