Tag Archives: volunteer

Ralston Fourth of July Volunteer

July 19, 2017 by

Ralston, Omaha’s neighbor just south of Q Street, has a population of less than 7,300 for 364 days a year.  On Independence Day, the town’s Fourth of July celebration brings in approximately 40,000 people for its parade, fireworks display, and other events. Chamber of Commerce volunteer Dennis Leslie has been key to keeping it all running smoothly for years.  And the semi-retired local businessman loves it.

“The past three or four years I’ve been manning the phones on the Fourth of July in the (chamber) office,” he says. “Fielding questions like ‘When are the fireworks gonna start?’ ‘What time does the parade start?’ [and] ’Where can I park?’” Leslie knows the answers to all those questions and more. He also collects and tracks raffle ticket money that other volunteers hand in throughout the day, and helps out in any other way he can. In the past, he’s even worked on setting up the parade grandstands. The Chamber of Commerce staff (an office of two) say they rely and lean on him on the holiday, and throughout the year . . . even when he’s out of state.

“He probably knows more than I do,” says Tara Lea, former president of the Ralston Chamber, which presents the parade and other events. When she started at the chamber four-and-a-half years ago, Leslie had already been a dedicated volunteer for more than a dozen years. Besides putting in a 12-hour day on the Fourth of July, Leslie has been a person the chamber could tap to be at before- and after-work meetings, to assist with events, and to, well, haul stuff.  Leslie has worked for the moving company Chieftain Van Lines, located on Ralston’s Main Street, for more than 40 years.  Back in the 1970s, before his volunteering officially began, he helped out at the Fourth of July parade when it was still growing by being in it.    

  “They (parade organizers) actually called to see if we wanted to put a couple of our trucks in the parade. So two of us spiffed up our tractor trailers,” Leslie says. “We were the last ones to go through the parade.”

Leslie (who remains a vice president at Chieftain) spends less than half of the year in the Omaha metropolitan area. During the colder months he’s “out of state, southerly.”  But even when he’s not in Ralston, the chamber calls him, and he calls the chamber at least once a week. 

“This is a fun group.  Absolutely fun people,” he says. “[Even if] I’ve been gone for five months, I show up to the chamber luncheon…and it [is] like old home week seeing everybody.”

His volunteering passion was discovered when a former Ralston Chamber official asked him to join and help out.  He hadn’t thought of being a volunteer earlier because “[no] one ever asked us to be.”

And just like a dedicated volunteer, he says he can’t imagine not helping out, seeing people he likes, and supporting his community.  “Why not?” he says.  “It’s a good time.”

Visit ralstonareachamber.org for more information.

Home Away From Home

February 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Volunteer firefighters at the Bennington rural fire station believe saying, “It’s quiet,” could spell the difference between a boring night and one that ends badly.

When the firefighters’ beepers buzz, there is no telling what could be on the end of the call.

“I thought a GI bleed was the worst thing I’d ever smelled, but charred human flesh was worse,” Kim Miksich says.

As a volunteer firefighter for the past year, Miksich expects the unexpected.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that this petite blonde could strap on a 70-pound pack of gear and venture into the smoky darkness of a fire. Yet, a tough determination and reliance is obvious as she recalls her first training runs. Miksich’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature heated up just like the flickers of flame as she stepped into the pitch black. Even though she had an experienced firefighter to guide the way, it was still pretty scary.

Miksich, a 20-year veteran of nursing at Bergan Mercy Medical Center, realized at 41 years old that she no longer had a choice. She felt compelled to follow her dream of fighting fires, even if it meant not getting paid.

“I dove in headfirst and went for it,” Miksich says.

It was a longing Miksich harbored for almost 20 years. It took her almost a year to get in good enough shape to pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test.

Miksich now volunteers at least three days of 12-hour shifts a month, staying overnight in the wide-open space of the station.

It was a huge life change. Married for 13 years, she would now have to spend nights away from her husband (who was supportive of her extra hours at the station). “He’s more worried about the dangerous aspects of the job,” she says.

Miksich, along with 44 other volunteers, covered 708 calls, 185 fires, and 523 rescues last year. All for free. Pride in service is evident all over the station, from the clean floors to the gleaming red, yellow, and blue firetrucks, to the smoke-stained coats.

The station—which opened in 2015—is immaculate. The cleanliness of the trucks and living quarters reflect this just as much as the hours the firefighters put in to save lives.

Assistant Chief Ben Tysor believes money normally spent on salaries can be spent on the facility, allowing them to better serve citizens.

It is a far cry from the former small white building down the street. It is no rinky-dink, country-bumpkin fire station. Donated by Darrell and Coe Leta Logemann, the warm brick of the building draws in visitors and volunteers. Tall, stately windows with squares outlined in bright red reflect the rustic scenery.

Opening the door, it feels a bit like a church. The stillness is a reminder of death, danger, and destruction. In the tribute room to the left, a pillar of the Twin Towers tilts to the side in a concrete frozen reminder of what could happen without courageous souls willing to risk their lives for others. The job, “a constant unknown,” matters as visitors stroll past a case filled with helmets, suits, and photos.

Fingers of sunlight reach out to an old hose cart, purchased in 1912 for $13 by the Village of Bennington (a historical reminder of those long-gone firefighters who remain part of the squad).

Chief Brent Jones continues this “family” feeling by staying in touch even with volunteers who have left.

“I spend a lot of time there. It is like a second home,” Jones says.

One of his toughest days recently included 10 calls in a 24-hour period. He hadn’t slept, so downtime in one of the black leather chairs created much-needed relaxation and peace. About eight of these same movie-style recliners are in one room facing a flat-screen television.

Firefighters can also make a meal in the vast kitchen complete with a center island. A stainless steel refrigerator and freezer filled with frozen pizzas, a slab of prime rib, or other items labeled with volunteers’ names fill the insides. Or they can help themselves to a pop from the fountain machine or fresh salted popcorn.

It’s meant to be a home away from home. Upstairs, eight bedrooms complete with bed, television, and desk give it a laid-back vibe. A full locker room comes in handy when someone comes in to use the modern weight room which overlooks the trucks (a reminder to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice—perhaps using the fireman’s pole behind a closed door).

Volunteers must meet three Mondays out of the month for emergency medical or fire training and business meetings. A big time commitment, but necessary.

“[Volunteering] is a disease. Once it is in your blood, you can’t get it out,” Jones says.

Jones, a 14-year volunteer, loves the challenge. But mainly, it is his way of serving the community. Jones spends 25 to 30 hours a week in Bennington, and about 56 hours on his regular job as a firefighter in Lincoln, where he has worked for the past 16 years. His wife also volunteers when she isn’t working as a paramedic with Midwest Medical Transport.

Although downtime seems like a minimum, pranks are still played. Jacked up trucks, water dumped on heads, and snakes in the lockers are classic.

One firefighter laughs as he plans to scratch at the door of a co-worker who believes a ghost roams the station randomly leaving the showers and sinks running.

Some of the firefighters believe they bring the spirits back after a trip. Although it is possible, the building may just be too new.

“Just don’t say the word quiet,” Jones says again. “Something will happen.”

Visit benningtonfirerescue.com for more information.

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

Kay Brown

November 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Animal lover and volunteer Kay Brown isn’t one to shy away from hard work. Her busy life includes her job of working with disadvantaged teens, her yoga classes, her volunteer hours for the Nebraska Humane Society, and her horses.

Brown loves all animals, but one look around her rural Omaha home and visitors know which animal reigns supreme in her heart—the majestic horse. Of course.

“Yeah it doesn’t take long to know this lady loves horses,” Brown says referring to her living room. A quick glance around and you see horse pictures, horse lamps, horse statues, a horse calendar… oh, and by the front door is the obligatory horse riding equipment. Yes, Kay Brown is serious about her horses. She currently has two horses. One is hers and the other is a rescue horse that she is working to rehabilitate.

Brown first caught the horse bug when she was a young girl growing up on a farm outside of Flandreau, S.D. An older sister had a horse and Brown first started helping out and doing chores to care for the animal. It was then that she developed her work ethic.

“Being the youngest, I pretty much got all the jobs at the bottom of the rung,” she said.

Nowadays, Brown is used to being tapped to do, well, just about anything.

Early on at the first International Omaha, a world-class, worldwide horse jumping competition held each year at the CenturyLink Center Omaha, Brown became the go-to person for those in need.

“Kay can you…” was heard early and often there. Brown takes it all in stride and has the rare yet highly sought gift of always keeping her cool. Her jobs at the International have included giving tours to school kids and groups. She loves dealing with all the youngsters, especially the ones whose attention spans tend to drift. “I’m right there with them. I think they’re great,” she said of some of the groups.

Other times she’s playing chauffeur, taking out-of-towners around the city during their stay. Or she’ll just make the rounds to the different stalls, checking to see what the riders and their crews might need, fulfilling any last-minute requests for items that may have been forgotten or misplaced.

“It’s all different but I love it all,” she says. “It’s pretty much go, go for four days,
24 hours.”

And then there’s the job Brown often finds herself doing that isn’t for the sensitive of stomach or smell. With a sturdy “muck rake” Brown gets down and dirty and starts to shovel the…horse doo-doo.

“There’s a lot of it,” she says. “A single horse can produce 50 pounds a day.”

It’s a job that not everyone would be able to tackle with aplomb, but Brown does.

“I come from a family where you just help people,” Brown says with enthusiasm.

All the help and work also have a side benefit for the diminutive Brown. She stays in fantastic shape. A former fitness instructor and Tai Chi practitioner, Brown is becoming more “seasoned” rather than aging. Working with horses, doing chores, Brown isn’t going soft.

Don’t believe her? She’ll tell you to poke a finger at her rock-hard obliques.

“That’s from a lot of raking, a lot of throwing hay,” she says, explaining how she stays so fit. “It’s cross fit on the farm.”.

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Selfless Selfishness


January 11, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A recent visit to the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS) found volunteer Chet Bressman deep into an adoption consultation with Sara Edwards, Amanda Hoffman, and a pup of questionable parentage named Nina. There had apparently just transpired a minor spat of sorts, and Bressman was setting things aright so that an interview could begin in earnest.

“No big problem,” Bressman explained. “It’s just that she was getting a little mouthy, and we had to…the dog…Nina…Nina was getting mouthy…not either of these nice young ladies,” the amiable Bressman sputtered as the women made an unsuccessful attempt to suppress giggles.

“Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
— Pam Wiese, NHS Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing

Bressman was working adoption duties that day, but his other efforts over the last 15 years have included everything from building kennels to driving the PAW mobile adoption unit and more. His tireless dedication—60 hours a week of volunteering is not uncommon for him— led to him and his wife, Louise, being recognized by NHS with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Chet and Louise are fixtures here at the Nebraska Humane Society,” says Pam Wiese, the organization’s vice president of public relations and marketing. “Chet has been here so long and has put in an incredible number of hours. Not only does he know the history of the Nebraska Humane Society, he is a vital part of that history. He’s played an important role in where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

The couple, both longtime volunteers, met at NHS and dated for four years before being married over 10 years ago. “She came with all her papers and licenses in order,” Bressman quips.

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Bressman was part of the organization’s team that traveled to coastal Mississippi on an animal rescue mission in the devastating wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and he joined the ASPCA team for a similar trek to Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado wrought destruction on that town in 2011.

Bressman’s commitment to animals knows no geographic boundaries, but his heart, he says, will always be for the sprawling NHS complex near 90th and Fort streets.

“I want the Nebraska Humane Society to be the very first words people think of when it comes to new pets,” he says. “There are so many puppy mills and so much bad breeding out there, and we don’t put up any unhealthy animals for adoptions. It’s a win-win situation in every way. It’s a win for the animal, for the adopting family, and it’s a win for the community because every adoption opens a new space here for us to do it all over again.”

“He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”
— Sara Edwards

The Bressmans live with Golden Retriever Buddy (11) and cat Sophie (17). Last year they lost Gracie, but her memory lived on when NHS commissioned a caricature of the Golden Retriever for use as the official mascot of the nonprofit’s annual Walk for the Animals.

Back in the adoption room—one brightly painted in the hue of cheery sunflowers—Bressman was coaching Edwards and Hoffman on some of Nina’s special needs. The dog, a Boxer-Dalmatian mix, was born deaf, and that meant the learning of hand signals along with other tips.

“Fold your hands,” Bressman gently explained to Hoffman, but not before she playfully wiped some of Nina’s slobber onto Edwards’ sweater. “That’s right. Now turn away from Nina. You got it.”

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Safety was also paramount in the discussion because each woman, both recently divorced, had a young child at home. Neither of the kids knew that Nina—an early Christmas present—would be awaiting introductions when they returned from school that day.

“Chet was great to work with,” Edwards says. “He told us everything; the day the dog came in, where she was found, her health at the time. He knew absolutely everything about Nina. He’s a real adoption pro.”

“More like an adoption god,” adds Hoffman. “We couldn’t believe it when we learned he is a volunteer. He should have his own show on Animal Planet.”

“I knew that was going to be a good adoption. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love and care.”
— Chet Bressman

Bressman was equally happy with how Nina’s adoption unfolded. “I knew that was going to be a good adoption,” he says. “I always know. Nina is going to a good home with good people where she’ll get lots of love 
and care.”

And then Bressman admits that he, the seemingly selfless co-winner of such an august award as the Lifetime Achievement honor, secretly harbored the most selfish of motives in his interaction with Edwards, Hoffman, and Nina.

“Best of all, it’s a big win-win for me, too,” he beams. “That one made my day!”

Visit nehumanesociety.org for more on Nebraska Humane Society adoptions, programs, and events.

Forever in Black

January 4, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Whether it’s your first time inside the glittering Orpheum Theater or your fiftieth visit to the sleek Holland Performing Arts Center, attending a live performance is an exciting event. The lobby fills with eager patrons and the buzz of conversation as a floor captain directs a couple to the gift shop while their tutu-clad daughter hops up and down with anticipation. A man in elegant evening wear checks out a hearing device from a volunteer while a couple in cowboy boots hover at their assigned door, which is—finally!—opened by a smiling usher. Each of these patrons has been made to feel welcome by an official Ambassador for Omaha Performing Arts [OPA].

For its March 2013 return run of The Lion King’s 32 sold-out performances, 383 Ambassadors volunteered a total of 6,804 hours. This past August, Disney Theatrical Productions presented a rare award, a handcrafted lioness mask honoring the outstanding achievement of The Lion King’s success in Omaha. Ambassadors were a central element in the success of that and any run at either the Orpheum or the Holland.

One of the black-clad volunteers, Sue Mouttet, was recognized for working 94 events during the 2012-13 season. Think of the math on that. That’s the equivalent of Mouttet spending one out of every four days of the year dressed in one of her black Ambassador’s outfits.

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

“I became an Ambassador in 2005, the year the Holland opened,” says Mouttet. “I enjoy every assignment I get because I love the public contact.” Many people think of Ambassadors simply as ushers, but their duties are as varied as Omaha Performing Arts’ line-up of performances. One of the jobs of female Ambassadors is directing intermission traffic through the rest rooms during lobby-packed intermissions. “It may sound funny, but it can make a big difference in one’s [a patron’s] experience,” Mouttet says. [Editor’s Tip: For much shorter restroom lines at the Orpheum, take the short flight of stairs down from the lobby and use the lower-level facilities.]

Mouttet has a special understanding of theater—she is an actor who’s played several area stages. This background helps her better explain the nuances of the evening to ticketholders. Why can’t we be seated early? The doors must wait while cast and crew make their last-minute checks so you will enjoy a killer, perfectly staged performance.

Joni Fuchs, OPA’s Front of House Manager, oversees 450 volunteer Ambassadors. She was hired for the position two years ago but had been an Ambassador since 2006. Like many in her small army of volunteers, she came at the suggestion of friends and joined a mixed group of people who share a love for performing arts and helping others. Many are retired, but others come from jobs in business, education, and trade. The minimum age is 18; the oldest Ambassador is 90. And each one is greatly appreciated. “They provide an invaluable service to Omaha,” says Fuchs. “They are the face of Omaha Performing Arts.”

Ambassadors like Mouttet take their responsibilities and commitments seriously, but they also enjoy such perks as seeing OPA’s array of outstanding Broadway, music, and dance performances at two stellar venues. Ambassadors may watch performances during periods when they’re not otherwise needed, and they also earn points that they can exchange for free tickets.

“No matter what we do,” Mouttet says of her varied and many duties, “we serve one patron at a time and we go, go, go!”

Looking for Trouble

January 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Eighty eastbound…four four nine…ten sixty two…occupied,” went the call over the radio. 60 Plus in Omaha was only a little more than a mile out from base in a ride-along with the volunteers of the Metro Area Motorist Assist program, and 65-year-old Wayne Fry was calling in the first incident report.

A vehicle—the “1062” in the cop-talk lingo above—was pulled over at mile marker 449 of Interstate 80, and a young man named Kenny was about to make the mistake of pouring engine coolant into the wrong receptacle of his overheated and smoking junker.

20131118_bs_2927“I obviously had no idea what I was doing,” says Kenny. “Those guys are lifesavers.” The red-faced man was more than happy to have his last name shown in print as simply “Occupied,” the designation from Fry’s radio report indicating that the car had at least one person in it.

Over the last 13 years the Motorist Assist program has come to the rescue more than 85,000 times. Based on the most recent census report, that’s the equivalent of coming to the aid of one out of every 10 people in the metro area.

“It started as a public safety initiative so that law enforcement can concentrate on what you pay us to do—enforce the law,” explains Lt. Kevin Bridges of the Nebraska State Patrol. “It doesn’t take a trained officer to give a lift to someone who is out of gas, so that’s where our great Motorist Assist volunteers come in.”

Omaha’s State Patrol Troop A office has 21 Mobile Assist drivers, but Lt. Bridges has a duty roster that calls for twice as many. Volunteers go through 12 hours of training and are required to have a current CPR card. All ages are welcome to explore becoming a Motorist Assist volunteer, but the normally wide-open schedules of a retired person, Lt. Bridges says, is the most common profile of the volunteer he seeks.

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Mobile Assist uses the buddy system, and 84-year-old Gene Tschida was riding shotgun the day of the interview.

“It’s a lonely, helpless feeling to be stopped by the side of the road with all that traffic buzzing past you, so people are glad to see us,” says Tschida. “The big thing is the personal satisfaction we get in helping people.”

“Especially because so many of the folks we encounter are maybe less fortunate than we are,” adds Fry. “That young guy, Kenny, was an excellent example of a great stop. He was polite. He gave us a nice ‘thank you’ and a big smile,” one that broadened when he learned that Assist services carry no fees.

Tschida is a veteran of 15 years volunteering behind the wheel of a Motorist Assist vehicle. “I’m still kinda feeling out this job,” he quips. “The pay is pretty lousy, but I figure it might improve with seniority.”

Fry returned to the radio to call in a “1098,” the code for “all clear.” Fry and Tschida were back on the road, once again looking for trouble.

To learn more about volunteering with the Metro Area Motorist Assist program, contact Lt. Kevin Bridges of the Nebraska State Patrol at 402-331-3333.

Multiply by 50

December 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Opportunity leads to success. Success opens the door for even greater opportunity. Such is the cycle of the American dream. But many youths across the Heartland face more adversity than opportunity. Poverty, suffering, and staggering obstacles are their reality.

“Coming from an immigrant family, my parents only studied up to sixth grade in Mexico,” says Oliver Ramirez-Gutiérrez, a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a dual major in biology and foreign language. “My dad works in a meat-packing plant, and my mom cleans houses. We don’t have the finances for my parents to pay for me to go to college. Even though there are obstacles in the way, you just overcome them because you don’t really have an option of failing.”

As a 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben scholarship recipient, Gutiérrez’s options just expanded in a big way. He was one of 50 winners of $6,000 college scholarships presented at the recent Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation & Scholarship Ball.

Gutiérrez says the scholarship opens a whole new world for him. “There are endless possibilities that you can do once you have your college paid,” he says. “That money is basically my future. If I hadn’t received it, I don’t know where I would have gone.”

Founded in 1895 as a harvest celebration, the Coronation & Scholarship Ball honors the volunteer efforts of families throughout the Heartland by selecting their children as members of the royal court. A civic-minded business leader of the region serves as king and the queen is honored for the civic contributions of her family.

“The ball is a party with a purpose, that being each individual scholar and how we can help each individual succeed,” says Jane Miller, chairman of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Board of Directors.

Ak-Sar-Ben partners with the Horatio Alger Association offering Ak-Sar-Ben scholars access to matching scholarship funds from colleges and universities across the country, including many local institutions. “I’m just really proud,” Gutiérrez continues, “that the people at Ak-Sar-Ben were able to see the potential in me to become something great and to one day give back.”

Now take Gutiérrez’s potential and multiply that by 50.

 

Aquaponics

November 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colton Allen, a seventh grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, counts the tilapia swimming circles in the horse trough. “Eleven?” he guesses. “Twelve?” It’s difficult to say, since the “tank” of his class’ aquaponics system is solid black.

“The system can take more,” explains magnet facilitator Kristine Denton, “but this is our let’s-make-sure-they-survive phase. Later today, we’re actually getting perch.”

“What?” Allen says. “I gotta be here for that.”

Is there a benefit to having perch versus tilapia in an aquaponics system?

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Raising seedlings, monitoring pH levels, and designing tanks that will keep the fish from ending up on the classroom floor are all responsibilities of the seventh-grade service-learning class at King Science Center.

“I don’t know yet,” Denton admits, laughing. “We’re going to find out.” Which is appropriate. The theme of King Center, one of Omaha Public Schools’ 19 magnet schools, is, after all, inquiry.

The food-growing system that holds pride of place in her seventh-grade service-learning class is the result of Denton’s desire to find “a really cool project that would get my students tied with the community.” In 2011, she attended the UNO Service Learning Academy, a weeklong program connecting public school teachers, professors, and the community, and discovered the aquaponics systems of Whispering Roots. She partnered with Greg Fripp, founder of the food education nonprofit, to bring the concept to her school, “and it’s been great ever since.”

Three years later, Fripp still supplies the fish and helps troubleshoot a system that’s not complex but is all about balance. “These kids are engaging with next-generation technology,” says Fripp. “You try to teach pH levels at the board, and their eyes glaze over. But if you point out that it’s a life or death issue for the fish, then, yeah, they’re engaged.”

DeAjai Philmon, an eighth grader, describes the concept of aquaponics with ease.

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The wastewater from the tilapia, she explains, is laced with ammonia, goes up a PVC pipe and dumps into a shallow wooden box of untreated 2x4s lined with plastic. Bacteria growing on the marble-sized clay balls that cover the plant roots in the box convert nitrites from the fish waste into nitrates, a fertilizer for the plants. About twice an hour, the box—essentially a gigantic biofilter—drains cleaned water back down to the fish, completing a cycle that encompasses water filtration, fish farming, and vegetable production. The most expensive parts of the system, Denton says, are the UV lighting that hang just above the plants and the heater that keeps the 100 or so gallons of water at 78 degrees for the tilapia.

“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” Denton says. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”

The iceberg lettuce in this box is about two weeks old. “We harvested recently so we replanted seedlings,” Denton says, pointing to a set of six trays under grow lights. “We have some radishes, and we’re going to try peppers. We’re also going to try peas.” They’re climbing peas, so the kids will have to figure out how to give them proper support. “That’s like 90 percent of it,” she says, “figuring things out.”

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“Excuse me, Ms. Denton,” says Armani Price, also an eighth grader. “Is this basil?” She points to a tiny seedling with only a couple true leaves. Price says she’s getting better at identifying plants. She also assists with the school’s urban farm where she’s helped grow collard greens, jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, “and we did have a peach tree.” She’s discovering that fruit trees aren’t very easy.

Price and Philmon were part of the class that helped finish building the frame that holds the bed’s grow lights. Students are 100 percent involved in building structures, Denton says, as well as being in charge of crop rotation, water testing, and fish care. »
« “They’re responsible for making sure we have seeds and letting us know if we need to reorder.” Grants are in place for them to purchase supplies.

“We want to start a salt water system, too,” says Price. “[Ms. Denton] said we’d want to grow things like seaweed and kelp. Is kelp good?”

Denton allows that it’s okay while Philmon asserts, “It’s nasty.”

“We have to plant things that might not be part of our palette,” Denton says, explaining the importance of learning about food and growing environments in other cultures. Either shrimp or a variety of saltwater fish will be the marine culture, which is a bit trickier than freshwater. Fortunately, the school partners with the Henry Doorly Zoo, which Denton says is very understanding of a learning process that might result in the loss of a jellyfish or two.

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The first year, a class of about 19 students looked after the system. This year, Denton has 26 in her seventh-grade service learning class. Aquaponics is only part of the service learning class: This year, students will create lessons on video to show to other schools, ensuring that they exercise presentation skills alongside gardening and engineering and science. “The social aspect is really key as well,” Fripp says. “What we do every day is engage kids on so many levels.”

Another area of learning is in the art of giving. As part of her service-learning class, Denton and her students volunteer at Open Door Mission. When a food drive brought together a variety of canned and dry goods, some of her students asked, “Why can’t we donate fruit and lettuce?” Now, she and at least four kids take their aquaponics produce over to the mission after school every four to six weeks. “We’re able to harvest that quick,” Denton says. “And they immediately wash and serve it that night.”

Not exactly everything is donated. The students always eat a first harvest themselves, and they haven’t forgotten about the fish. A true aquaponics system is about raising fish to eat as well as produce, and Denton says her students decidedly do not view the tilapia as pets. “We haven’t eaten any yet,” she says, “but they keep asking for a fish fry.”

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

Gridiron Hero Becomes Mentor and Coach

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Eric Francis Photography and Ted Kirk

What former Nebraska Cornhusker Steven Warren remembers most from his days playing football is not a particular game or plays, but rather the camaraderie among his teammates—along with key tenants such as persistence, integrity, and trustworthiness. These were experiences and traits that would serve Warren well later in life.

Recruited out of Springfield, Mo., he recalls Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne paying Warren and his family a visit in their living room the same week Big Red won the 1995 national championship. Warren accepted a UNL football scholarship and packed his bags for Lincoln.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

“Nebraska football was No. 1; it was everywhere,” Warren recalls. “And being a part of it was like being a part of The Beatles.”

Freshman year was both a culture shock and an athletic shock for Warren: rigorous practices alongside the fame of being a Cornhusker. “There was so much temptation because of what you were part of. But you also had to learn time management,” he adds.

While playing for Nebraska, Warren found himself developing close friendships with other players and families in and around Lincoln. Oftentimes, parents would seek Warren out to speak with their children about setting goals, planning for the future, and living one’s dream.

Warren left Nebraska as a 3rd round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2000 NFL Draft. Thirteen weeks into his rookie year, Warren was sidelined with an injury and told he would miss the remainder of the season. He stayed in Green Bay, undergoing rigorous rehabilitation and training. He returned to the Packers for one more season before moving to the AFL, first playing for the San Jose Sabercats and, later, the Arizona Rattlers. At each of his AFL stints, Warren suffered separate injuries. “That’s when I realized my body was trying to tell me something,” he recalls.

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Warren returned to University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finished his sociology degree in 2004. After graduation, he had a decision to make. His wife, Heidi, is from Columbus, so staying in Nebraska certainly seemed like an option. And being a Nebraska alumni opened many doors for Warren. Former Huskers often pursued successful careers after leaving the field.

But a sales job or related opportunities just didn’t feel right.

“I always liked helping others, and I worked with mentors while at Nebraska,” Warren shares. At his Lincoln home near 30th and Y streets, some of Warren’s fondest memories were sitting on his porch and talking with children and teens who lived in the neighborhood.

That feeling never left him, which is why today he is president and founder of D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Relationships through Education, Athletics, Mentoring). It’s an Omaha-based nonprofit mentoring organization that reaches out to young men enrolled in middle school.

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“Seven years ago, everything for D.R.E.A.M. just fell into place: the pieces, the people. It was meant to be,” Warren says.

D.R.E.A.M. began in 2006 as an after-school program at Walnut Hill Elementary School at 43rd and Charles streets. Five volunteers met regularly with 20 at-risk students. Today, the program has expanded to several Omaha schools and added a chapter in Springfield, Mo., Warren’s hometown. In all, the program serves about 300 boys.

D.R.E.A.M. finds its success from 40 volunteers who spend three to five hours each week at an assigned school throughout the academic year. The theme is simple: becoming a man.

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“Our volunteers work with seventh- and eighth-grade students each school year teaching them the positive attributes of being a man: respect, responsibility, relationship building, establishing rapport,” Warren says. “All of these lessons I learned from football at Nebraska and our peer counseling.”

D.R.E.A.M. teaches young men that it’s okay (even encouraged) to be successful in school. College-age mentors serve as living, breathing examples of the success that comes with hard work, dedication, and diligence.

Teena Foster, an Omaha Public Schools site director at McMillan Magnet Center Middle School, has worked alongside Warren and his college-age volunteers since last fall. Foster says she continues to see growth in the seventh- and eighth-grade students who participate in D.R.E.A.M. each week. And she knows Warren is the driving force.

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“Steve is dedicated to mentoring these young students,” Foster explains. “He’s always smiling, is always pleasant. So are his volunteers. They build great relationships with our students. Mentors are extremely important in these young lives.”

Warren’s belief in mentorship yielded a second program that also occupies much of his time. From his experiences as a student athlete, Warren launched Warren Academy in 2010. It’s designed to provide students (from elementary and middle school to high school and college) with leadership skills and character-building through athletics.

Warren Academy, however, isn’t just for students. Coaches and other leaders also participate to improve and refine a variety of leadership skills, both on and off of the field. Warren Academy programs include training sessions, camps, coaching clinics, nutritional counseling, education assistance, and mentoring. The athletic training component features speed, strength, and agility training programs. Warren says that once the organization has its own facility, Warren Academy’s offerings will expand to include fitness for adults and children of all ages.

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“Our goal is to become the primary training resource for field sports,” Warren adds. “That includes baseball, football, track, soccer, and lacrosse.”

Seems Warren’s best playing position is that of teacher. And he’s loving every minute of it.