Tag Archives: Sarah Wengert

Community First

September 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

First National Bank is known for “putting customers first.” Part and parcel of that commitment is reinvesting in the communities their customers call home.  

“Our success as a company is dependent upon the success of the communities that we operate in…so the purpose of our community work is to contribute to the success of the communities in which we operate in and serve,” says Alec Gorynski, vice president of Community Development and Corporate Philanthropy at First National Bank.

First National partners with nonprofit organizations across its seven-state footprint—Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Texas—to support local communities with reinvestments that channel through nonprofit partners. The bank reinvests by direct philanthropy, impact investment, and volunteerism, and chooses its nonprofit partners based on their alignment with First National initiatives, history and track record of success, and potential for impact. 

While philanthropy and community development are not new concepts at First National, Gorynski says that in 2016 the bank specifically committed to reinvesting $85 million and 100,000 volunteer hours back into its communities by 2020. According to First National’s 2017 Impact Report, their two-year totals at the close of 2017 were at $56 million and 76,000 volunteer hours.

While Gorynski acknowledges there is lots of need and many excellent potential partner organizations, First National strategically aligns its community investments with organizations that are working to foster success in eight specific areas: strong local economies, stable housing, vibrant neighborhoods, an educated workforce, good health, community cohesion, access to culture, and sustained environment. Of those eight areas, First National focuses the majority of its efforts on an educated workforce, a strong local economy, and stable housing, each of which can act as essential building blocks to foster success in the other five areas.    

“Success is a wide net when we think about helping our communities succeed, so we think about success from the economic standpoint,” says Gorynski. “We want to help our communities, and the individuals in our communities, move above a certain economic threshold. Certainly it’s a spectrum, but there’s an economic line at which people are more likely to be more active in the economy and more independently prosperous. What we’re really focused on is helping move people above that economic line.”

In service of that goal, Gorynski elaborates, an educated workforce is fostered by education and
job training that helps individuals attain the skills and tools necessary to achieve economic success, often through avenues like youth and adult education, or vocational training. Similarly, their strong economy initiative is buoyed by investments in nonprofits that support small business development, and stable housing is achieved by investments in organizations that work to provide quality, affordable housing opportunities. 

“We believe that home ownership is a means to gain wealth and a pathway to economic stability and prosperity, so we want to invest in programs that help people own a home as a means to building wealth,” says Gorynski. “At the same time, we want to invest in programs that help low-income individuals get quality affordable housing, even if it is rental housing, because we know that housing should never take up more than 30 percent of your income and we want to ensure that people can get housing that’s affordable, but also quality.”

Amanda Brewer, CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, a prominent community partner of the bank, says the bank provides crucial support to her organization.  

“First National Bank is an incredible partner of Habitat for Humanity. In addition to sponsoring a house and having hundreds of team members volunteer each year, First National has helped by investing in our loan pool, servicing Habitat loans, leading budgeting workshops for our homeowners, and providing countless hours of technical expertise,” says Brewer. “They’ve helped more families realize the dream of homeownership through Habitat and helped us transform neighborhoods.”  

Not only does First National encourage employees to volunteer, they have a time-off policy that allows each employee eight hours paid time off annually to use for volunteering in their community. Gorynski says it all goes back to one of the bank’s guiding mantras: “When our communities are successful, we are successful.” 

For Gorynski, it is a privilege to help set the strategy and tone for First National Bank’s community development and corporate philanthropy efforts, while also leading the team that “puts our financial and human capital to work in alignment with that strategy.” He is quick to praise his team and the Lauritzen family’s ownership and leadership as drivers in making these efforts successful. 

“It’s truly an honor and a privilege to do this work for a company that has a 160-year history of being so committed to Omaha and to all of the communities in which it operates and serves,” says Gorynski. “The team does meaningful work developing really genuine, meaningful partnerships with nonprofit organizations. We have boots on the ground in Omaha and in every community in which we operate who are out there getting to know the communities we serve, getting to know the organizations that are addressing the needs in our communities, and finding meaningful ways for us to support the work of those organizations. It’s because of [the team] that we’re able to get to know the right nonprofit organizations, make meaningful investments in those organizations, and ultimately, realize our goal of successful communities.”


Visit firstnational.com/community to learn more about First National Bank’s community development and philanthropy efforts.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Hooray For Miss USA

September 9, 2018 by
Photography by the Miss Universe organization

When 12-year-old Sarah Rose Summers asked her parents if she could compete in the National American Miss pageant, they gave her a major side eye. 

“I was one of the shyest girls,” says Summers, now 23. “I was the one who latched onto my mom’s leg and bawled my eyes out when she tried to drop me at dance class. I wouldn’t make eye contact with strangers or speak in the classroom.”

Summers’ parents said yes, thinking she’d forget about the whole thing, but her interest persisted. Little did her family know that this was merely the first chapter in a storybook journey that would end with Summers being crowned Miss USA in May 2018—becoming the first woman from Nebraska to win the crown. (Summers had previously won the National American Miss Junior Teen title in 2010; she was also the first Nebraskan to win that honor.) 

“I was the first to win from Nebraska then and now,” Summers says. “My goal after [National American Miss Junior Teen] was always to [represent] Nebraska on the Miss USA stage.”

Regarding her history-making Miss USA win, Summers is proud to have made her mark and hopes it will inspire Nebraska girls to reach for their own dreams.

“I’m so honored to have the opportunity to encourage them, that even if their dreams don’t seem attainable, they should chase them anyway—because here I am,” Summers says.

Summers, whose Miss USA win precipitated an immediate move to New York City, was born and raised in Papillion, surrounded by a tight-knit extended family.  

“My whole family lives within 30 minutes from our house—meaning my grandparents, cousins, second cousins…I was very fortunate to be raised so close to family,” Summers says. “Being in Nebraska, you always have your feet firmly on the ground. You know your roots, you know your neighbors’ names, and it’s not that way everywhere. I’m grateful for growing up in Nebraska where you can form those relationships with everyone you see.”

In what sounds vaguely like a scene from the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Summers shares a story of her first time jogging through Central Park, greeting everyone she passed, just as she would back in Nebraska.

“I got a lot of crazy looks when I was smiling and waving at strangers in Central Park, but I got a few smiles back, so I’m just going to keep that up and bring that Nebraska joy to the city,” she says.  

In the moments before being named in the top 15, Summers says she had butterflies in her stomach, but pride in her performance and proximity to good friends put her at ease. 

“I knew that I had 110 percent been myself and felt strong in my performance. I was hoping to hear my name, but, if not, I was content and knew where to walk offstage,” Summers says. “I was really at peace and just soaking it up. Then I was called right after my friend, Miss New Jersey [Alexa Noone], so that was pretty amazing. I got to run down and hug her.”

Summers then advanced to the top 10—still hopeful, but at peace with any outcome. She maintained this feeling through the top two, which came down to her and one of her best Miss USA friends, Caelynn Miller-Keyes of North Carolina.

“We connected on a lot of levels, like being goal-driven women and having a strong faith. It was like a children’s book, the two of us being up there,” Summers says. “It was a whirlwind of emotions. I remember it up to that point, but then when they said ‘Nebraska’ I had to watch it back to really understand it all. I don’t remember crying. I remember falling to the ground and then Kára [McCullough], last year’s Miss USA, leaned down and said, ‘Can I crown you now?’ and I said, ‘Yes, of course, please do.’”

Summers’ entire family traveled to Shreveport, Louisana, for the Miss USA pageant, including her brother, Scott, who later texted: “I’ve been to about 15 pageants for you but I was not mentally prepared for five eliminations in 90 minutes. That was stressful. It’s usually a top 15, top 5, and then announcement of places. That was just brutal on your brother.” 

While Summers and her family will have to prepare for another nail-biter when she competes in the Miss Universe pageant in late 2018, right now she’s focused on her newfound opportunity to impact others on a larger scale.

“I made a difference in Nebraska as Miss Nebraska USA and was already making a difference as Sarah Rose Summers, but this opportunity plunges me forward to be able to speak on topics I’m passionate about and to affect others and causes that I feel called to. To work with the Miss Universe Organization and have the opportunity to travel, meet people, and make connections is amazing,” Summers says.  

Project Sunshine is one partner organization she’s excited to work with. They organize volunteers to comfort pediatric patients and their families in various medical settings—a cause near and dear to Summers personally and professionally.

“I connect deeply to [the Project Sunshine mission] because I was hospitalized at Children’s in Omaha when I was younger with something called ITP,” Summers says. “I was only there for a short time, thank goodness, but I remember how scary it was for my family and me.”

The experience propelled Summers to volunteer at hospitals in Omaha and Fort Worth, where she attended Texas Christian University and discovered her calling to become a certified child life specialist. After completing her schooling and clinical rotations, she sat for her certification exam in April 2018.

Summers’ advice for others who seek to reach their goals is to write them down, a practice she learned working part-time for Lululemon. 

“Write your goals down, first and foremost. Then, if you’re bold enough, share them with others so they can help hold you accountable, and help drive you to that goal, and maybe even form strategies around how to make it happen,” Summers says.

While she earned her title as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Summers defines beauty holistically. She hopes to set a realistic, attainable, healthy example for girls and women of all ages. 

“The Miss Universe mantra—‘confidently beautiful’—is about more than your figure, size, height, face structure, skin, or hair color. It’s being confident in who you are, from your looks to your beliefs, and knowing that you’re happy with who you are, proud of your accomplishments, and confident in your aspirations,” Summers says. “Beauty is so much deeper than physical attributes.”

To Summers, pageants are also about so much more than beauty. 

“[The pageant] is an opportunity for like-minded, encouraging women to come together, get to know each other, share their stories, and become friends,” Summers says. “It’s just another outlet for us as women to empower each other.” 


Visit missuniverse.com/missusa to learn more.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Divine Serpentine

August 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While Dulcie Mueller has been performing since age 5 with a variety of castmates and collaborators, she finally found the perfect partner several years ago in a cold-hearted reptile. 

Mueller, who has a background in dance, performs under the stage name Dolce Vita with her seven-foot-long Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor, BlondieS. Good duos are built on a foundation of mutual love, respect, and trust, and Mueller and BlondieS have that in spades. Mueller has previously performed with other snakes, but when she met BlondieS—whom she calls “the coolest snake in Nebraska”—everything just clicked.   

“I opened up [the box she came in], put BlondieS on my shoulders, and that was it—we’ve been best friends ever since,” Mueller says. 

But long before BlondieS became the peanut butter to her jelly, the Lennon to her McCartney, the Thelma to her Louise, Mueller was fascinated with snakes. 

“I first developed an affinity for snakes through a famous magazine photo from the ’80s—maybe it was Vogue—where there’s a naked lady with a giant boa constrictor draped over her body covering her,” Mueller says. “I was a freshman in high school when I saw that picture and just thought it was so beautiful and sexy without showing anything inappropriate—but, at the same time, it was kind
of inappropriate.”

School administration was of the opinion that it was indeed inappropriate, ushering Mueller down to the principal’s office the day after she hung the photograph in her locker. But with that inspiring image, Mueller’s love of the divine serpent and subjects others might consider strange was solidified. 

Mueller considers herself more of a charming snake performer than a snake charmer. She does various themed performances at venues ranging from house parties to music clubs to retirement homes and has performed for audiences of all ages, customizing her routine and costuming for each occasion. 

Mueller carefully socialized BlondieS early on to get her used to people. Between that and BlondieS’ naturally affable demeanor, the non-venomous snake has never posed a threat to Mueller or any audience member. In fact, everywhere the pair goes, BlondieS is very popular. 

“Everybody that meets BlondieS—that actually looks at her or holds her—absolutely falls in love with her,” Mueller says. “People don’t expect her to look so pretty when they get up close or to be so chill.”

In addition to her good looks and calm demeanor, she says BlondieS is a natural-born performer. The pair rarely practice together, as Mueller opts to practice on her own, then improvise with BlondieS.    

“I work with her, she works with me, and we just make it happen,” Mueller says. “She’s great at posing. I’ll put her on somebody’s shoulders, and I can gently guide her head and let her know it’s picture time. Then she’ll hold her head facing the camera or slowly move it like a model would when she’s changing her angles a little bit for the camera. I got really lucky with her.”

On stage, the duo’s skin tones complement each other perfectly, and BlondieS drapes beautifully around Mueller’s curves. It’s an unusual, offbeat display—particularly for Midwest audiences—but it’s exquisite to behold; a unique performance that acts like kindling for the imagination’s fire, as all good art should. Mueller sometimes conceals BlondieS in a basket or other prop at the start of their performance and she says her favorite reaction is the audience’s collective gasp of delighted surprise when the giant snake is revealed.    

“I like opening minds and giving people an experience they wouldn’t normally get,” says Mueller, who is careful never to push those who are fearful of BlondieS to interact. 

While Mueller currently performs independently with BlondieS, she’s open to collaboration and partnerships if it’s the right fit. In the past she’s worked with groups like Spank Candy and OEAA-award winning band Bennie and the Gents, as well as other local burlesque groups.  

At home, BlondieS has her cage but acts more like a house cat or dog at times.

“I’ve had her in bed with us, just laying on the covers, curled up at our feet, looking at the TV, which is really funny,” Mueller says. “Of course, we can’t fall asleep like that. I’m not worried about her hurting anybody, I’m more worried about her getting stuck somewhere or getting too cold.” 

Mueller says she’s realized through the years that she’s always happiest when she’s actively performing, although she also loves her day job—working with adults with intellectual disabilities.  

“[Snake performing] is just a crazy, wild hobby that I feel especially compelled to pursue because there’s nobody else doing it, but at the same time it’s a hobby and I have a really important full-time job, so it’s hard to divide my energy the way I would like to. I need to have, like, 200 percent energy so I can put 100 percent into both the hobby and the job,” she says.

As for anyone who judges Mueller’s performances with BlondieS as weird, that doesn’t bother her one bit. In fact, she’s rightfully proud of her unique art and hopes to bring fringe ideas into the mainstream.  

“I do what I do because I want to and I don’t feel ashamed, nervous, or worried about what other people think about it,” she says. “That’s what I want the audience to get out of it too…for them to go home feeling that they can also do anything they want and that they shouldn’t be ashamed about the weird things they might want to do or think. I just want people to feel free because I definitely feel free in my choices as a performer.”  


For more information, visit omahasnake.com.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter.

Dinner, Drinks, and a Show At the Holland

July 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dinner and a show is essentially the “little black dress” of nights out on the town. The combo is always relevant, always in style, and it looks great on everyone. 

Since opening in 2005, the Holland Center has offered a wonderful venue for enjoying a performance or concert; the deal is even sweeter now that they also welcome audiences for dinner, drinks, and even a pre-show performance on some occasions—all under one roof.  

“Zinc is our full-service restaurant and Ovations is our bar in the lobby,” says Danyel Siler, vice president of marketing and communications for Omaha Performing Arts. “They’re both located right in the Holland Center, so you can plan an entire night out here, park once, and visit Ovations for drinks and an appetizer or go to Zinc for an excellent meal made by a local chef with fresh, seasonal ingredients. We also offer valet parking to make the experience complete, so people can just come once, have a nice meal or drinks before the show, and then enjoy a night of entertainment.”

Zinc, which opened in 2015 and is helmed by chef Diana Browder, is open two-and-a-half hours before all Omaha Performing Arts performances, as well as all Omaha Symphony shows except their family series. Siler recommends making reservations via OpenTable or by calling Ticket Omaha, as Zinc fills up fast. 

Foodies will find that Zinc offers creative, flavorful cuisine—from flatbread appetizers, to sandwiches and salads, to entrees—on par with some of Omaha’s best dinner destinations. Dishes feature flourishes and elements that elevate the menu; one of those attributes is the fact that Zinc is an environmentally conscious restaurant.  

“Zinc’s menu changes with the season to ensure freshness,” Siler says. “The menu features fresh, organic, seasonal, locally produced food. We also feature grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free meat and sustainably caught and handled seafood.” 

If you’re just in the mood for drinks or perhaps a smaller bite, the Holland’s lobby bar, Ovations, has you covered. Ovations, which opened in 2012, is open for all Omaha Performing Arts and Symphony performances. 

“Ovations offers a variety of drinks and some great small plates and appetizers,” says Siler, noting that the bar menu rotates frequently. Some of her recent favorites have included mini Asian tacos, stuffed tater tots, and a charcuterie board with specialty jam, mustard, pickled vegetables, and lavosh.  

“They’re just really nice, easy bites to eat while you enjoy a drink before you go see the show,” Siler says.  

Adding another layer to the experience, Omaha Performing Arts added a cover-free, pre-show happy hour performance series in 2017, adjacent to Ovations. After sporadically offering them in the past, they hosted five happy hour performances throughout the 2017/2018 season, and plan to double that for the 2018/2019 season due to the great response they’ve received. Siler says the new lineup will be announced in September, closer to the start of the season.   

“Our happy hour performances encompass all ages and genres of music, and we help spotlight our community partnerships and education programs,” Siler says. “For example, this year right before the Hot Sardines performed in the main hall, we featured Sophie & Evan [a group consisting of Sophie Keplinger and Evan Johnson] from the Blues Society of Omaha’s BluesEd youth artist development program. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the Holland in a different way, and it brings the lobby to life with great atmosphere. There’s plenty of space to gather with friends, to visit and enjoy each other, but then also enjoy the music.”

While the Holland offers a great one-stop-shop for folks with tickets to the main event, Siler says that everyone is welcome to visit Zinc, Ovations, and happy hour performances even if they don’t have a ticket to the main show. 

“We really encourage everyone to come to a happy hour or for dinner and drinks at Zinc or Ovations,” Siler says. “It’s an amazing experience that we want to share with as many people as possible.”


Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

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

Berebere Delicious

February 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our Chef Profile takes a bit of a detour this issue. Sarah Wengert, one of the newest talents to join our team of professional writers, is something of a foodie herself, so Omaha Magazine challenged her take a walk on the wild side to stretch her cooking chops. — Editor

I adore ethnic grocery stores. It’s a bit of an obsession for me, a gal who enjoys cooking and who yearns to travel the world, but often must settle for some good ol’ Omaha adventuring. When I cruise the aisles of my favorite ethnic groceries I’m transported to faraway lands, and my resulting homecooking is elevated to awesome. I’m an encyclopedia for Omaha’s best salsa and healthiest jalapenos (Jacobo’s), best naan (Indian Grocery), and best sauces and uncommon produce (Asian Market), but while I love Ethiopian food—and Toto’s “Africa” is one of my favorite songs—I haven’t spent as much time in Omaha’s African groceries as I have its Asian, Indian, and 
Mexican ones.

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That all changed when I visited Omaha’s East Africa Grocery Store, where friendly owner Ahmed Mohammed challenged me to make a popular Ethiopian chicken stew called Doro Wat. He and wife Fatuma Tessema run the grocery and adjoining restaurant. Tessema stews and simmers the cuisine to perfection daily. When it’s gone, the restaurant simply closes for the day.

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Mohammed explains the recipe as he walks me through the store, which smells of spice and incense, and is packed with seasonings, lentils, flours, and other provisions. His instructions, based upon his wife’s cooking, are loose and approximate. Holding out cupped hands, he instructs me to fry “about this much” shallots while then adding one cupped hand of berebere.

“You’ll think it looks like it’s going to be too hot; it’s so much,” says Mohammed of berebere, perhaps the most iconic of Ethiopian spices. “But when you fry it with the shallots and chicken it almost disappears. It is just right.”

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Their berebere, which Mohammed says is a combination of 12 spices, including chili, fenugreek, fennel, and paprika, is imported from Ethiopia. His mother brings spices and other Ethiopian victuals when visiting from Africa. Tessema makes the other essential ingredient, clarified butter or niter kibbeh, adding “lots of spices.” It’s similar to ghee, where the butter is boiled and the 
residue skimmed.

Tomatoes, chicken, ginger, and garlic join the shallots, butter, and berbere to round out the recipe. Most Doro Wat also includes hard-boiled egg, but Mohammed doesn’t mention this in his instructions.

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Injera, spongy, sour bread made with teff flour, doubles as a utensil in the forkless world of Ethiopian cuisine. Mohammed tells me home-making of injera will be tricky as it takes a special, seasoned grill. His store sells pre-made injera, which I opted to purchase.

With Mohammed’s assurances, I was out the door and soon donning my apron at home. The recipe comes together effortlessly and makes my whole house smell amazing. My taste-tester, Pete, gives it very high marks, and I have to agree. It was a deliciously savory meal and an exotic, eye-opening culinary adventure.

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East Africa Grocery Doro Wat
Makes 4 small-ish servings

  • 1½ Tbsps vegetable, corn or canola oil
  • 1¾ cups minced shallots (about 7 large shallots)
  • ¼ cup berebere 
(can be adjusted to your spice preference)
  • 5 plum tomatoes, peeled and pureed 
(shortcut: puree about 8 ounces diced tomatoes with 4 ounces tomato paste)
  • 4 chicken thighs or drumsticks (I used boneless thighs)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh minced ginger
  • 1 Tbsp fresh minced garlic
  • About 2 Tbsps niter kibbeh 
(spiced butter)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, whole 
(optional)
  • Water, add a Tbsp or two if needed 
(optional)
  • Injera for serving 
(Remember, no forks allowed!)
  1.  Heat oil over medium-low heat in a large saucepan or skillet.
  2. Add diced shallots and fry until they turn golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add berebere, stir and cook for about 2 minutes more before adding the tomato puree.
  4. Cook about 5 minutes, adding a little water if desired.
  5. Add chicken to sauce and simmer covered until cooked through, stirring occasionally and turning chicken along the way. Make sure the chicken touches the bottom of the pan while cooking. Feel free to add a little more water at this stage if needed.
  6. When chicken is cooked, add garlic and ginger, stir and cook for 2 minutes, then add niter kibbeh, re-stir and cook for another few minutes.
  7. If you want to add hard-boiled eggs, put them in (whole and peeled) at this point and coat with sauce. Serve over injera with extra injera on the side.