Tag Archives: teen

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Young Hero:
 Leyna Hightshoe

November 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“No ten-year-old girl wants to have to wear a neck brace,” says Carla Podraza, whose daughter, Leyna Hightshoe, 12, was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 10.

Leyna, now a student at Norris Middle School in the Omaha Public Schools district, had an s-shaped spine (called double lateral curve) that made it hard for her to breathe. “When she was diagnosed, it was already severe enough that bracing couldn’t resolve the problem,” Podraza says. “But she was so young to have to undergo such a major surgery.”

Within a year of diagnosis, Leyna’s spine got worse. “The top was measured at 83 degrees while the bottom curve was around 79. A brace is recommended around 20-29 degrees, and surgery is considered to correct curvatures over 45 degrees,” explains Podraza.

But Podraza found an extremely skilled orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., who seemed to be the right fit for Leyna’s case. “He took such care in considering all the details…nothing I told him seemed irrelevant. His staff was available to us all the time, answering questions, lending support.”

Podraza was told that Leyna’s condition needed to be addressed immediately. Unfortunately, other issues kept appearing. For example, the doctors discovered that Leyna also had a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand Disease, which affected her blood’s ability to clot. “That had to be taken into consideration and planned for before the surgery could be scheduled,” adds Podraza. “Because of all the impediments, plus trying to figure out how to pay for a surgery of this magnitude…our nerves were stretched pretty thin,” she says.

Despite everything, Leyna was brave. She decorated her neck brace with rhinestones and puffy paint. She accepted all of the frightening information from her doctors calmly—from the descriptions of how her muscles would be peeled away to expose the spine during surgery to the “and in worst case, death” disclaimers. And she dealt with the incredible pain after her surgery.

“She pushed herself to get through it, and to do whatever the doctors said was necessary,” Podraza says. “For her to sit up within a day of the surgery seemed impossible, and to walk the next day was even more unbelievable.”

Chromium rods attached with two-dozen screws now support Leyna’s spine. Since the surgery, it has corrected her curves to 23 and 16 degrees, respectively. “Her breathing is so much better,” Podraza adds, “and her back is so much straighter than it was.”

Podraza is glad to have her daughter looking and feeling better, but what still amazes her is how Leyna was able to handle everything with grace and courage.

“Everyone has it in them to be strong when they need to be, but sometimes they don’t know that. [Leyna] was able to get past fear, doubt, and self-pity to figure out how to cope with the situation.

“She found it in herself though to find a way to get through each of those moments that were so emotionally tough…It showed me a new side of her—this fiercely strong person—[and] impressed me when I watched her push through the toughest parts, physically and mentally.”

Community Service

October 29, 2013 by

I don’t feel that most teenagers have anything against community service. We just don’t know how to go about it.

When you’re my age, the benefits of community service far outweigh the negatives. You can have fun with your friends while doing something that helps out the people in your life that you may not come into contact with that often, but who are important nonetheless.

When I look for volunteer work, I think of two things: How does this help the group I’m volunteering for, and how much are my accomplishments going to be valued? Everything that’s done to pitch in matters, but sometimes, if I don’t feel that my contributions are going toward a goal, it’s hard to keep track of why I’m volunteering in the first place.

Despite the clichéd sayings about volunteer work, my reasons for choosing to volunteer have always been selfish. Is it shallow of me to admit that I enjoy the welling up of pride in my chest from a job well done and knowing that I helped someone in the process?

Self-satisfaction is as good a reason as any to pitch in for the community’s sake. There are always opportunities for teens to get out there. My advice would be to find something that appeals to you—something that you can get fulfillment out of—and pursue it. That way, when the time comes that you are asked to do community service for school or other organizations, you know exactly what you like to do.

When you’ve figured out what you like to do for community service, stick with it. No one will ever tell you that you have to branch out with your volunteering. As long as you’re able to find a volunteering experience that is rewarding to you, everyone will end up happy—you included.

Derek Nosbisch is a student at 
Millard North High School

The Road Home

October 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A loaf of bread. A tank of gas. Pick up the dry cleaning. There are myriad detours one may take in the drive home on any 
given evening.

But the road home for David Hayes almost never varies. On most nights, he drives his car in a trance-like state, methodically wending his way through the streets of Omaha. The vehicle comes to rest after ascending what starts out as an almost imperceptible hill. The scenery never changes. The vehicle once again deposits its driver at his final destination—Evergreen Cemetery.

That’s where he goes to visit his son, Dillon.

A toxicology report listed the cause of Dillon’s 2010 death as due to a mix of cold medication and oxycodone. The medicine was an innocuous, over-the-counter purchase, a $6.99 solution to a case of the sniffles. The oxycodone was a much less innocent acquisition, a $40 score the then 15-year-old sophomore made in the halls of Millard North High School.

Hayes is now a member of the saddest of fraternities—fathers who have lost their sons to prescription drug abuse. “It’s a crappy club I belong to,” says Hayes, who has since dedicated his life to serving Dillon’s memory by talking about the dangers of a problem that will claim nearly 15,000 lives in America this year. And he’ll talk to anyone who will listen.

“If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.” —David Hayes

Hayes has spoken before over 7,500 school kids in the second half of 2013 alone, along with hundreds of adults at service clubs, churches, and other settings. “It’s hard for me to speak. Really hard,” Hayes says. “But seeing the results is worth it. If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.”

Oxycodone, most often available under the trade name of OxyContin, is a semi-synthetic opioid made from poppy-derived thebaine. It is a narcotic analgesic generally prescribed for relief of severe pain. Its connection to the poppy has earned it the street handle of “hillbilly heroin,” just one entry in a lexicon that includes such slang as 80s (as in 80 mg), kickers, killers, blues, and most commonly, oxy.

Alcohol, along with many cold medications, shares the opiate affect of suppressing breathing, which is why mixing it with OxyContin is so dangerous. A person who takes a swig of cough syrup or a single drink before ingesting oxy will likely notice no adverse affects. Later during sleep, however, the combined effect of the continuous-release oxy (thus the “Contin” half of OxyContin name) may cause the lungs to simply shut down and cease functioning.

That’s what happened to Dillon.

Hayes, perhaps most widely known as owner of the acclaimed V. Mertz and other popular restaurants, turned to counseling and clergy after Dillon’s death, but an abyss of sorrow still haunted him. To borrow from the lingo of 12 Step programs, he got better when he got busy.

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So Hayes and longtime family friend Carey Pomykata launched Dillon’s House, a nonprofit that operates under the auspices of Youth for Christ. A basement playhouse that was the scene of many of Dillon’s greatest childhood adventures inspired the name. In his playhouse, the young boy could take the guise of astronaut, spy, or action hero, lost in all manner of valiant reveries. They were roles that Dillon would never have a chance to play in real, adult life. A reimagined though much grander version of the playhouse, a gift from Hayes to the children of Sonshine Christian Preschool, now stands on the grounds of Harvey Oaks Baptist Church, where he is a member.

“The kids here are, of course, too young to understand,” says Mollie Logan, director of the preschool, “but one day they will come to learn the full meaning of 
Dillon’s House.”

Hayes’ speaking gigs are aimed at the older siblings of the tykes who romp in Dillon’s House, as was the case during his presentation at Millard Public Schools’ Andersen Middle School.

Some motions—like riding a bike or the graceful swing of a professional golfer—are unthinking ones. They are acts of all but unconscious muscle memory. Hayes has his own. Not one minute into his school chat, he was reaching for a tissue. It is a gesture that defines the gentle, soft-spoken man. He first demonstrated it over coffee in an initial interview. He repeated it at the school and then again in a photo session. Even at an otherwise festive social function, talk of Dillon soon had Hayes fumbling through his pockets.

“Remember that old, old American Express travelers checks commercial with Karl Malden?” Hayes asks as an index finger darts to a cheek to intercept a salty intruder. “That’s me, but with Kleenex. I never leave home without them.”

“My dad didn’t want to wake after that, after Dillon died,” adds Hayes’ other son, Noah, now a 17-year-old junior at Elkhorn South High School. “Every morning was the same. He’d wake up, and it would take a moment or two for things to sink in, even months later. Was that real? Did that really happen? Then the pain would come again.”

“Kids my age think they’re invincible. Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing…But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control; they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother.” —Noah Hayes

His struggle is different. While Hayes is bewitched by the specter of one lone oxy, Noah must witness firsthand the ongoing ravages of prescription drug abuse among his teens.

“Kids my age think they’re invincible,” Noah explains. “Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing. Drugs can’t possibly have negative consequences, they think. They could see this story and not even blink. They just don’t think that way. But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control, they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother. He went to bed one night and never woke up.” Close your eyes, Noah says, and Monday morning locker chatter can be indistinguishable from that of the scholarly banter found in a lecture hall for third-year pharmacy students. “It’s really prevalent in our school and must be in others. It’s like a dirty little secret.”

Omaha Magazine invited three different area school districts to participate in a variety of ways in compiling this story. Some of those media requests were decidedly weighty and challenging. None accepted the invitation.

Pomykata, who acts as the director of Dillon’s House, has also had the soul-crushing experience of facing the persistence of dirty little secrets. She once happened to bump into thirteen of Dillon’s friends on a pilgrimage to Evergreen Cemetery. “It was the sweetest scene,” she says, “crying and laughing and then crying some more as we remembered Dillon.” But the conversation took a grim, darker turn as time wore on and the teens opened up about life after Dillon. “Twelve of the 13 admitted to using prescription drugs again since Dillon’s death.”

When it comes to the volatile power of a narcotic like oxy, there is no such thing as innocent, youthful experimentation, and repeated use can easily lead to addiction.

“I stole money from my mom,” says Jason (not his real name) on how he funded an insidious oxy addiction. “I stole a TV from my grandma, even though it was a lame piece of junk that I sold for only $30.” Jason dropped out of school at 16 before hitting bottom and landing in rehab under court-ordered supervision. Now 19, Jason is in recovery and back in school, studying computer programming while working a steady job, both ideas that were once entirely foreign to him. “Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them. The first thing I did when I had any money was to buy grandma a new TV, nicer than the one I took. She had already replaced the TV and laughed about it, but it was something I had to do for myself as much as for her.”

“Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them.” —”Jason,” a recovering addict

All addictions are family diseases. Often beginning as the elephant in the room, addiction acts like a malicious virus, infecting those closest to the user.

“I went to Al-Anon because I thought those people could tell me how to get my daughter to stop [prescription drugs],” says Sarah, who also requested anonymity for this story. “I was wrong about that but in a good way. What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength, and hope. My daughter ended up getting better even before I did,” Sarah adds with a chuckle. “She still goes to NA [Narcotics Anonymous], I go to Al-Anon, and sometimes we go to each others’ meetings together.”

Reed Campbell, Clinical Director of NOVA Treatment Community in Omaha, has worked with scores of “Jasons” and “Sarahs” on what can be shared roads to recovery between parent and child. “In the stage between late childhood and early adulthood, curiosity runs rampant,” he says. “Anything that can get youth out of a place that is uncomfortable by providing some sense of security is a thing that kids might easily cling to. The grip of drugs like oxycodone and other heavy-duty pharmaceuticals is powerful but teens don’t think of the consequences.”

Pomykata agrees. “Kids see this stuff in their parents’ medicine cabinet and think ‘A doctor says this is good for my mom’s back. This must be safe or a doctor wouldn’t have given it to her.’”

Hayes reached for a tissue when Pomykata painted the picture of Dillon’s friends at the cemetery but prefers to point to happier, more encouraging brushes with those touched by prescription drug abuse. “A young man stopped me in the grocery store recently. He started crying as he introduced himself, saying that he had heard me talk at Millard South High School and had struggled with a drug problem, including prescription drug abuse. Then, he said something that reminds me of why I get out of bed in the morning. ‘That could be me,’ he said, ‘I could have been Dillon.’”

“What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength and hope.” —”Sarah,” Al-Anon member

The tireless advocate has recently broadened the reach of Dillon’s House, taking its message on tour to five school districts in New York, where he says officials use the word “epidemic” to describe their prescription drug problem. Never one to rest, he loaded the evenings of his itinerary fulfilling invitations from universities and church groups.

Back in Omaha, Hayes dashes off to another school and then another and then another. He consults maps in planning his next national road trip. On many days, he is in danger of forgetting what’s next on his dizzying calendar.

But there will always be Evergreen Cemetery. And there will always be the shadow cast by a little blue pill. Hayes’ road home is always the same.

Operation Christmas Child

September 24, 2013 by

Often, the effects of kind deeds go unseen. Who receives that donated coat? What food is purchased with that monetary donation? Whose life was impacted?

Breanna Burklund, 17, a student at Millard South High School, decided it was time to witness the good her work had done.

For the past 12 years, Burklund has volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization that follows the motto, “Go and do likewise.” More specifically, she has helped with Operation Christmas Child, one of the organization’s programs that aims to spread love to needy children around the world.

The heart of OCC is packing shoeboxes for boys and girls ages 2 to 10. Individuals, families, churches, and other groups in the U.S. and 10 other countries fill these shoeboxes to the brim with items that impoverished children may not be able to afford—toys, school supplies, hygienic items, and clothing. Then, the boxes are delivered to children across the globe.

“As a child, my family and I used to pack boxes,” Burklund says. “We then got our high-school youth involved.”

But Burklund got the opportunity of a lifetime this past July. She traveled to the Philippines to personally deliver shoeboxes to children.

Burklund started her distributions in the Philippines at People’s Missionaries Church and a public school, delivering packages to 400 children between the two locations.

“If everyone could pack twice the number of boxes they did last year, we could see a box in the hands of every child in need.” – Breanna Burklund

“I couldn’t believe how overjoyed all the kids were,” Burklund remembers. “I also noticed that they were very protective of their box. Most of the kids have never received a gift like this or had anything of their own, so even for us to try and play with them or see what they got was hard. They were very skeptical and wanted to make sure nobody was going to take [the box].”

As she delivered more and more boxes to boarding and public schools, she noticed that, while so many children were benefiting from the program, many others were being left out.

“How do you stand there and watch [the children] watch you give out boxes to only a select few, but turn way because there aren’t enough?” Burklund asks. “If everyone could pack twice the number of boxes they did last year, we could see a box in the hands of every child in need.”

Last year, Nebraska and the surrounding area sent 534,136 shoeboxes abroad. Burklund, as well as the Samaritan’s Purse Eastern Nebraska division, hope that number can be doubled by getting more people involved.

Still, even if every child were to receive a box, there is no guarantee of what each child would receive since the delivery is left up to chance (though Samaritan’s Purse has a helpful list of shoebox gift suggestions on their website). Burklund prays that each child receives what he or she truly needs.

“Two twin girls came up to receive their boxes, and they ended up getting separated in line,” Burklund recalls. “I didn’t really think much of it, but later, when I was playing with the kids, I came across them, and they both held up pictures of two twin girls that had packed their box from the U.S.—a jaw-dropping moment! That’s really when it hit me that this has to be God. How else would the two separated girls both get the twin boxes?”

Burklund’s trip piqued her interest in missionary work. She says she would love to do more missionary work, especially with children, and has her sights set on a trip next summer to an orphanage in China. For now, however, she will continue sending shoeboxes abroad.

“A lot of people get strung up on what to put in the boxes, but the real focus is on the message the kids receive. The gift is the bonus, but with it, a seed is planted.”

Shoeboxes will be collected during National Collection Week, Nov. 18-25. Locations for shoebox drop-off include Benson Baptist Church (6319 Maple St.), Westwood Church (13056 Atwood Ave.), First Lutheran Church (3200 E. Military), and First Baptist Church (206 E. 23rd Ave.). For more information about how to pack a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child, visit samaritanspurse.org or call 660-744-4729.

Stress

Over the years, I’ve accepted that stress is a part of life—especially for a high-school student. Balancing work and play isn’t an easy task and will be something that I will have to do for the rest of my life.

There have been countless times where I’ve wanted to pull out my hair over an assignment or just give up on a late night study session and go to sleep. There have also been times where I’ve felt overwhelmed with homework and projects and figuring out where I can fit in eating, sleeping, and socializing. The one thing I’ve learned is that running away isn’t going to finish that assignment or project. The only choice you have to deplete that stress is to get it done and off your plate.

It’s weird to think that stress can be rewarding. After I complete an assignment that was stressing me out, I always feel a little proud and relieved. It’s a little weight off my shoulders and makes my steps a little lighter as I go about the rest of my day. The small successes of finishing that math homework or reading those assigned pages should be celebrated to keep up that positivity. Stress can take a toll on me, and without recognizing those small victories, there is no break from the constant stress of life’s hard moments.

Stress, whether we like it or not, is an inevitable part of life. A little positivity never hurt anyone and can go a long way when stress eats away at us. Celebrating those small wins over stress, no matter how unimportant they seem, can truly make a difference.

Halston Belcastro is a student at Millard West High School.

Curfew

June 20, 2013 by

Curfew establishes freedom and trust. It’s one of the many building blocks to adulthood. Getting that taste of freedom is what every teenager craves. It’s a huge responsibility, but that is what makes freedom so worth it.

As for my own curfew, my parents are very laidback. They don’t have a set time for me to be home. The important thing to them is that they know where I am at all times. My parents have placed a tremendous amount of trust in me, and I would never disobey them. I enjoy having the freedom of no curfew with few exceptions, and I don’t want that privilege to be revoked.

Of course, on school nights, there is a curfew. My parents don’t want me to stay out late on a school night, unless it is for a school event. During the summer, they don’t mind me being out as long as, again, they know what I am doing at all times.

I think it’s important for teenagers to have some freedom with friends. It gives them a taste of what it would be like to live on their own. They also have to manage that responsibility of earning or building on the trust of their parents.

Curfew is important, especially for teenagers. It’s another responsibility to manage, but it’s a stepping-stone to adulthood and making bigger, independent choices in life. Having some rules set in place as the foundation and building trust is a good idea. Freedom is important to teenagers, and it prepares them for the future.

Halston Belcastro is a student at Millard West High School.

Fear, Then and Now

May 25, 2013 by

Fear is a tricky thing to discuss. It occurs in every human, yet we know so little about it. More often than not, the cause of our fear is a mystery to us. Other times, the source of the fear can be traced back to a single incident or a series of tragic events from our past.

As a child, I had many fears that are common. The main fear that I remember is being afraid of the dark. This is easily the most common fear for kids that I have heard of. This could be because kids are afraid of what they cannot see. I was afraid of what may be hiding in my closet or under my bed.

The fears that I have now as a teenager are mainly about my future and where I will end up as an adult. And now, being a sophomore in high school, I have to start thinking about college and where I might want to attend. Contemplating your future from the mere age of 16 can be very scary, but it’s necessary and all part of growing up. This fear comes from the possibility of choosing the wrong college major or making the wrong life choices. This determines my path for life, which is scary and stressful.

Dealing with the fear of growing up and becoming an adult is tricky because it takes place in the future. I try to think of the possible outcomes before I make important decisions. I compare my decisions and make sure they are similar to the choices that other adults, who I look up to, have made.

Good luck to all of you who are dealing with fear. We all must face it, and it follows us throughout our entire lives.

Connor O’Leary is a student at Creighton Prep High School.