January 20, 2020 by
Photography by provided

Featured Image: top row, Sarah Sjolie, Liz Codina, Ashlei Spivey; middle row, Rachel Fox, Dominique Morgan, Lacey Studnicka, Eric Crawford; bottom row, Kelsey Haswell, Andrew Aleman, and Jodi Benenson.

Since 1933, the Omaha Jaycees each year have honored the best of the city’s young professionals with the Ten Outstanding Young Omahans award.

The awardees typically are drawn from smaller firms in the city, but this year the winners come from some of the most “cornerstone” establishments in Omaha, said Nathan Jones, president of the Omaha Jaycees.

Also, there often is a clear divide between the awardees’ professional and philanthropic work, but this year that is generally not the case.

“This is one of our most interesting groups,” Jones said. “A lot of these people are boots on the ground [types], and they are actively working for the change they are seeking.”

The group includes two staffers of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the CEO of the Heart Ministry Center in North Omaha, and a public administration professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Jones said the purpose of the award is to recognize people who are trying to make a difference, who may not be as readily known as their older colleagues, and who are breathing new life into the city.

“We think young professionals are sometimes overlooked because they are early in their career and may not be doing the momentous things people later in their career and (who have) more resources may have,” he said.

The awardees are more diverse than prior classes, though diversity is not necessarily taken into account when selecting winners. Jones said he was thrilled by how distinctive the group is.

“We’re elated at the individuals who have been selected and I think our award shows that anyone, no matter what the background, can do great things,” he said.

Liz Codina, one of this year’s winners, echoed that sentiment. She said she hopes the diversity of this group will encourage people in Omaha to think about the makeup of their own organizations.

“It’s incredibly amazing to me to see such a diverse group of leaders that has been named in this year’s TOYO class, and I think our community thrives because of the…perspective of these leaders,”
she said.

Codina is a program officer at the Peter Kiewit Foundation. She does outside work with the Metro Young Latino Professionals Association and the South Omaha Business Association.

“Nebraska and parts of Omaha are rapidly changing, and I think there are still systems in place that prevent some of this work to happen. But I think when you look at the on-the-ground work that the communities of color are doing…there is an amazing opportunity to make some change,” she said.

Like Codina, Ashlei Spivey, 33, is a program officer at Peter Kiewit Foundation. Much of her work is focused on combating racism.

An Omaha native, Spivey went to college at Jackson State University in Mississippi—a historically black university—and earned an M.S. from University of Texas at Arlington. These and other experiences bring her a different perspective.

“I lead with my blackness and how that shows up for me is really important,” she said. “I was able to see things and gain a perspective that I never would have had I stayed here in Omaha.”

Lacey Studnicka, 38, senior director for community engagement and outreach at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, became passionate about helping refugees after living in India as a Rotary exchange student for a year after high school.

“When I returned, I really had a passion for working with people with diverse backgrounds and from all over the world. I sought out Lutheran Family Services because they are the largest refugee resettlement agency in Nebraska,” she said.

The community is very supportive of refugees, she added. “Omaha has a legacy of being a place of welcome and we have overwhelming support and engagement throughout Nebraska, and in
Omaha especially.”

Eric Crawford, 37, is the CEO of the Heart Ministry Center in North Omaha. He is the son of an Omaha police officer and an Omaha Public Schools principal, so the ethic of serving the public has always been part of his life. The ministry helps the impoverished, with the motto of “Dignity
for all.”

“If you are coming to the center to use our services you are probably not having the best day of your life,” he said. “We want to make sure you have a dignified, respectful experience.”

Unlike many of the awardees, Jodi Benenson, 37, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Public Administration, is not originally from Omaha, but is grateful the city has welcomed her.

Benenson started Women in Public Policy Week at UNO and speaks to high school students about voting as part of the Chuck Hagel Symposium in Public Service.

“Young people want to find issues that they are passionate about in their day jobs, but also want to make a living wage,” she said. “We are probably going to see young peoples’ day jobs not be so disconnected from other things in their lives.”


To purchase tickets to TOYO’s Feb. 4 banquet, go to: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/toyo-awards-banquet-tickets-83573493569.

This article was printed in the February/March 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.