Tag Archives: youth

Her Fountain of Youth

July 11, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Few visitors who sneak a peak at Betty Davis’ treasure trove of soda fountain collectibles can appreciate their impact on generations of Americans who grew up before the 1950s.

The ice cream molds, dippers, five-headed malt mixers, banana bowls, trays, tall glasses, tin Coca-Cola signs, and a 12-foot-long counter with a gray marble top and marble frontage—stored in Davis’ spacious Council Bluffs home and garage—recall a more innocent age: a time when a boy and girl slipped two straws into one ice cream float and sipped as they leaned toward each other, and when soda jerks, in their white jackets and bow ties, had more swagger than Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Cocktail.

“The soda jerks were what bartenders are today,” says Davis, retired executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha. “They knew everybody, they listened, they gave everyone personal service—mixing the concoction in front of you. They were the biggest big shots in town,” she says with a laugh.

From the early 1900s through the soda fountain’s heyday in the Depression-era 1930s, most jerks were men (no kidding!), until women filled in during World War II. “They got the name when they jerked the pull handles of the carbonated water in two different directions to regulate the flow into the flavored syrups,” she explains.

An unabashed romantic about the era, Davis grew up across the river listening to stories about how her parents “courted at the soda fountain” at Oard’s Drug Store, now Oard-Ross, on 16th Avenue in Council Bluffs.
And she vividly remembers holding the hand of her “tall, Danish” grandfather as they walked to the drug store to get ice cream.

Years later, in the late 1980s, while volunteering at the old Western Heritage Museum in what is now Omaha’s Durham Museum, those memories came flooding back when a group of former “fizzicians” from the region gathered for a reunion around the museum’s established soda fountain.

“Over 500 people showed,” she marvels. “I discovered that the soda fountain was implanted in people’s memories. The public came just to look at the soda jerks and talk to them. It was magic.”

The overwhelming success of that first reunion led Davis in 1990 to found the National Association of Soda Jerks. The association grew quickly, swelling to more than 1,000 members in less than two years. “I got a personal letter postmarked Washington, D.C., from a former soda jerk. It was from [former U.S. Senator from Kansas] Bob Dole. He’s a member.”

But age has caught up with the dwindling ranks of soda jerks, as it has with Betty Davis. Now 83 and experiencing mobility difficulties, she realizes the window of opportunity to open a soda fountain museum showcasing her happy hobby has closed. “This is of no value to me locked in a garage,” she reasons quietly.

After months of searching for a “worthy” home for her collection, Davis heard about a multi-pronged, ambitious nonprofit headquartered just a few blocks north of the Historical Society, where she worked for many years.

The mission of No More Empty Pots, located on North 30th Street in the historic Florence neighborhood of north Omaha, revolves around food. The organization not only provides access to locally grown, affordable, nutritious food, it offers culinary arts training in one of two commercial-grade kitchens, located in the labyrinthine basement of the renovated turn-of-the-20th-century row of buildings.

Another component of this food hub, the Community Café at 8503 N. 30th St., slated to open to the public in the fall, caught Davis’ attention on many levels because of its parallels to the soda fountains.

“Betty told us how drug stores started selling sodas and ice cream to draw people into the store to buy things, and the fountain was never meant to be a moneymaker,” says Nancy Williams, co-founder and executive director of No More Empty Pots. “This cafe will help our employees learn how to converse with people and really serve them, and not just with food. That will translate into many different career paths.”

Believing the cafe can become “a beacon…to unite all the ethnic differences we have,” Davis signed over her soda fountain collection and the trademarked National Association of Soda Jerks to Williams and No More Empty Pots. A display case in the middle of the cafe will house Davis’ relics of the soda fountain era, her contribution to the preservation of an American tradition.

The 12-foot-long World War I-era soda bar, which Davis picked up years ago in Soldier, Iowa, will stand behind the large windows of the storefront, beckoning people to come in, enjoy a freshly made soda, and socialize.

“We’re going to make our own soda syrups and extracts from seasonal fruits and herbs and then add the carbonated seltzer water,” Williams says. “And we’ll have local seasonal ice cream.”

Confident that her goals and the mission of No More Empty Pots align, Davis sees her soda fountain breaking barriers, inspiring conversation, and making people happy for many years to come.

Visit nmepomaha.org for more information about the nonprofit receiving the soda fountain and memorabilia.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

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

He Ain’t Heavy

July 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

Chris and Lori Mathsen received a surprise phone call recently that reminded them why their planned one-year stay as live-in family teachers at Boys Town has stretched into 26 memory-filled years

The Mathsens hadn’t heard from this particular young man—one of nearly 200 teenage boys to move through their family home on the West Dodge Road campus—for more than 20 years. If they did hear from him again, they figured he wouldn’t say much.

“He didn’t do anything to really stand out while he was here,” says Chris, “Nothing too crazy. Nothing that positive. He was only vaguely interested in what was happening.”

All those years later, the young man reached out.

He couldn’t believe the Mathsens were still at Boys Town, still overseeing the same house full of teenagers, still with the same Michael Jordan poster that has survived countless Nerf gun wars and sometimes less playful confrontations in the home’s spacious basement.

The young man, now married with two children, had a message that never gets old to those dedicating their lives to helping troubled teens.

“He told us his time here totally changed his life, and he doesn’t know where he would be without it,” Chris says. “We had no idea, especially with him. There is power in that.”

Indeed there is, so much so that Lori Mathsen, who took a one-year sabbatical from earning a Ph.D. to obtain real-life experience, turned it into 25-plus years of helping teenage boys turn from trouble to sports, music, ROTC, good grades, and a brighter future.

So much so that Chris shut down his roofing company and went to Creighton University for an MBA that’s still waiting to be deployed while the Mathsens raise their 11-year-old son, Karsten, and 10-year-old daughter, Kari, in a house full of boys who are learning what it’s like to be treated like family in a place they can call home.

“There have been plenty of times when we ask ourselves, ‘What have we done?’” Lori says. “Let’s take a normal job…and have some privacy…and not get cussed out by kids. But then there are always special kids that you think, ‘I want to stick around to see that kid through.’ Then another one grabs your heart,” and the Mathsens repeat the process. “You bond with them and they bond with you. They ask us sometimes, ‘Are you going to leave before I graduate?’ We don’t want to let them down.”

The Mathsens have certainly passed the perseverance test. The average tenure of Boys Town’s live-in family teachers is around three years. Life with young people who need to reshape behaviors and relationships can get intense. “We’re on a treadmill that never stops,” Lori says. “We don’t like to be bored, and there’s no danger of that.”

The couple have grown to love their Boys Town life even more since their kids were born. The older boys in the home provide role models—good and, sometimes, bad. And there’s never a shortage of playmates as the Boys Town kids are almost always willing to shoot hoops or pool, battle at Just Dance, or strike up a wiffle ball game.

“When we go on vacation, before the week is even up our kids start asking, ‘I wonder what they’re doing at home? I wonder what’s going on with so-and-so?’ Chris says. “They told us, ‘We’ll be mad at you if we ever leave Boys Town,’ and they mean it.”

It’s all part of helping kids move from turmoil (home, school, the legal system) to a shot at a coveted place in the Mathsen “Hall of Fame.” That select group is represented by a large picture on a stairway wall. It’s an elite group—a coveted position reached by only four boys over the decades through demonstrating uncommon character, leadership, academic excellence, and extracurricular achievement.

There’s Robert, who graduated from Boys Town with a 4.0 GPA, three varsity sports letters, and no incidents on his record. And there’s Jay, who was identified by a police officer as a teen with potential but heading down the wrong path. He now serves as an assistant family teacher at Boys Town.

“We get to watch him come to work every day and give back what was given to him,” Chris says. “These kids can be the biggest pains in the hind end, but then something breaks through and you see a kid change and head the right direction. There aren’t many places where you get the opportunity to spend your life being part of that.”

“It’s a place for second chances,” Lori adds, “and maybe even third or fourth chances.”

The Mathsens view their time at Boys Town as one small part of something special that’s been happening for nearly a century at the place known for its iconic motto of “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.”

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Strike Zone and MVP4Life

March 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons in Transforming Lives

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Ken Merchant

When a group of Omaha Home for Boys and Jacob’s Place residents helped put the finishing touches on a customized 1999 Harley Davidson motorcycle this May, they accomplished something bigger than themselves.

As participants in OHB’s Horsepower Bike Rebuild Program, the youth worked four months under the supervision of adults to outfit a bare-bones bike with all custom features. That bike, dubbed Mish Mash, is being raffled off this fall and will be awarded to a winner at Omaha Home for Boys’ September 26 fundraiser, Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts. Fittingly, the motivational speaker for the 6 p.m. Hilton Omaha event is actor-producer-director-author Henry Winkler, who earned fame playing the motorcycle-riding character The Fonz on the 1970s TV mega-hit, Happy Days. (Editor’s Note: Marlee Matlin has replaced Henry Winkler as the guest speaker for the event, as Winkler had another obligation come up.)

Leading up to the event, the bike is being showcased at parades and shows to help boost raffle sales and raise awareness about Omaha Home for Boys’ and Jacob’s Place’s mission, serving youth. Founded in 1920, OHB is a residential program that provides at-risk boys and young men ages 10-18 with family structure, positive reinforcement, and educational support to help them become successful, independent adults. It’s sister program, Jacob’s Place, has a similar mission serving both young men and women ages 17-21.

OHB events manager Trish Haniszewski says the bike rebuild program, which originates out of Mitchell, S.D., is intended to empower youth through structured, hands-on work rebuilding old or damaged bikes.

She says the work the Omaha youth put into salvaging their bike “is symbolic of ‘refurbish a youth, refurbish a life.’” The person she recruited to be the program’s bike mechanic facilitator, Jeremy Colchin of Black Rose Machine Shop, found the experience more meaningful than he expected.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done…The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.” – Jeremy Colchin, Black Rose Machine Shop

“The joy I had after the first night of working with the kids was like nothing I ever experienced before,” says Colchin. “I didn’t expect to get attached to these kids.”

His father, Black Rose owner Mike Colchin, also mentored the youth.

Jeremy says the connection with some youth was immediate and with others, gradual. “You gotta pull them in…We seemed to pull them in in a good way, and that’s what matters. They were having fun when they were here,” says Colchin, who met with the youth Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howe Garage on campus. “Every single one of them has been extremely polite and fun to be around and easy to work with. It’s promising.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done; it’s about using [the process] as a tool for kids. In the big scheme of things, the bike’s the side note. The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.”

Colchin says the experience reminded him of when he began working under his father at age 16.

Getting the bike tricked out offered many teachable moments. “I thought it was a real interesting way to use what I know to work with these kids and teach them not just about motorcycles, but about how life works,” Colchin says. “That not everything is straightforward. You have to learn to work around problems, work with other people, and have fun doing it. If I can help someone [teaching them] that, that’s a great thing.”

The initial plan was to rebuild a beat-up bike. But when a junker couldn’t be found, the new emphasis became customizing a used one. Learning opportunities still presented themselves.

“When you customize a bike, you run into issues and problems you need to work through and take care of, and we’ve really done a good job accomplishing that,” says Colchin.

Ten to 12 youth participated each week in the bike build, including several girls. Besides taking ratchets, wrenches, and soldering irons to the bike, they came up with a new paint design. Flames on the gas tank include personalized names and sayings from the youth.

Program participant Tony, a Jacob’s Place transitional living resident, says, “It’s been a lot of fun. This was the first time I’ve actually worked on a motorcycle. I’ve always loved taking stuff apart and putting it together just for the heck of it—figuring out what makes stuff work. It’s been a very cool experience.” Tony, 18 and soon to enter the U.S. Marine Corps, says he and his teammates take pride in the work they did.

Of the lucky person who will win the bike in the raffle, Colchin says, “They’re going to be in possession of a Harley that’s customized in a way most guys wish they could afford to do.”

Raffle tickets for the motorcycle will be sold June 28-Sept. 26 and are available by calling Trish Haniszewski at 402-457-7000 or online at omahahomeforboys.org. Tickets to the Restoring Hearts fundraiser can also be purchased on the organizations’s website.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Youth Priorities

Back in my day, all the cool kids wore alligators on their shirts.

It was an essential indicator of class status. You simply had to have the little Izod Lacoste symbol. No other animal would do. Every kid knew they needed at least one “alligator shirt” to even be on the fringes of fashion acceptance. I remember kids saving their allowances just to have that one, precious shirt. And scoffing at anyone who wore a fake. Really.

The ’80s were all about wealth and status. What you had, what you owned, where you lived—it all defined pecking order in the Teendom. There was even a popular movie, Wall Street, where the main character’s key line was “Greed is good.”

It was so accepted back then, but I think many teens today would be horrified at how much emphasis society once placed on the accumulation of “stuff.” While there will always be some level of status related to wealth, today’s teens see things much differently than we once did.

For them, it’s all about experiences. Experiences they can talk about and share on their social networks.

Marketers know this. Archrival, based in Lincoln, is a leader in youth marketing. Their clients include Red Bull®, Zappos®, and Adidas®. When they build campaigns geared toward teens and young adults, they know that, to be successful, they need to create an opportunity for an experience—hopefully interactive, fun, and visual. And most importantly? Something the participant can share online.

This generation grew up with the entire world at their fingertips. In just a few clicks, they see what all of their friends are doing, but they also learn about the needs in their communities. They can download an app that lets them donate $5 to help hungry children in another part of the world. You will not find a more hard-working group of volunteers than a group of young adults passionate about a cause. Many are introduced to volunteer work through community service requirements, where they can develop a lifelong interest in philanthropy—in time, talent, and finances.

Many young people want to do things that make a difference, especially in helping others. They want to be part of the solution. They want to share pictures and talk about it on their social networks. And, quite frankly, it benefits their online identity, which is extremely important to this group—especially those aware that college recruiters and employers will be looking at their profiles.

It’s easy for parents to forget how committed their children can be. But it can change how we connect with our teens. My own teen expert, my 15-year-old son, agrees. “People want to have interesting stuff to share online,” he says. “That’s what they want to spend their money on, too.” Yeah, it’s nice to have the branded shirt, but it’s also okay to shop at the thrift store if it means more money to spend toward a great trip or even just a fun night out with friends.

Good parenting information to have tucked away if you are trying to “market” something to your teen. Sell them on the experience and the great photos they can share on their Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit accounts. And hey, maybe they’ll let you come along, too.

Project Everlast

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first time Akeeme Halliburton was placed in foster care, he was in middle school. His infant brother had been born with drugs in his system, so he and his siblings were removed from their mother’s care and taken into protective custody until alternate care was found. He and his younger brother jumped between foster homes for a few years before they were allowed to return home. But when Halliburton was attending Central High School, his mom became physically abusive, so he called Child Protective Services, who placed him and his siblings back into the system.

“There were good memories and also some bad,” Halliburton, now 20, says of his years in foster care. “When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.”

Halliburton was placed with a foster mom the first time, though their relationship was often strained. “I volunteered at Creighton [Hospital] a lot and always got home pretty late, so she called the cops on me.”

The second time was with a foster dad, who let him volunteer and have more freedom, but Halliburton only received one meal a day, never had proper clothing for winter, and spent a lot of his time alone.

Fortunately, the last foster home he was in was with a woman who provided quality care. “She understood and listened,” he says. “I was a lot more obedient, too, because of the good environment. She didn’t just want me there for money; she cared about me.” But, eventually, Halliburton grew old enough that he was no longer able to remain in foster care.

“When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.” – Akeeme Halliburton, former foster child

While there is always concern for children within the foster care system, there has been a surprising lack of concern in what happens to the youth who age out of foster care when they turn 19. It’s a frightening thought for many former foster care youth, who no longer have a home, steady income, emotional support, medical care, transportation, or education. Worse, the statistics are against them. One in five young people who age out of foster care will be homeless before age 21.

Fortunately, Halliburton heard about Project Everlast, a grassroots effort that promotes community resources to improve a youth’s opportunities and networks for housing, transportation, and health care during the transition to adulthood.

Project Everlast formed in 2007, when the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation met with a steering committee of Omaha youth, the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services, the Sherwood Foundation, and the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation. Together, the youth and the representatives of the organizations developed an innovative plan to help aged-out foster care youth with resources for housing, transportation, health care, education, employment, personal and community engagement, and daily living.

Now, with youth-driven councils all across Nebraska—in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Geneva, and Kearney—Project Everlast is able to provide a source of peer-to-peer support and mentoring to members, as well as allow foster care youth to have a voice in advocating for changes in agencies and systems, locally and statewide. The councils are open to any youth or young adult with foster care experience between the ages of 14-24 and are supported by a Youth Advisor, who provides training and support.

Project Everlast also has several community partners in Omaha that work with them to create a network of support for youth in transition, including Family Housing Advisory Services, Child Saving Institute, Central Plains Center for Services, Omaha Home for Boys, Lutheran Family Services, Heartland Family Service, and Youth Emergency Services.

“Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.” – Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast

“My foster mom told me about [Project Everlast],” Halliburton says. “I didn’t know what it was, but I had seen some fliers outside of my school. We went to a group one day, and after that, I just started going more often and getting more involved. They gave me all kinds of numbers to call for help and resources on how to age out of foster care. If I hadn’t found them, I wouldn’t have aged out with as many benefits.”

“Our work is guided by young people in foster care and alumni of foster care,” says Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast.

Higgs, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, had some past experience in launching new initiatives for domestic violence, homelessness, and HIV prevention. When she heard about Project Everlast, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it and add child welfare into her career expertise. “I was instantly drawn to its philosophy and was really energized by the amazing group of young people who were involved,” she adds.

Although she provides oversight and direction to the Project Everlast initiative of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation, Higgs’ primary responsibility is to convene with community members, nonprofit agencies, the government, and young people to address barriers faced by youth in transition from foster care to adulthood.

“While there is still work to be done, we are well on our way to creating a culture that seeks out and honors the inputs of [those with foster care familiarity] in administering services for youth in foster care and alumni…People who have experienced foster care have important insight to share as we write child welfare policy and create new programs.”

Other organizations focused on foster care often talk about transitioning foster care youth to adulthood through achievements of independence, but Higgs thinks that’s inaccurate. “Hardly anyone lives independently,” she states. “Most people have a network of trusted friends and family that they depend on for advice from time to time or even just for a social outlet. Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age,” says Mary Jo Pankoke, president of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Pankoke, who holds an undergraduate degree in education and a graduate degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been with the foundation from the beginning of its creation in the 1990s. “We bring public and private sectors together throughout the state to prevent problems that threaten the well-being of our children. It’s a wonderful mission that motivates me every day.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age.” – Mary Jo Pankoke, president of Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Having seen the results of Project Everlast’s work, Pankoke knows the initiative is going in the right direction. “In just two years, measuring success in Omaha, more youth received a high school diploma or GED and went on for more training…the number of youth with a paying job [went] from 55 percent before Project Everlast to 68 percent…[and] an increase in youth having full-time, stable employment [went] from 26 percent to 53 percent.”

Higgs and Pankoke both believe that it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that all youth have a fair shot at becoming successful adults.

“I always encourage people to think about how they support their own children as they prepare for adulthood—youth in transition from foster care need exactly the same things,” says Higgs.

“We all win if youth can receive a high school diploma, prepare for meaningful work, find emotional support and connection when they need it, and have a safety net when money or housing becomes an issue,” says Pankoke.

As for Halliburton, his time in foster care and with Project Everlast has left quite the impression. He’s currently looking at colleges where he could study sociology and social work. “[Project Everlast] has been phenomenal,” he says. “Everything they’re doing is for the good of foster care…Any kids aging out of foster care should really think about coming in and getting involved because it’s a great asset.”

For more information, visit projecteverlastomaha.org.

Believe the Omahype

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha resident Will Simons has worn many hats. As the managing editor of the now defunct Omaha City Weekly, he flexed his journalistic prowess while balancing a music career in the local band Thunder Power and jumpstarting his own business venture, Omahype. The curated online events calendar aims to provide locals with all of their entertainment needs. It solves the problem of having to sift through several different websites and papers just to find out what’s going on, plus it’s optimized for mobile operating systems. Simons had a little help coming up with the concept.

“I can’t say it was my idea initially. It was definitely a team effort. I used to interview local musicians at a previous job. One of those interviews was with Laura Burhenn, who, at the time, was a recent Omaha transplant from D.C. She was about to release the debut album for her group, The Mynabirds,” Simons explains. “She mentioned that she was in the early stages putting together an online youth culture-oriented events calendar and blog for the Omaha area and asked if I’d liked to help out. Of course, I said yes. With a background in arts and entertainment journalism, I knew Omaha sorely needed a one-stop website that listed all the best events in town for a younger, more culture-savvy audience. What sealed the deal was when Laura told me that two of the most talented web designers in town, Dave Nelson and Cody Peterson [of Secret Penguin], were already on board to help build it.”

Getting it off the ground hasn’t exactly been simple. To run Omahype successfully, obtaining multiple advertisers is key for Simons and the rest of the team. People are slowing coming around, but with all four founders having time-consuming day jobs (and rock careers), it’s difficult to juggle it all. However, Simons is working on a solution.

“The biggest challenge is generating enough money from advertising to justify someone working for Omahype full-time. I am transitioning into a part-time situation at my job so I can direct most of my energy toward Omahype,” he says.

Will Simons

Will Simons

“Aside from advertising, we’re seeking sponsorships from companies with employees and customers in sync with the readers of Omahype. We also plan on throwing more events. Our goal at Omahype is to support, nurture, and expand the cultural landscape of the city.”

Peterson is currently working on Omahype’s redesign and once that’s done, Simons assures visiting Omahype will be a “beautiful and intuitive experience.” In addition, browsers will discover the most relevant listings for concerts, art galleries, comedy shows, and independent films. Also, local restaurant reviews and concert photographs are popping up more regularly. Simons is optimistic.

“With the new redesign, we hope to realize our goal of having an online calendar that is the one go-to source for all of the Omaha area’s best events and major cultural happenings,” he concludes. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to expand to [other] cities at some point. Oh, and an office space would be nice, too [laughs].”

In the meantime, Simons and crew have executed a handful of fundraising events to help generate funds. They are planning on throwing more music events to keep up the momentum. Most recently, Omahype sponsored its third annual Rock-n-Shop event at The Slowdown on December 14. It featured a slew of prominent Omaha bands such as All Young Girls Are Machine Guns, Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship, Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds and, of course, Thunder Power. Several local vendors were also on hand to showcase their goods. If Simons keeps this up, Omahype could very well be the go-to calendar for all of Omaha’s “cool kids.”