Seven calves started a 70-year labor of love.
In 1948, seven calves were donated to the Omaha Home for Boys, and the organization used those calves to start Valley View 4-H Club. Two years later, cattleman and OHB supporter Bob Cooper presented Omaha Home for Boys with a 72-acre stock farm three miles north of the main campus.
The Valley View 4-H Club on Cooper Memorial Farm is a popular part of Omaha Home for Boys, and for 36 years, the driving force behind the club has been one leader—63-year-old Mike Pallas. Pallas began working at the farm in 1983 after working as a manager on larger farms.
“When I got hired, I said ‘I’m not a teacher.’” Pallas recalls. “The guy who hired me said, ‘you’ll do just fine.’ “
He may not have known how to teach, but he was involved in 4-H as a youth. Many kids join 4-H at age 9 or 10 and remain involved throughout high school. The students Pallas teaches are teenagers when they start with the organization.
Their students also come from challenging life situations. According to Rae Ann Knoell, communications coordinator for Omaha Home for Boys, the young men in the residential care program (the program that includes 4-H) are there by court order. Some of the common reasons for this are truancy, or any sort of trouble with the law. Many have unstable living environments and a lack of positive role models. Many have never participated in an extracurricular activity.
“I’d say 95 percent of these kids have never been shown much of anything,” Pallas says. “They don’t know how to use a broom. That [upright] broom over there—a lot of them pick that up and try to use it like a push broom.”
The students learn to sweep the floor, and also learn the importance of keeping the floor clean.
“His barn is the cleanest barn I’ve ever been in,” says Rachel Wright, extension assistant at Douglas-Sarpy County Extension.
It is important to Pallas to keep the floor clean because of visitors to the farm, but more important to him because of the life skills. He has shown hundreds of students how to sweep the floor, feed cattle, and respect other beings.
“We are the counselors,” Pallas says. “The animals are the teachers. If you don’t act the way they want, they will let you know.”
Kelly Armbrust is one former student who touts Pallas’ abilities to work with children. Armbrust stayed at Omaha Home for Boys from 1982 to 1987.
“This was a chance for me to meet new friends—that was more what I was interested in,” Armbrust says. “I’d never been to a fair, I’d never dealt with cattle before. I showed a Brama steer, [and] he was a big, ugly calf. I didn’t know any better, but I enjoyed it.”
Like most of the kids, Armbrust came from a tough situation, but said Pallas’ work ethic has helped make him the man he is today.
“I always saw him working like a dog,” Armbrust says. “That made me keep working.”
Armbrust started working at the farm in 1987, and in 1989, became Pallas’ assistant when Pallas asked Armbrust to work for him.
Through Pallas and Armbrust, the students then learn about caring for the animals, and all the work that goes into it.
“He has a fun personality, but when it’s time to work he has those boys work,” says Wright. “[Pallas and Armbrust] have kind of helped everyone mesh together. Mike puts a lot of his own volunteer time and sweat equity because he wants 4-H to be successful for all kids.”
“Don’t put ‘I’ and ‘can’t’ together around me,” Pallas says. “Because you’ve just defeated yourself. You can tell me ‘my cow won’t do this today,’ because that happens. They can be stubborn. But you can do it.”
The students take care of calves and lambs for about four months. They learn what a calf or lamb should weigh, and how much the animal should eat to get to that weight. The students learn about the loin-eye area, an estimate of carcass muscle used to determine quality of the meat. They learn how long a cow carries a calf in the womb. And Pallas knows how to relate the material.
“How old do you have to be to drive?” Pallas asks. “Sixteen. There’s your [ideal] loin-eye area. How long is a cow in gestation? Well, how long is a human pregnant? Nine months. Same for a cow.”
The positive influence of working with calves and lambs leads to other positive changes.
“One of the ways the home and 4-H helps is that it creates stability and security for them,” says Knoell. “So many of these kids have spent their lives wondering where’s my next meal coming from? How am I going to get to school? Once they are in a secure environment where people care about them and they have positive mentors, they start to thrive.”
The students may not enjoy having Pallas tell them to clean up after cows, but he often gains their respect.
“Mike was my father figure,” Armbrust says. “Last Father’s Day, I told him, ‘you know, you tell everyone you had all girls, but you do have one boy.’ “
After four months of caring for the animals, the students have learned to trust them, and also themselves.
“Probably my favorite part of this is watching how the kids first interact with the animals to how they act later on,” Pallas says. “They come in holding their noses, but come fair time, the kids are laying in the stalls with the animals.”
At the end, the students show the animals at the Sarpy County Fair alongside youth who have been in 4-H for years longer than them. It is a source of quiet pride for Pallas to see the kids walk away with ribbons, and a source of happiness for the jovial man to see other farmers and 4-H leaders at the fair, all of whom Pallas calls his friends.
“Fair is the culmination,” Pallas says. “I tell them I wish we could get to the fun part first, but you’ve got to put in the work.”
Pallas may only be around for another couple of years before retiring, but he knows he can still impact a lot of students.
“I know there’s kids that get out and think, ‘gosh I’m glad to be away from that old grump,’” Pallas reflects. “But they walk away from here with a lot of life skills.”
Visit omahahomeforboys.org/valley-view-4-h-club for more information.
This article was printed in the 60+ section of the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.