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A Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

February 23, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Knights in shining armor go searching for a legendary spoon. That was the concept of Sam Senser’s entry to the Canadian-based 50-Hour Film Competition. The contest’s theme was “twisted fairytale,” and all entries had to use a wooden spoon prop and include the phrase “you fool!”

His short film, “The Quest for Excalispoon,” won for best costume. A re-edited version is the 20-year-old Senser’s third short film to be accepted and screened at the Omaha Film Festival. The 2017 festival takes place March 7-12.

In 2016, Senser received honorable mention in the festival’s “Best Nebraska Short Film” category—a juried prize—for his comedic heist film “Van Man and Truck Boy 2” (also known as “The Adventures of Van Man and Truck Boy”). Senser’s younger brother Wrenn, the sidekick in “The Quest for Excalispoon,” also plays Truck Boy.

The up-and-coming filmmaker is accumulating an impressive collection of awards. In 2015, Senser won a national anti-texting-and-driving competition—Project Yellow Light—with his short video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone.”

His advertisement, set in the dark of night, featured a distracted youth crossing a remote country road while looking down and texting on his phone. An oncoming car screeches to a halt. The kid looks up, caught in the headlights. The camera cuts to the vehicle. A deer sits behind the steering wheel, driving the car. Then the kid bolts, running into the darkness.

Surely, the deer-caught-in-the-headlights scenario is a familiar nighttime danger for drivers in Senser’s neighborhood, on the rural fringe of the Omaha metro. The simple danger captures his aesthetic.

“It’s a simpler life in a small town, and I like simple films,” says Senser, who is taking a class at Metropolitan Community College and keeps busy year-round with commissioned video work.

He hasn’t gone to film school (and probably doesn’t need to). He actually paid for his first camera with money from a freelance project for his grandfather’s insurance company. Then, during his senior year of high school, instead of seeking parental help with college tuition, Senser emptied his college fund to upgrade his camera to a $5,500 Canon C-100.

“It was a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he was passionate about,” says his father, John Senser. “He immediately went and bought the camera, and it paid off.”

The first thing he shot was the PSA with the driving deer. An early edit won a contest hosted by WOWT Channel 6 News for Omaha-area schools; the finished version earned $5,000 in prize money from Project Yellow Light.

When he won, Senser and his parents received free airfare to New York City. He stayed for free at the Waldorf Astoria. They had to scramble to find tuxedos and formal attire for the black-tie Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner (which normally costs $3,000 per seat to attend).

Then in 2016, Senser entered the contest again. He also helped his brother enter a video. Coincidentally, the Senser brothers were arriving in Boston for a family vacation with their uncle the night before Project Yellow Light announced the 2016 winners at Times Square in New York City.

After flying from Omaha to Boston, their uncle drove them four hours to the outskirts of the Big Apple. They learned the good news in-person when their videos played on the Times Square Jumbotron on the morning of Friday, July 8.

Senser won the college division for the second year in a row with his next entry, “The Cost of Distracted Driving.” Wrenn also won in the high school division. So, they swept the contest and each took home another $5,000.

The expensive camera had proven itself a wise investment for the family.

Senser says he has been making movies constantly since he was a little kid—maybe third grade, maybe fifth grade. He can’t remember exactly when he started in earnest. “They used to be stupid little short films that we’d do for fun on our family’s camcorders,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t do any editing. I’d hit record, stop it, put it up on the TV, and we’d watch it.”

The young filmmaker lives with his parents at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki (his dad is a property manager on the grounds, and they are the only folks living year-round at the camp), which is located between Platte River State Park and South Bend.

He still documents his surroundings. In fact, he has made several promotional videos for Camp Kitaki (where he works in the summer, making slideshows for campers).

To make a big deal of Senser’s relative youth would seem patronizing. When it comes to filmmaking, Senser isn’t so much “on his way” as “already there” in terms of skill. His films would prove notable for an auteur of any vintage.

Audiences feel likewise. “His crowd reaction has been fantastic over the last several years,” says Marc Longbrake, program director of the Omaha Film Festival.

The Omaha Film Festival exhibits new independent films and lauded cinematic masterpieces alike. The event organizers also offer educational programming related to film (including a two-day academy geared toward high school students and open to the public); though Senser was never a participant.

Senser’s age did not factor into the festival’s decision to exhibit his work, Longbrake says.

“Based on its own merits early on, Sam’s films were doing well competition-wise compared to the other Nebraska filmmakers,” Longbrake says. “The fact that he was young and in college at the time that he submitted his first film doesn’t play into it. The fact that he was making quality films was the thing that we dug.”

Perfectly executed farce drew Omaha Film Festival jury members to his winning submission last year. “His movies are kind of ridiculous, but in a hilarious way,” Longbrake explains. “And you can screw that up. If you go to a comedy that’s sort of a farce, if it’s done poorly, it’s a struggle. For some reason, he hit the right beats and the right notes with the first couple films that we saw of his.”

“Van Man and Truckboy 2,” focuses on a small-town crime-fighting duo working to apprehend a villain who robbed the local bank with a drone. The film features gorgeous aerial and long shots of southeastern Nebraska countryside. To capture such breathtaking views, Senser worked with Wrenn (who recently completed Navy bootcamp), to operate a camera mounted on a drone.

Along with Wrenn as Truck Boy, Senser’s friend Jake Bruce was Van Man, and Senser’s father was the villain. All of Senser’s films so far have been collaborations with friends and family.

His editing is crisp, coherent, and expertly timed. The acting is understated and natural, sure to keep audiences laughing with wonderfully absurd exchanges like:

“The bank’s been robbed … by a drone … there were explosives, probably two pounds of C-185 trinitrotoluene wrapped in a flaked hydro-combustion chamber with a powder organic nitrate packed inside.”

“The red kind?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. That’s the worst kind.”

Devoid of condescending parody, both of Senser’s “Van Man and Truck Boy” films offer up a recognizable, slyly humorous small-town Midwestern sensibility, where someone could earn a lasting nickname for the flimsiest of reasons, like having a truck. They’re worth a watch (and are available on his personal website).

Where is Senser headed? He says he plans to make a larger-scale short film this spring and summer to submit to festivals around the country. But he’d really like to direct a feature-length film—hopefully around here.

“I don’t know if California would be my thing,” Senser says. “But if they called—if I needed to—I would do it. Although, I’d rather make movies with this kind of setting. I just like the whole small-town feel, forests, open space, ranches, farms. It’s just simpler. Plus I know it. I grew up here. So I kind of know how things work.”

Visit senserfilms.com for more information.

Sam Senser at Camp Kitaki

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

Omaha’s Saint: Father Flanagan and the Cause for Canonization

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A small, framed black-and-white photo hangs on the living room wall of the Rev. Clifford Stevens’ modest apartment, located on the south campus of Omaha’s famous Village of Boys Town. It shows Monsignor Edward J. Flanagan sitting at his desk, looking up at several teenage boys standing around him.

“That’s me, second from the right,” declares Stevens, pointing to a dark-haired, good-looking 16-year-old with a dimpled grin. “That picture was taken in 1942 to commemorate the school’s 25th anniversary, the year I came to Boys Town.”

As someone who knew the tall, affable Irish priest personally—and those numbers keep dwindling—Stevens never doubted his mentor and biggest champion would one day travel the road to sainthood.

“He was very warm and gentle, with the kindest smile I ever saw in my life,” says Stevens, still energetic and sharp at age 91. “He was very considerate and completely dedicated to the welfare of children.”

The longtime Omaha priest and prolific author recently discontinued presiding over daily Mass at Dowd Chapel, the Catholic house of worship on campus, to concentrate on writing his third biography of Father Flanagan. Stevens expects publication by the fall as part of Boys Town’s centennial celebration.

“Boys Town has been around 100 years and I’ve been part of it for 75 years,” he says with a mixture of pride and wonder.

Those who have benefited directly from the safe haven created by Father Flanagan for poor, orphaned, abused, neglected, or at-risk boys (the school opened its doors to girls in 1980) need no convincing of the priest’s Christ-like presence on earth. Convincing Rome, that’s another story. It takes years and enormous preparation, as dictated by ancient Catholic canon law.

Four boxes filled with leather-bound dossiers attesting to Father Flanagan’s “heroic virtue” arrived at the Holy See in Rome in June 2015, the result of a 2 1/2 year investigation into the priest’s life by the Omaha archdiocese.

“They literally put Father Flanagan’s whole life on trial here in Omaha,” explains Steve Wolf, a member of the Boys Town alumni group that helped ignite the quest for sainthood in 1999. “Everything that could possibly be known about Father Flanagan, through any number of sources, was all examined thoroughly.”

Although 2,000 names precede Father Flanagan’s on the list of sainthood causes, the boxes from Omaha have not sat idly in some Vatican room.

“We know the tribunal in Rome is reviewing the work of the Omaha archdiocese because they’ve been communicating with us here, trying to clarify information or asking for additional testimony,” Wolf says. “It’s absolutely an active, open case, and that’s encouraging.”

Will Rome agree Father Flanagan led a life so good and so holy in service to others that he put his own life in peril? Does he meet the requirement of “historic virtue?” Wolf, a 1980 graduate of Boys Town, sees no other conclusion.

“He received death threats many times because he was without prejudice or discrimination, integrating Boys Town with blacks and kids of Jewish faith,” he says. “The Ku Klux Klan once threatened to burn Boys Town down,” prompting Father Flanagan to respond, “What color is a man’s soul?”

If the case for sainthood didn’t exist, “[Omaha] Archbishop [George] Lucas would never have signed off on it and sent the boxes to Rome,” says Wolf, who readily admits Boys Town turned his life around. The father of five girls now heads The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion, an organization made up of alumni and lay Catholics that focuses on fundraising and forwarding the cause of sainthood through an international groundswell of support. Wolf credits the hard work of Boys Town historian Tom Lynch with enabling a speedy local investigation into Father Flanagan’s life.

“When I was hired by Boys Town 30 years ago as a graduate student in history, our archives weren’t organized,” explains Lynch, chairman of the historical commission that gathered written material for the sainthood cause. “We had about 2 million documents and half-a-million pictures just dumped in the building without rhyme or reason.”

Every day for more than 10 years, Lynch picked up pieces of paper, read them, then placed them in the proper category until the archives became a major resource center. Lynch and his “great crew of volunteers” eventually created a timeline accounting for nearly every day of the priest’s life, from his birth in Ballymoe, Ireland, in 1886, to his death from a heart attack in 1948 while on a goodwill trip to post-war Germany.

Lynch created the Hall of History, where thousands of visitors come every year to learn the story of Boys Town and the man who founded it. When the representative Rome sent to Omaha to investigate the sainthood request saw all the required material on display, he told Lynch, “You’ve taken about 25 years off the process.”

Those closely involved in the cause, though sworn to secrecy, cautiously think all the requisites for beatification and canonization exist. A separate tribunal in Rome is examining two of the 17 alleged miracles attributed to Father Flanagan (after his death), where someone was cured after praying to him, defying medical explanation. If proved, the Vatican will declare him Blessed, followed by a declaration of sainthood.

Father Flanagan began his life with people praying to God on his behalf, offering up pleas for divine intervention. On the day he came into the world, Eddie Flanagan, the eighth of 11 children born to a sheep farmer and his wife in County Roscommon, Ireland, turned blue, then purple and started convulsing. The midwife told the family the baby wouldn’t last the night.

But Eddie’s grandfather, a veterinarian, unbuttoned his flannel shirt, wrapped the newborn in a blanket and held him against his chest. He paced in front of the large kitchen hearth all night, holding the baby close. By morning, the baby’s coloring had returned to normal. Prayers had been answered.

“We believe he was born prematurely, which would explain why the family was so worried those first few days,” says Wolf. It would also help explain why Eddie was susceptible to respiratory problems all his life—health so fragile it nearly derailed his deep desire to follow his older brother, Patrick, into the priesthood.

Illness forced him to leave the seminary twice, once in Yonkers, outside New York City, the other time in Rome. After nearly dying from double pneumonia while studying in New York, his brother Patrick, who had been dispatched from Ireland to minister in “the Middle Western Plains of Nebraska,” suggested Eddie stay with him in Omaha. “The air is clean and brisk here, where your lungs can heal,” wrote Patrick.

The younger Flanagan regained his health in Omaha, but “the archbishop didn’t want him! He thought he was too sickly to become a priest and wouldn’t let him study here,” says Stevens, shaking his head. “So he got a job as an accountant at the Cudahy meat packing plant in South Omaha. That’s where he acquired his business skills.”

The young man finally finished his seminary studies in the warmer climes of Innsbruck, Austria, and returned to Omaha after his ordination in 1912. Five years later, on Dec. 12, 1917, Father Flanagan opened his first Boys Home at 25th and Dodge streets. He had found his calling.

People who only know Father Flanagan from Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1938 movie Boys Town may understand his mission, “but they don’t know this man,” says Wolf. “He was a consultant to world leaders on youth care after World War II. Who did President Truman send to Japan and Germany—countries we had defeated—to assess the problem of displaced or orphaned children? A priest. This priest.”

Almost 70 years after his death, Father Flanagan can still reach out from beyond the grave and touch souls, Wolf believes. He experienced it personally.

Raised in Omaha as a Baptist by a single mom, Wolf had shrugged off all organized religion by the time he graduated from Boys Town, and he held a particular disdain for the Catholic Church. Wolf returned to campus for an alumni convention in 1999, shortly after the group announced plans to seek sainthood for their founder.

“I was sitting in the very last pew of Dowd Chapel for a special Mass that I felt obligated to attend,” he relates, “and I looked over my right shoulder and there’s Father Flanagan’s tomb right there in that little room. Suddenly, I was just overcome, almost crying. Here I am trying to do something to honor him, and I realized I’m not even the kind of kid he would have wanted me to be.”

At that moment, Wolf’s conversion to Catholicism began.

Even historian Tom Lynch, who has immersed himself in all things Flanagan his entire adult life, came away from the tribunal experience with renewed respect for the sanctity of Boys Town’s founder.

“People laughed at him, told him it would never work because he wanted to treat the kids humanely,” Lynch says. “There are no fences or gates around Boys Town. No physical punishment. He was very much their champion.”

As Omaha awaits a decision from Rome, which could take years, Father Flanagan’s legacy continues to better the lives of more than 2 million children and families, with outreach programs and medical services on 11 Boys Town campuses from New York to California.

Father Flanagan must have sensed that his belief in the basic goodness of children would bear fruit. Shortly before his death, he wrote, “… the work will continue, you see, whether I’m here or not, for it’s God’s work, not mine.”

Visit fatherflanagan.org for more information.

Timeline of Father Flanagans Life

July 13, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan born in Leabeg, County Roscommon, Ireland. Parents: John and Honora (Larkin) Flanagan.

July 18, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan baptized, St. Croan’s Catholic Church, Ballymoe, Ireland. Father Crofton officiated. Godparents: Patrick and Mary Jane Flanagan.

August 27, 1904 – Edward Joseph Flanagan arrived in United States aboard S.S. Celtic, White Star Line.

September 1906 – Edward Joseph Flanagan entered St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.

May 31, 1907 – Left St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.

July 4, 1907 – John, Nora, and Edward Flanagan arrive in Omaha, Nebraska.

July 26, 1912 –  Edward Joseph Flanagan ordained by Bishop Elder for the Brixon Diocese in St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.

July 27, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Mass in the Jesuit Church at St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.

August 25, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at Holy Angels Church, Omaha, Nebraska.

September 5, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick Parish, O’Neill, Nebraska.

March 15, 1913 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick’s Church, Omaha (Pastor: John T. Smith).

February 2, 1915 – The Rev. John T. Smith died. Flanagan became acting pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish.

Mid-January 1916 – Father Flanagan opened the Workingmen’s Hotel in the Old Burlington Hotel, leased by St. Vincent de Paul Society.

July 9, 1916 – Father Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Philomena Parish, Omaha, Nebraska (Pastor: James W. Stenson).

Early September 1916 – Father Flanagan moved Workingmen’s Hotel to Livesay Flats where he could care for 300 men.

December 12, 1917 – Founded Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home.

December 12, 1917 – Flanagan celebrated last Mass as assistant pastor, St. Philomena. Relieved of all parish duties.

May 8, 1919 – Flanagan became a citizen of United States of America.

February 24, 1920 – Articles of Incorporation for Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home filed with state of Nebraska.

Summer 1921 – Began construction of five buildings on Overlook Farm: two school buildings, two dormitories, and a refectory/dining hall.

October 17-22, 1921 – Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home moved to Overlook Farm.

July 2, 1922 – Elected president of Omaha Welfare Board.

September 1925 – Inauguration of periodical radio broadcasts for Father Flanagan broadcast over WOAW, sponsored by Woodmen of the World Insurance.

March 1927 – Father Flanagan moved into new home, Father Flanagan House.

October 12, 1930 – Radio program ”Voice of the Homeless Boy” expanded outside of Omaha.

October 23, 1937 – Flanagan appointed Domestic Prelate with title of “Right Reverend Monsignor” by His Holiness, Pope Pius XI.

November 21, 1937 – Investiture service for Father Flanagan to Monsignor, Boys Town Auditorium.

December 2, 1937 – Appointed to Childrens’ Committee of National Conference of Catholic Charities.

February 20, 1939 – Honorary Life Member of the Boys’ Republic of Arlington, Virginia.

June 26, 1939 – Father Flanagan received First Annual Humanitarian Award from Variety Clubs International. Presented by founder, John W. Harris, at Fontenelle Hotel, Omaha, Nebraska.

November 1939 – Father Flanagan appointed to Board of Diocesan Consultors to succeed Monsignor A. M. Colaneri.

April 2, 1941 – Father Flanagan appointed by governor of California to Governor’s Committee on the Whittier State School.

May 27, 1942 – Father Flanagan received certificate for Distinguished Service on Behalf of the National War Savings Program, U.S. Treasury Department.

November 3, 1942 – Father Flanagan began weeklong war bond tour, during which he sold almost $3 million in bonds.

February 1944 – Father Flanagan made life member of the National Humanitarian Award Committee, Variety Clubs International.

September 5, 1944 – Certificate of Service from U.S. Navy, Letter from Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal to Father Flanagan.

October 17, 1944 – Father Flanagan received letter naming him Number One War Dad in America by the National Council, American War Dads.

February 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan named to National Panel for Study of Juvenile Delinquency Problems by U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark.

April 7, 1946 – Father Flanagan appointed member of the Naval Civilian Committee by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal.

November 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan received the Kiwanis Medal for Distinguished Service from Kiwanis Club of Lincoln, Nebraska.

February 28, 1947 – Father Flanagan received an invitation from Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson to tour Japan on behalf of war orphans, etc.

April 7, 1947 – Father Flanagan left Omaha for Japan and Korea at invitation of Secretary of War Robert Patterson and General Douglas MacArthur regarding juvenile welfare.

July 8-11, 1947 – Father Flanagan went to Washington, D.C., to report to Secretary of War and Navy and President Harry S. Truman.

May 15, 1948 – Died, Berlin, Germany.

May 17, 1948 – Funeral for Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan in Berlin Cathedral. Conrad Cardinal V on Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, officiated.

May 21, 1948 – Funeral for Edward Joseph Flanagan in The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Dowd Memorial Chapel, Boys Town, Nebraska.

Steps Toward Canonization

by Thomas Lynch

Attaining sainthood follows three phases and four steps of recognition. The phases are pre-diocesan, diocesan, and Roman. The levels of recognition are (in sequential order) Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and Saint.

The pre-diocesan phase requires a spontaneous or groundswell of devotion. The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion initiated this first phase of the process.

Omaha archbishop George Lucas initiated the second phase by appointing a tribunal to investigate the life and virtues of Father Flanagan. This is the diocesan phase, during which the candidate is recognized as Servant of God. In a formal ceremony during June 2015, the archbishop advanced the cause to the Vatican for further investigation.

Currently, Father Flanagan is in the Roman phase. A tribunal appointed by the Vatican further investigates the life and virtues of Father Flanagan and the miracles associated with him. The canonization process takes many years. To be canonized a saint, there must be proof of at least two miracles attributed to Father Flanagan that have occurred after his death.

The Vatican determines whether he would be recognized as Venerable based on investigation of miracles attributed to Father Flanagan after his death. After being recognized as Venerable, additional miracles (miracles not already submitted for his canonization cause) must be submitted and verified for Father Flanagan to be formally recognized as Blessed. After the tribunal makes recommendations to the pope, he decides whether to declare the priest a saint of the church. Confirmation of sainthood is then scheduled for an official ceremony at a later date.

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

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Fighting Misogyny (updated)

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of 2016, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street.

To me, “fighter” means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, and even-tempered.

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself.

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

Lindsay2

With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least 10 minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.     

Postscript

At Ralston Arena (on Friday, Oct. 14), I lost my second career fight via TKO in the final 10 seconds of the final round. The following Saturday morning by 8:30 a.m., I was back in the gym and on my way to becoming a stronger fighter.

I am not happy about losing, but I am also not devastated by getting punched in the face. I’m not fighting for perfection. I’m not perfect, and an imperfect record does not end my ambition in the cage. Rather, I’m fighting for all the girls who have contacted me to give support or share their story of fighting misogyny in their lives. I’m fighting for everyone who has told me it empowers them to see me get in the cage at all.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my incredible coaches, Mauro Siso and Sergio Rangel, and everyone at Legacy Martial Arts for supporting me on this journey. With lessons learned from defeat, we are making changes in my training regimen for the next fight.

Visit facebook.com/pg/lmaomaha for more information.

Lindsay3

Fighting Misogyny

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The undefeated Wilson fights her second career match at the Ralston Arena on Friday, Oct. 14.

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“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of this year, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street. 

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself. 

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

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Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least ten minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate. 

Visit http://ralstonarena.com/events/detail/dynasty-combat-sports-dc-50 for more information.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.   

What Should I Get Out of a Parent-Teacher Conference?

January 27, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Spring semester parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon, but parents wanting to maximize their return on these quick meetings with their kids’ teachers might want to start a few habits now.

Don’t expect to solve major problems in five minutes

Anna Rempel, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Conestoga Public Schools, says she tries to keep individual meetings between five and seven minutes long. Josephine Langbehn, a seventh-grade art educator at Omaha Public School’s Monroe Middle School, says her meetings may average ten minutes.

Serious problems, like acting out in the classroom or demonstrating a need for special education testing, aren’t tackled here. “If a student is struggling, I’ve already e-mailed a parent about it,” Rempel says, adding that school counselors and the principal would handle those concerns.

Parent-teacher conferences, on the other hand, are more along the lines of checkups. Expect to be handed a grade report and discuss:

  • Test average
  • Homework average
  • Overall grade
  • Any missing homework
  • Suggestions for improvement

Take notes

Parents can receive a lot of information in very condensed form during conferences. Rempel says she offers pointers like homework organization or encouraging a student to check against a calculator. Langbehn will discuss more abstract skills, such as a student’s ability to navigate art criticism or form their own ideas about what makes good art.

Whatever the subject, jot down the teacher’s suggestions and refer to them the next time you help your child with homework.

A teacher may even offer insight directly from your child. A few days before conferences, Rempel has her students write three sentences on their own grade reports. “I have sentence starters for them to choose from: I’m doing awesome at blank, I’m not really understanding blank, I participate by blank.” That way parents can hear in a student’s own words what’s going on in class.

Ask how to take grades to the next level

If maintaining a specific grade point is important to you and your child, ask for specifics: “If my child has a B and I want them to have an A, what else could they do?” Paying attention to grades posted online is another way to monitor progress, Rempel says, and note any warning signs in particular subjects.

For improving on concepts like creatively solving for solutions, Langbehn suggests asking the teacher for more self-guided goals and projects to pursue outside the classroom. “That is a life skill now. You have to be able to think creatively.”

Be proactive with your communication

If you or the teacher mentioned concerns during your conference, Rempel strongly encourages contacting the teacher again in a few weeks. Langbehn adds that it’s important to find the best way to reach a particular teacher. “If we need to follow up, how will that happen?” she says. “I personally 
prefer e-mail.”

While Rempel encourages parents to attend at least the first conference of the year (you can usually expect one in fall and another in spring), she suggests sending an e-mail to a teacher if you’re not going to drop by.

“The important thing is that a parent and a teacher work together as a team,” Langbehn says. “It’s not just me telling a parent that your kid needs to do this.”

If all goes well, Rempel says parents can expect to hear, “They’re doing great. I appreciate your involvement in your child’s education, and if there are problems in the future, I will definitely contact you.”

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Never say never,” says Brenda Christensen when asked if she’ll ever host foreign exchange students again in her family’s home in Elkhorn.

Christensen and husband Mike Morris have hosted three students since 2009, all from Tonsberg, Norway. “We talked about it extensively as a family,” she says. “Everyone had to be in, or we weren’t going to do it.” That “everyone” included Christensen and Morris’ three kids: Wells, 20, Greta, 18, and Tatum, 13.

Marthe Gjelstad was their first student, staying with them from August 2009 through June 2010. “The kids found her in an online [foreign exchange] student profile,” explains Christensen. “We were so in love with this girl. It couldn’t have been more perfect. [And] we were so heartbroken when she left.”

During Marthe’s stay, Christensen says she claimed the school’s Prom Queen title because everyone—both students and teachers—loved her. “She was so funny, loving, and oh my gosh, we just adored this girl. Just beautiful inside and out.”

That was the first time Christensen believed her family would never host a foreign exchange student again “because everyone would be measured up against Marthe, and that really wasn’t fair to anyone else.”

But remember—never say never. Eventually, the Christensen-Morris family took in Marthe’s neighbor and friend back in Norway, Kristin Lien. She stayed with them for only four months. “That was a good experience, too,” Christensen says. “Kristin wanted to embrace, see, and learn everything American. She just wanted to do it all, and she was very social and outgoing.” Like Marthe, Kristin grew very close with the family, especially the Morris kids.

When Kristin left, Christensen once again said that they would never host a foreign exchange student again. But then from August 2012 through June 2013, they took in Marthe’s brother, Markus.

“Markus was more introverted,” she says. “He was more interested in academics, and he wanted to live a year as an American teenager. But he wasn’t nearly as brave or outgoing as the girls.”

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families. Photo taken in Norway, August 2011.

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families (Photo taken in Norway, August 2011). Back: Markus Gjelstad, Wells Morris, Vegard Lien, Asbjorn Lien, Vidar Gjelstad, Kristin Gjelstad. Middle: Mike Morris, Kristin Lien, Marthe Gjelstad, Greta Morris, Rebecca Gjelstad. Front: Brenda Christensen, Berit Lien, Tatum Morris, Hakon Lien.

For the most part, Christensen says that they were home-free of difficulties with the students. “We had to occasionally force Markus out of his comfort zone to get him to experience things. [Otherwise], all three had great English skills,” she says.

After seeing some of the other foreign exchange students secondhand, Christensen is very glad that she and her family hosted three very good kids. “Sometimes, [foreign exchange students] aren’t well-behaved. They’ll get into drinking or drugs or break curfew. Other times, the families didn’t think about the commitment, and it’s a huge commitment.”

Clearly, the experience has been wonderful for the Christensen-Morris family, as they’ve even seen their students since. “We have seen Marthe every year. Last year, we traveled to Italy, and she met us there. Kristin came back over last year, and we met her parents in Chicago. We established a beautiful relationship with both families.”

Like the Christensen-Morris family, Trisha Powell of Bennington loves hosting foreign exchange students. She and husband Michael and their two kids, Olivia, 10, and Jace, 3 mos., have hosted six foreign exchange students from Germany, Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands, and Slovenia.

But Trisha and Michael aren’t just host parents; they’re also very active in Ayusa International, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural exchange programs for high school students around the world.

“We work with several families who choose to host year after year,” explains Powell. “We also ask our families to help refer other families who may be interested, [as] we are always looking for host families willing to open their homes and hearts to an Ayusa student.”

When a family is ready to host a student, a local Ayusa representative takes them through the application process to find and choose a good student match. The steps are:

  • View information online (at ayusa.org) about Ayusa’s program and types of students who are interested in living with a host family and spending a year in the United States.
  • Complete the Ayusa online hosting application. Ayusa provides a list of questions, requests five references, and asks that families sign a program agreement.
  • Once the application is submitted, an Ayusa representative assists with completion of the additional hosting requirements: a criminal background check and in-home interview. When a host family is approved, they may login to select a student.

Throughout the Ayusa exchange program, a local representative works with the family, student, and school to make certain the stay is mutually beneficial. “Students come from all over the world, [and] all of them come to experience the American way of life and a year in an American high school,” Powell says.

“American culture is often very different from what they are used to,” she adds. “Different food, different schools, a different way of life with a different family—[that] can sometimes be stressful for the first bit of time here.” But Powell says most foreign exchange students get used to everything after a while.

Powell highly recommends hosting a foreign exchange student. “Many times, a lifelong connection is made with students and their families,” she says. “We have several American host families who will visit the student in their home country, attend graduations, and even weddings! Many students come back to visit their host families, too. It’s a wonderful way to bring other cultures to your home and to share your cultures and traditions.”

Christensen also has great advice for families looking to host:

  • “Research the experience and the student thoroughly. Ask lots of questions of families who have hosted and select a student who will be compatible with your family.”
  • “Make sure all family members are completely engaged and committed.”
  • “Be flexible and compassionate. Remember, these kids are away from their countries, homes, schools, and families for 10 months.”
  • “Be realistic. This is not always going to be fun and easy. Don’t host a student during a year that you know will be busy or hard.”
  • “Be open to learning more and loving more than you can imagine!”

Although Christensen says her family doesn’t have any plans to host another exchange student, never say never.

For more information about foreign exchange programs and Ayusa International, visit ayusa.org or call 888-552-9872.

What are the 40 Developmental Assets?

In the past, a school’s sole purpose was to educate students in reading, writing, math, and other areas. Today, the focus of schools is on the entire development of the young person, including academic, personal, and social growth.

You may have seen the 40 Developmental Assets posted somewhere in your child’s school. But are you aware of what these really are and how they are utilized in your child’s education?

The 40 Developmental Assets were developed by Search Institute, a research-based organization that works to address important issues in education and youth development. The assets are the institute’s framework of strengths and supports believed to be critical in developing the child as a whole.

The assets are divided into halves. The first half examines external aspects of children’s lives, such as family support, safety, and a caring school climate, which are some of the main focuses of the school. The second half examines internal aspects of children’s lives, such as compassion, integrity, responsibility, and self-esteem. These traits are developed through guidance lessons in the schools, as well as by the learning atmosphere teachers create in their classrooms. By making a conscious effort to foster these assets in children, the schools are creating well-rounded students who are better prepared to learn and grow.

Several school districts use these assets to drive parts of their curriculum. Teachers can utilize the assets when delivering their daily lessons by relating ideas discussed in the classroom back to the assets. School principals can use the assets as a tool to develop a strong culture of learning and achievement among their student body. Lastly, parents can apply the assets to their parenting, which combines with the development provided by the teachers to create a good balance in the lives of their children.

A full list of the 40 Developmental Assets can be found at search-institute.org.

Joe Shearer

August 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I don’t hate on Nikon users,” photographer Joe Shearer declares. “I hope we can all get along. I’m pretty open-minded, but I’m going to blindly put my bias towards Canon because that’s all I’ve ever known.”

Shearer, 27, laughs easily, but at the core he’s extremely serious about his job. As photo editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Gateway newspaper since 2010, he knows the meaning of hard work. He graduated from Gross Catholic High School in 2002 and went to UNO the following semester. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do, but he knew from his experience in yearbook class that he liked photography.

“It all started in my sophomore year of high school,” he explains. “I didn’t really have any extracurricular activities or athletics I was into at the time, but yearbook stood out. I did design, writing, and photography and ended up enjoying photography the most.”

Armed with his first professional camera, the Canon 10D (of course), Shearer started snapping photos of concerts he attended, sporting events, and everyday life. Then he hit a few bumps in the road.

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together. It should be award-winning journalism every day.”

“Life is weird sometimes. I was out of school for a couple years,” he says. “I just worked and traveled while learning life lessons and seeing the real world on my own. The whole time I did continue shooting photography. I did a few things for The Reader and Gateway before I went back to school. I never stopped shooting photos. I was just trying to grow up.”

Once back in school as photo editor, Shearer forged ahead with his career. For the past three years, he’s won several first place trophies at Omaha Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism Awards. This year, he won Best Feature Story (video), Best Feature Story (print), Best Sports Photo, and Best Feature Photo in the student category, as well as the Best Photo Essay award in the professional category. He also landed an internship at KETV News, where he’s preparing for a career in photojournalism. His dream job would have something to do with ESPN, music, or traveling, although he insists he’s “not a sports nerd.”

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together,” he says. “It should be award-winning journalism every day. There are a lot of talented journalists and artists in the Omaha area. We have a lot of incredible television, radio, and print. It’s a very creative city. If I could be associated with all of the greats in town, that would great.”

The Big Shifts

August 16, 2013 by

Moving up a grade is one thing. Moving up to the next tier is entirely another.

The next tier, of course, is the shift between elementary school and middle school. Then, the jump from middle school to high school. Whole new worlds, whole new levels of responsibility for your child.

And the challenge for you, as the parent, is to keep up and know how to help your child navigate.

It’s bittersweet when that youngest child finishes their last year in elementary school. After all, it’s a small pond that your life has been built around for at least the last six years, perhaps longer. You know the teachers, where the classrooms are, which parents are the hardcore volunteers. You can plan ahead on how many bags of candy you’ll need to donate for Halloween. And what kinds of cupcakes pass the “no-peanuts” test.

Things change in middle school.

Generally, most Omaha-area kids make the shift after fifth grade. Some districts wait until sixth, but the changes are similar. The biggest one? Your student will have more than one or two teachers. They’ll have different teachers for every subject, plus the responsibility to move between classes quickly and efficiently.

They’ll probably have a locker for the first time—with a combination they’ll need to memorize. They’ll have to plan ahead for which books they’ll need for which class—because in some districts, children are no longer allowed to carry their backpacks during the day due to safety concerns. They’ll need to use their assignment books faithfully to keep track of what is due and when. They’ll have semester projects and far more opportunities for extracurricular activities. They’ll have their first school dance.

And getting involved as a parent isn’t quite the same. Middle-school teachers don’t rely on parent volunteers quite like elementary-school teachers do. Honestly, your 12-year-old probably doesn’t want you hanging around all the time anyway. Try not to take it personally. You’ll need to seek out those volunteer opportunities, but they are there. Most schools have some kind of parent-advisory team, and there are regular shout-outs during the school year for parents to help take tickets or chaperone events.

You’ll have to work a little harder to get to know your child’s teachers. After all, middle-school teachers have six or seven classes of students, not just one or two. But it really does matter that you show up for parent-teacher conferences and any other chance to support your student and get to know who is guiding your child’s education and social development. Teachers notice. And they may not admit it, but your child does, too. Middle school is hard. (Who would want to go back?) It’s when kids can start being really mean to each other—cliques form, bullying begins. It’s more important than ever for you to be supportive and accessible to your child.

Brace yourself. If middle school is a big change, high school is the Wild, Wild West.

But truthfully, by the time you reach high school, you are also parenting a teenager. While it might seem scary and a bit overwhelming when your children are small, when you actually get there, it falls into a natural progression. What the kids learn in middle school about time management, planning efficiency, and personal responsibility all come to bear when you start working out a high-school schedule.

In middle school, your kids will have a few electives they pick from. High school offers a whole smörgåsbord of options. In the Omaha area especially, students have a huge variety of choices on how to pursue their high-school education. Most kids will follow their middle-school friends to their district high school, but your family is not limited to that option. For example, Millard students who are interested in becoming teachers or accountants can apply for one of the special “academies” offering a career preparatory trajectory. Hundreds of teenagers attend parochial or private schools. A number of high schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It really depends on your child and where his or her interests lie.

Once you’ve decided where your child is going to pursue his diploma, it continues to be important to keep open lines of communication with your student and his teachers. Make conferences a priority, keep an eye on your student’s workload and grades, and stay in touch with teachers and coaches as needed. Most schools list all staff contact information on their websites, and many teachers will tell you that’s the easiest way to reach them. Between games, concerts, and meetings, your student will likely have a lot going on, and it will be a challenge to keep up, but it is also exciting. You will start seeing glimpses of the adult that your child will one day become.

The hardest part for a parent? That stretch between the first day of kindergarten and the first day of high school feels like a blink of an eye. Relish every second. You can’t say “I’m proud of you, and I love you” too many times. And you can’t take too many pictures.