Tag Archives: nonprofit

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.

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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.”

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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.

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The Kiernans

October 21, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

In 2010, Renee and T.J. Kiernan were still adjusting to their oldest son’s recent diagnosis of autism—trying to understand the complex condition and exploring educational, medical, and therapy options—when the little boy had a life-threatening mishap.

“Tres takes a medication that helps him fall asleep at night; it’s actually a heart medication for adults,” Renee Kiernan says. “One night I was giving him his medication and my daughter came into the room and wanted to show me something. I was saying, ‘What, honey?’ when I knocked the bottle onto the floor.”

In a flash, Tres had ingested at least three pills, six times his nightly dose and a potentially fatal quantity for a 3-year-old. Emergency personnel administered activated charcoal by force, “which would be hard enough for a neurotypical kid”, Kiernan says, but the treatment was traumatic for Tres, who could be overwhelmed with sensory stimuli even under everyday circumstances. Although she knew that the actions of the medical team helped save her son’s life, the experience was “horrible” for Kiernan as well.

“I was so new to the diagnosis that I didn’t know how to advocate for him,” Kiernan recalls. “And I had [once] gone to school to become a paramedic.”

Soon after Tres’s accident, Kiernan approached early childhood experts in the Papillion-La Vista school district with an informal training proposal. They then formed a task force with Planning Region 23, a group that coordinates services for young children with special needs who live within the school district’s geographic boundaries (Kiernan serves the group as a parent representative). Expecting to organize a single, one-time training session for local emergency personnel, she was surprised by the demand and level of interest from the community and elsewhere in the state.
Soon Kiernan created what became Nebraska Parent & Responders Partnership.

“That’s what made me decide to start a nonprofit, where I could write the training materials and offer (a program), and it expanded from there,” she says, adding that the organization now also offers advocacy training to parents. “There really isn’t a lot of training out there. I don’t even have to market myself; people come to me.”

The organization’s training is conducted by Dennis Debbaudt, considered the leading global voice on autism and special needs training for law enforcement and emergency responders. Debbaudt is the parent of a young man with autism and in 1994 was the first to formally address the interaction between law enforcement and people with autism and special needs. He’s also one of most sought-after speakers in the autism community.

The Kiernans, who now have four children (Tres, 7; Cecilia, 5; Colin, 4; and Asher, 3), are involved in other autism advocacy efforts from heading parent social groups to organizing sensory-friendly holiday events, and Renee Kiernan has served on the board of the Autism Society of Nebraska-Omaha Support Network.

There’s always more that can be done, she says. Nebraska Parent & Responders Partnership gets regular requests for autism awareness training for various community professionals who interact with children and young adults. She’s also looking ahead to someday develop training for medical personnel who work with adolescents who have special needs—and the parents of these teens, too—perhaps on how to talk about puberty and sexuality or identifying potential abuse of vulnerable young adults who may be inhibited by communication limitations.

“Where I see it evolving is continuing to be in the medical profession and continuing to be advocating for parents,” she says.

In the meantime, the Kiernans are focusing on raising their young family and doing everything they can to ensure Tres has opportunities for the same childhood experiences as any other kid.

“When we were given the diagnosis, I thought they were going to tell me he was a genius and would need to start the first grade, and that was not what they told me. They said ‘He has autism and you need to seek a medical diagnosis’,” Kiernan says. “I just remember wanting to bawl, to cry and cry and cry in front of all these therapists. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t ever
want my son to see me shed a tear for autism or to hear me say I’m sorry he has autism.’ I don’t want him to hear me apologize for it, ever.”

The Kiernans are already preparing Tres to be his own advocate when he is older and more independent.

“Once T.J. and I caught up and educated ourselves and were okay with it, it was a small conversation: ‘You’ll have more questions later, but you may have noticed that things are different for you,’” Kiernan explains. “He loves that I talk about it, and that makes it okay for him to talk about it.”

Tres’s primary message, when he does talk about autism, is this: “We like to have fun. We’re just kids.”

And his mom is just a mom. “I go with my strength, and my strength is that I’m a mom. I wouldn’t say that I’m ordinary—not that I’m extraordinary, either—but, really, anybody can advocate and educate,” Kiernan says. “That’s my motto: Advocate, educate, repeat. And I want my son to do that, too.”

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NorthStar Foundation

August 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ten-year-olds aren’t much known for the use of subtleties in choosing their words. So when Caleb Robinson calls himself “the poster boy” for the NorthStar Foundation, you can bet that he means it in a literal sense.

His image has been used on the nonprofit’s marketing and related materials, so Omaha’s newest celebrity was right at home in yet another photo shoot on the sprawling campus of the boys-only youth center that has risen just south of Ames Avenue at about 49th Street.

“I feel like I’m on the top of the world,” Caleb shouts after reaching the apex of the towering, high-ropes obstacle course that is just one of the world-class features to be found at the facility that aims to guide young boys into a promising and productive future. Along with classrooms and basketball courts, the expansive building also boasts a rock-climbing wall.

Inspired by the Outward Bound model of adventure mixed with a host of complementary experiential programs, NorthStar’s efforts are aimed at 5th through 8th graders, the age group where boys are first recruited into or are otherwise influenced by gangs, says NorthStar president Scott Hazelrigg.

“Try to tell a kid that you want to take him on a river rafting adventure,” says Hazelrigg, “and he doesn’t know how to digest that information. To a young boy living in poverty, they don’t have the worldview to even picture what that would be like. It’s just an abstract idea to them. We’re loosely inspired by the Outward Bound model, but we built the 40-foot high-ropes right here where the kids live. We built the rock-climbing wall right here where the kids live.”

Outward Bound operates in Omaha as a wholly owned, limited liability corporation of the NorthStar Foundation. The connection to Outward Bound means that the foundation has an established and strong footprint in the community, as they’ve already worked with over 6,000 boys in the year leading up to the opening of the NorthStar facility.

“North Omaha is isolated both socially and economically,” Hazelrigg adds. “A secondary goal of our work is to change the perception of a community. People from all parts of the city will come here, and we can give them an experience that they won’t expect, especially if all they know about North Omaha is what they see on the nightly news.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony in May introduced the community to the organization whose mission is to “change young men’s lives through programming that supports, challenges, inspires, and instills a life rooted in education, self-discipline, and service to the community.”

But there’s more than just high adventure to be found at NorthStar. After-school programs in academic achievement, athletics and healthy lifestyles, arts immersion, and employment readiness will be in full swing by the time kids like Caleb return to class in August.

Caleb’s mother, Barbara Robinson, has acted as something of an unofficial consultant in planning the NorthStar vision. She’s a gang intervention program manager for Impact One, a grassroots organization that focuses on addressing issues within North Omaha. And she knows the streets all to well. The ex-crack addict and gangbanger had her children (now returned) taken away from her by the state before she turned her life around.

“Young boys need role models,” Robinson says. “They need someplace to go to after school, someplace that teaches the same values that we live by in my home. NorthStar listens to parents. They listen to the community. They care about the future of this city and its young men.”

“I was maybe just a little bit scared when I got started,” Caleb says of his high-ropes adventure. Growing up in North Omaha can be a scary experience, and it is all too easy for fear to permeate a neighborhood like a contagion. Fear not, Caleb. The NorthStar Foundation has your back.

Strike Zone and MVP4Life

March 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Learning life skills through baseball.” This is the tagline for MVP4Life, a new nonprofit organization aimed at keeping Omaha’s youth in school and helping them succeed in life. MVP4Life has joined forces with Strike Zone Omaha to form school programs, camps and clinics, coaches’ clinics, and the Upper Deck League.

The goal of MVP4Life is to instill a sense of work ethic and teach kids about the importance of contributing to the community. It’s not just about baseball. It’s about producing a rewarding program that encourages kids to work together.

Joe Siwa and Teri Cissell, partners at Strike Zone Omaha, realized the need for after-school programs in the community. It was Cissell who thought up the idea behind MVP4Life. As the nonprofit’s director, she has been working hard on the program for about a year and a half and says it’s almost ready to launch. “We have it where we want it to be and now want to hit the ground running,” Cissell says.

Over eight weeks, the school program will teach life skills to fifth through eighth graders. The goal is for students to graduate from MVP4Life with a set of essential life skills. “This is a full-circle program,” Siwa says. “Everything is connected with helping these kids become more productive citizens in life. We are giving them that foundation to live upon.”

“We’ve put a lot of thought into this and have really built a strong program,” says Cissell. Cissell and Siwa have created a complete curriculum based on the HOMERUNS life skills: Handle diversity, Overcome challenges, Make good decisions, Encouragement and leadership, Responsibility and respect, Understand and accept situations, Nurture self-esteem and confidence, and Stay focused on personal goals.

“Research shows that if kids are kept in organized school activities, they do much better in school and in life,” Cissell says. “Douglas County Sheriff’s department did research that determined if we could keep just 10 percent of male students from dropping out of high school, we could save Nebraska taxpayers $65 million per year.”

The nonprofit also includes the Upper Deck League, a competitive league for college players in their offseason. These players mentor youth on how to be successful college athletes, as well as attend a leadership conference in exchange for playing in the Upper Deck League. Siwa stresses the importance of giving back to the community and hopes that these 120 college baseball players are passing on a strong work ethic to the kids.

“Our job is to get these kids involved and teach them how to listen to instruction, take criticism, and gain a work ethic. We want to put a desire into these kids…great things happen when you work hard,” Siwa says.

The program will begin in the Omaha Public Schools and filter out to the rest of
the community.

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Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

COMMONgood

February 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Helmets fastened, Leslie Wells and Chase King climb on their bikes and take off for a brisk ride through downtown Omaha on a crisp afternoon. For these avid cyclists though, today’s ride isn’t about recreation. It’s about recycling.

Earlier in the day, the two men collected hundreds of glass and plastic bottles, cups, containers, cardboard, cans, and other items from an Old Market coffee shop and a downtown restaurant. They loaded and secured each trash bag, box, and bin stuffed with recyclables onto a pull-behind bicycle trailer hitched to a Surly Pugsley bike with big, fat tires.

On today’s route, King rides the bike pulling the trailer, while Wells follows on his own bicycle. After pedaling their way to a recycling dumpster in a parking lot near Heartland of America Park, they unload the nearly 300-pound haul. Everything but the glass, which is biked to a collection site at 26th and Douglas streets, gets tossed into the giant bin.

Two days later, they’ll be it again—putting the cycle in recycle. Their efforts are part of COMMONgood Recycling, one of several programs operated by local nonprofit group inCOMMON Community Development.

Wells, program director at inCOMMON and a longtime cycling enthusiast, created and coordinates the pedal-powered service, which is offered Monday and Saturday to business owners in the downtown and midtown areas. Its primary goals are to assist small businesses, employ residents seeking entry-level work, and help protect the environment.

The idea came about after Wells noticed two of his friends, who own Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson, using their bikes to recycle. It inspired him to take a similar approach to recycling at Aromas Coffeehouse in the Old Market, where he worked at the time.

At first, he used a handmade wooden cart attached to his bike to haul recyclables from Aromas but later switched to a solid aluminum trailer because it was stronger and could handle heavier loads. Over time, Wells thought other downtown businesses might be interested in his method of recycling. And if he could get enough customers to sign up and pay a small fee for the service, it could create job opportunities for low-income residents served by inCOMMON, where Wells volunteered.

His plan got a boost in May when inCOMMON was awarded a $25,000 grant from State Farm to help develop the program. Wells joined inCOMMON’s staff full time to expand and oversee the effort.

What started with one client has now grown to more than a dozen participating businesses, including Flatiron Cafe, Block 16, Aromas Coffeehouse, Kaneko, Table Grace Cafe, Elevate, Greengo Coffee & Deli, Bench, Davis Companies, CO2 Apartments, and others. Businesses sign up and pay a monthly fee of $40 for weekly pickup. Other pricing options, including one-time service, are also available.

Previously, many of those businesses were simply discarding recyclable materials in the trash. “A service like this is important because it allows small businesses to start doing the right thing by recycling and still afford to hit their bottom line by reducing their waste fee,” Wells says.

For riders, who are either unemployed or underemployed, COMMONgood Recycling allows them to make money, Wells says, and it gives those who want to transition back into the workforce an opportunity to acquire job experience, training, and multiple skills to include on their résumés.

Christian Gray, executive director of inCOMMON Community Development, says the recycling project fits in nicely with the organization’s overall mission to strengthen struggling neighborhoods and alleviate poverty at its root.

The nonprofit group, which in October celebrated the grand opening of its Park Ave Commons community center at 1340 Park Ave., provides a variety of services for neighborhood residents, including GED instruction, preventative and emergency services, community building, English language lessons, job readiness, and other resources.

King is among the riders employed by COMMONgood Recycling as an independent contractor.

Since June, he’s helped collect, sort, and haul recyclables to drop-off sites around town. He sees the service as a way to help promote a greener community and reduce the amount of trash that goes into landfills.

“Landfills are full enough already,” King says.

In the coming year, Wells hopes to add more riders, bikes, and customers, while continuing to raise recycling awareness. He also wants to expand the service to include other areas of the city, including Benson.