Steve Hogan II could have pitched the golf ball, but instead clutched his 6-iron for an attempt back on the fairway at the Riverside Golf Club. He glanced at the small narrow window through the dense trees. Impossible shot. Sweat rolled down the 9-year-old boy’s back from the blazing summer heat and mounting pressure on the Pepsi Junior Golf Tour’s stop in Grand Island, Nebraska. He relaxed his tense grip and swung. The ball smacked a tree, ricocheting right back at him. Disgusted with himself, Steve threw his club. As soon as the rage left his body, Steve met his father’s disappointed brown eyes. Steve Hogan Sr. shook his head and walked briskly down the green until his orange shirt and khaki pants faded in the distance.
Steve’s shoulders sank.
“Until you can handle dealing with adversity without freaking out, you can’t play in any more tournaments,” his father said on the car ride home.
Steve later wrote him a letter, apologizing because the last thing he wanted to do was to let down his hero, coach, and father. It taught Steve a lesson and not just about the game of golf. In life, when you hit a ball into the bunker, throwing a pity party just isn’t worth the effort.
Steve would spend countless hours after that day perfecting his left-leaning drive until it coasted down the middle. His father was a mentor to not just his son, but to countless other children. Hogan Sr.—a semi-pro tennis player before discovering golf—worked for the City of Omaha cutting grass and mowing lawns.
When Miller Park needed a manager, Hogan Sr. took charge. He found himself playing on the course at all hours, falling hard for the game. He eventually became the head golf pro at Miller Park in 1989. Hogan Sr. became the first and only African-American representing Nebraska (as a certified teaching pro) in the Professional Golfers’ Association of America in 1997.
In 1990, when three children kept sneaking on the course to steal balls and ride bikes across the rolling hills at Miller Park, Hogan Sr. didn’t call the cops. Instead, the golf pro told them to come back and he would teach them how to play. He started a nonprofit foundation, fittingly named Hogan’s Junior Golf Heroes, to expose the neighborhood kids to a game most knew nothing about. It grew to be the largest junior golf program in the country.
In 1997, Hogan’s Junior Golf Heroes became part of The First Tee, an international youth development organization that teaches character-building values through golf. Because of Hogan’s work ethic and passion, U.S. Kids Golf named him one of the top-50 golf teachers in America in 2004. In addition, he won the 2003 PGA National Junior Leader award.
Steve recalls how Hogan Sr. always said he wanted to create “not the best golfers, but the best citizens.”
Tony Driscoll is another beneficiary of mentorship from Hogan Sr. As a chubby 11-year-old, Driscoll used to hop over the fence by the second hole with his clubs to golf at Miller Park. After Steve told his father what was happening, Hogan Sr. coached Driscoll rather than turning him away. Driscoll played seven days a week at the nine-hole par-3 course until college.
“[Hogan Sr.] was the hammer and nail that made me realize what I am going to do with the rest of my life,” says Driscoll, who is now a PGA pro and director at Bent Tree Golf Club in Council Bluffs.
Steve played golf alongside Driscoll throughout high school at Central, competing against many fellow participants in Hogan’s Junior Golf Heroes. Steve continued to golf at the collegiate Division I level, but politics and law fascinated him more.
His road to the bar, however, was not a straight shot down the fairway. Steve, a member of the Creighton College Democrats, jumped at the chance to work on the campaign of a first-term Illinois senator running for president of the United States. Steve took a shot in the dark and moved to Minnesota to become a field organizer for Barack Obama. He knocked on doors, hosted events, and convinced people to vote.
“It was an honor and a privilege to meet them [Barack and Michelle Obama]…to work on a dream campaign with a dream candidate with someone who looked like me,” Steve says. “It changed my life.”
Six days after Steve returned to Nebraska—following Obama’s election to the White House—his father passed away at age 55 from colon cancer. Miller Park was renamed the Steve Hogan Golf Course in his honor in 2009. Hogan Sr. impressed upon his son the importance of being considerate and compassionate. Steve knew from his father’s legacy that one person could make a difference, and he sought to put these lessons into practice for the common good.
Steve Hogan II at the Steve Hogan Golf Course, named in his father’s honor.
Steve left Omaha again to work on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Minneapolis’ mayor, R.T. Rybak, and the transition team of Gov. Mark Dayton who won the election. Soon, Steve realized if he didn’t finish law school, he’d never do it. So, he returned to Creighton before another unexpected detour. He had an opportunity to intern at the White House in 2014. Creighton allowed him to enroll in the Government Organization and Leadership program so he could continue his studies with a dual major.
“Politics is such an awesome catalyst for change,” Steve says. At a young age, he hoped to be either a professional golfer or a senator. Steve put golf aside because he wanted to make an impact on a larger scale. Although Steve hasn’t made his dreams a reality, he looks every bit a future young congressman, dressed in a subtle gray and blue suit.
“Stevie always knows the score of the game in life,” Driscoll says. “He’s a gifted genius. We used to joke he would be president someday or the mayor of Omaha.”
Part of him wanted to stay in D.C., but he felt compelled to finish his degree. He graduated cum laude from the Creighton University School of Law in 2016 and passed the bar. Steve, now 32, focuses on litigation at the Omaha law firm of Fraser Stryker.
A young Steve Hogan II and his father.
At the same time, Steve didn’t want to leave his father’s golfing legacy behind. Steve noticed many times his face was the only non-white one in the room. It was something Hogan Sr. knew all too well since he had to face the same issues on many all-white golf courses.
“It is about knowing your worth and no one is going to take that from you. It is about setting an example for race and culture,” Steve says. “I can do this and be better, and we as a people can do better. I want more black and brown kids to know they can do it.”
Steve was involved in his father’s program all throughout high school and college, volunteering his time on the green to help inner-city kids even while working on other charities. He says it would be impossible to measure the many ways golf has helped him professionally, an opportunity Steve wants to pass to more of today’s youth.
After Hogan Sr.’s death, hard times fell on Hogan’s Junior Golf Heroes—The First Tee of Omaha.
“He was a very unique individual, someone who could go in a room with potential donors and convince them of his dream while also being a PGA pro that could run and maintain a golf course,” Steve says of his father. “It’s tough finding one person that can fit all three roles.”
Steve was determined to keep his father’s program running. Almost 70 percent of the participating children don’t pay for the foundation’s nine-week summer golf program. Clubs, balls, and bags are all provided for those who would never be able to afford time on the green.
After a rotation of board members and executive directors, the nonprofit found its footing again. Steve is now vice-president of the board. Meanwhile, the program is once again thriving with Jeff Porter as its director and PGA pro.
Golf remains an important part of Steve’s life. He says lessons from the sport are sometimes simple, yet essential. Shake the competitor’s hand after a tough loss and look them in the eye. Face failure and be honest enough to admit a penalty. Or maybe there is a lesson in a biffed shot, something Steve knows all too well. For him, golf isn’t just a game.
Visit thefirstteeomaha.org for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
D.J. Sokol Arena was filled with a screaming crowd and a dedicated team on Saturday, January 26th.
The Creighton Bluejays (10-10) and the Providence Friars (13-8) took the court and turned the heat up on a cold, Nebraska afternoon this Saturday.
The arena was filled with Bluejay blue and the smell of popcorn and hot dogs filled the air.
The first few quarters started with the Jays in the lead, but Providence slowly crept their way up.
Jade Owens, point guard for Creighton, is playing her first season after two and a half years due to a hip injury. She may be a little slower, but she still played a good game, putting six points on the board for the Jays.
Owens had her game face on and didn’t give up once, even as Providence pulled ahead.
The support the teammates gave one another helped them out on the court, with a little help from their overall enthusiasm.
Although the final score was 77-63 with Providence taking the win, the Creighton women still had smiles on their faces, showing how proud they were of the hard work they’d put in.
When thinking about career opportunities, one situation comes up to me frequently—that is, do I quit a job I just accepted if my dream job comes along? Here is a common scenario:
An employee worked for a company for 10 years. Then, it restructured and the employee lost his/her job. That employee networked and found a good job. The firm on-boarded said employee, who started working there for three weeks. This employee likes the work and has begun to implement a big project that will take months to complete. The employee’s skills are needed to successfully complete the project, which is essential to their strategic plan. If the company gets this right they will be able to grow their business over the next three years.
Then, a potential boss at the new employee’s dream job calls with an opportunity at a smaller firm that is doing cutting-edge work. The employee likes the ability to use their skills to innovate with a hard-working, fun-loving team, and then turn ideas over to a group of creatives that will bring the best of them to the market. The company is the kind of firm that is written up in Fast Company. It will make products that allow people in developing cultures to live better lives. The pay is quite a bit less, but the employee can make it work.
Here is the ethical question. Should this employee stay at the job he/she just started? Or is it OK to quit for this dream job? The decision needs to be made quickly.
My answer to this person is: you and your dreams count. However; this person’s strong ethical lens allows this person to not only recognize self-interest, but also see past it.
Many people want to help make the world a better place and have fun to boot. They are willing to take less money for this. But these values conflict with promise-keeping and the harm created at a good job if an employee leaves after only a few weeks. Hiring and on-boarding a salaried employee is costly, and leaving a team short-handed-—putting their strategic project behind—is perhaps to the long-term detriment of the firm.
Ethically speaking, how long does a promise to hold a job last? One day? Three weeks? Should it be commensurate with the amount of time and energy put forth by the firm?
Anyone in the good job versus dream job situation has to come to grips with the values in conflict, keep the context in mind, and recognize that what they do affects themselves as well as others. Anyone with strong ethical decision-making skills recognizes that the solution might not be an either-or. Wisdom suggests that courageous conversations with all parties will likely result in a solution that honors one’s principles and mitigates harm all the way around.
This column was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.
Grief is incredibly complicated, says Gabriela Martinez.
Expressions of grief vary widely depending on the individual, family, and cultural context. Grief can be immediate or delayed. It may affect children and adults in different ways. And many things can trigger it, like the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a serious illness, a life-changing injury, or separation through life circumstances like immigration challenges or incarceration.
But there is one universal constant. “Nobody ever wants to become a part of this club,” says Martinez, the bilingual (Spanish/English) outreach and inclusion coordinator for Grief’s Journey, formerly Ted E. Bear Hollow. “Any of these losses can be such an isolating experience. We want to make sure no one has to go through their grief journey alone.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Creighton University, Martinez’s career has focused on equity and inclusion, an area of special interest for her, she says. Martinez herself is a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1990s.
“I was raised in a very social justice-oriented family. My dad worked a lot in New York with the [El Salvador] Consulate, so I was raised around a lot of politics. One of his big motivators was the death of Óscar Romero (an archbishop and outspoken social activist assassinated in 1980), who just became a saint under Pope Francis,” she says.
She spent her early years in New York City surrounded by other families from Central America, so when her father took a job opportunity that brought the family to Omaha in the early 2000s, Martinez experienced some culture shock.
“When I first came here, everyone would say, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican.’ But there are people who speak Spanish from other countries,” she says. “There are a lot of differences between Latino cultures.”
Martinez says human services agencies and nonprofits must find ways to increase awareness and reach individuals who need their specific programs and services, especially underserved and vulnerable populations. The challenge is compounded two-fold when individuals and families are overwhelmed in a time of crisis and language is a barrier to communication.
“The outreach and inclusion role is to make sure we are reducing barriers for all individuals in our community who are currently experiencing a loss, whether that be through immigration challenges, illness, or a death,” Martinez says. For instance, people often don’t realize that Grief’s Journey support programs are free, open to both youth and adults, and available with Spanish-speaking facilitators. “I’m outreaching to those individuals that don’t necessarily know we’re a resource for them.”
Martinez’s responsibilities at Grief’s Journey reflect an organizational commitment to expand its services to a broader span of the population, CEO Rebecca Turner says.
“Grief’s Journey employs outreach coordinators charged with developing relationships and solutions for people who encounter obstacles to accessing support,” she says. “The agency addresses language and cultural barriers through paid and volunteer interpreters; provides snacks or meals at all of its programs; produces programs at a variety of locations, including partner schools and agencies; and frequently provides travel vouchers for program participants.”
Staff and volunteers are also trained to recognize potential need for other services beyond Grief’s Journey’s grief support programs (from individual or family counseling to food pantry access), and they collaborate with other providers to help guide families to the resources they need.
“A lot of it is referrals to, and interacting with, different agencies,” Martinez explains. “A death may just be one level of what this family is going through; they may need help putting food on the table or need other services as well.
Grief support is important because it can have far-reaching effects beyond the initial loss, Turner says.
“Research indicates that unaddressed grief correlates to issues such as poor school performance, poor work attendance, and lingering emotional and behavioral concerns; whereas healthy coping leads to long-term successes for children, families, and communities,” she says. “We believe everyone has a right to excellent and compassionate grief support and that our community is stronger with it.”
“It’s about creating that community where we’re empathetic to these individuals and their journeys,” Martinez says.
Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click herefor the full list of featured models.
Tom Tomoser, 79
I’m a father of five, ranging in age from 3 to 61. The oldest four kids are all college grads and doing well. The oldest is an RN and has a bachelor’s degree; our second child has a CPA/MBA and is director of auditing at Creighton; our third child is a professor of economics and has a master’s degree from Sinclair University; and the fourth is GM of HVAC Co. and has a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Our baby is the light of our life, being super-cute, talented, and very intelligent.
I am an entrepreneur. I started in meat packing and built a $2.4-million-a-year business from a throwaway beef byproduct, and was the largest supplier of the raw material for Jewish Torah scrolls. Eighty percent of the Torahs at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem were made from leather materials I supplied. At one time I had 92 percent of that business.
My biggest challenge today is building another million-dollar business to provide for my 37-year-old wife and our 3-year-old daughter. My wife was an on-air radio personality in the Dominican Republic and is an excellent photographer and cinematographer. Lone Eagle Records is our independent record label. To get national attention, I’m working up a pitch in order to get on the TV show Shark Tank. Rosmery T. Videos is our video arm. “Ros” has a channel on YouTube and over 15,000 views. We also have a sales company, selling memberships in a large buying co-op.
I am proud of many events in my life, such as being able to continue living a full, productive life at age 79 and providing for my wife and daughter. As a high school dropout, I am proud of having built a $1 million business. I also placed fifth in “Amateur Night at The Apollo in NYC.” I have become a successful karaoke performer. The Omaha World-Herald printed a big spread on me in December 2010, and CMT ran my videos on-air in 1986.
I always wanted to be a “snappy dresser,” as we said in the 1950s. My mother had six brothers who all stood 5’2” to 5’6.” I stood 5” when I was 10, so I received many expensive hand-me-down dress shirts and ties from them. From age 10 on I was a snappy dresser, as I always wore a shirt, tie, and sweater to school. When I went into the Navy, I bought tailor-made dress blues.
I tell everyone who will listen that I am the happiest man on Earth. I turned my life around when I found God and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like the Jewish people keep kosher, which means fit, we of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints obey a health law called “The Word Of Wisdom.” Obeying the Word Of Wisdom has contributed to my excellent health, which allows me to work 60-70 hours a week and still have energy to enjoy angels. Most important to health is a positive, can-do attitude. I adopted the attitude of Bobby Layne, who played quarterback in the NFL. Layne once said, “I never really lost a game in my career, sometimes I just ran out of time.”
This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click herefor the full list of featured models.
Ann Dunn, 77
I grew up in Omaha and was a student at Creighton University when I met and married Mike. We recently celebrated our 55th anniversary. In the early 1980s, I returned to school at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with honors, and a specialty in business information systems. With this degree, I worked at Mutual of Omaha for 20 years in information technology.
The one great sorrow in our lives was the loss of our son, Timothy, in 1988 in an automobile accident. Our other three children have blessed us with 11 wonderful grandchildren. We love seeing them frequently and being a part of each of their lives.
Through the years, I have enjoyed many different pursuits including tennis, skiing, running (now walking), golf (which I took up at the age of 70 and have achieved a hole-in-one), gardening, exercising, cooking, entertaining family and friends, reading, playing cards, mahjong, and travel. I treasure long-term friendships and therefore monthly outings are planned with my high school classmates, work friends, and siblings.
My advice for a long life is to exercise daily, eat and drink wisely, and never stop learning.
We have been blessed with a great family, good health, and wonderful friends. Life is good.
Michael J Dunn, M.D., 79
I grew up in Lead, South Dakota, in the northern Black Hills. I came to Omaha in 1957 to attend Creighton University for pre-med studies and then attended the Creighton University School of Medicine. After graduation in 1964, I completed four years of internal medicine residency training and entered private practice in 1968. I became board-certified in internal medicine and, subsequently, became a fellow of the American College of Medicine and a member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. After retiring from private practice in 2004, I became a principal investigator at Quality Clinical Research, where I have worked part time for the past 12 years.
The greatest joys and loves in my life have been my wife, Ann, our four children, and 11 grandchildren. I have enjoyed skiing since the age of 10, upland bird hunting, salmon fishing in Alaska, scuba diving, running (I have completed one marathon), and now stretching exercises and walking. I have enjoyed refinishing old furniture, some stone masonry work, gardening, and swimming pool maintenance (I’m the cabana boy for our backyard pool). Through the years I’ve kept up with reading current medical literature, and I enjoy reading mystery novels as well.
I attribute my success and happiness to my wife, Ann. One must choose their lifelong partner very carefully. I did that for sure.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Injuries are a part of sports, but Creighton University point guard Jade Owens has weathered more than her fair share. After two years spent recapturing the health and athleticism she once took for granted, she’s returned to play for her senior season.
Owens earned a supporting role as a freshman before working her way into the starting rotation her sophomore year (2015-16). She averaged 7 points, 3.5 assists, and 1 steal per game and won admiration for her scrap and hustle. Things were panning out just as expected for the former all-state basketball player from the Chicago suburb of Fenwick.
Then, the summer before her junior campaign, just as she was coming into her own as a Division I player, she suffered the first in a series of major injuries requiring surgery. She was forced to sit out the 2016-17 season. Setbacks caused her to miss 2017-18 as well.
The promise of what might have been lingers. Her father, Ron Owens (who first taught her the game), says the persistent injuries have been “heartbreaking.”
After three separate six-month-long rehab sessions, she put the heartbreak and physical aches behind her to play in the Bluejays’ preseason exhibition (a closed scrimmage). She returned to the court for Creighton’s regular season home opener versus South Dakota on Nov. 7. The game was her first since March 2016.
“It’s been a road,” Owens says of her journey to recovery.
“Everyone always tells you, ‘You’re going to lose basketball one day,’ but you never think that’s going to happen. I lost it, and I’ve had to re-identify how I was on the team, how I fit in with everyone,” she says. “You don’t know how much basketball shapes your life until you lose it. All aspects of my life—different relationships, friendships, school—were affected by it. Just learning to adapt and to come back from things has been a huge life lesson for me.”
Coach Jim Flanery witnessed Owens fighting for 24 months to reclaim the sport that once defined her. “That’s a long time,” he says. Twice she got close to returning before being sidelined again.
“It’s like you get to a point where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it gets darker again,” Flanery says.
He describes Owens’ ability to stay hungry and strong enough to withstand “the frustration and disappointment” as a case study in perseverance.
“I just hope I can stay healthy—that’s No. 1—and contribute any way I can,” Owens says. “I know it’s not going to be the same as when I played before. I have to keep that realistic vision and take one day at a time.”
She’s learned to lean on her teammates over the years. “They’ve definitely been my rocks,” she says. “They’ve been there for me through it all—through the tears and the laughter. I don’t know if I could have come back without them.”
Her parents have been there, too. “They’ve been behind me the entire time,” she says. Her folks supported her when she considered quitting and when she decided to try coming back even after one failed attempt.
Her father isn’t surprised by Owens’ grit and determination in enduring the grueling physical therapy necessary to recover her mobility and strength.
“I take my hat off to her for sticking it out this long, but I’m not surprised she did the work,” he says. “She just puts her mind to something, and she makes it happen. She’s always been like that. She does whatever it takes to get whatever her goal is.”
He saw her overcome an ankle injury her senior year in high school that resulted in surgery and rehab. That was hard enough, but nothing compared to the last two years. Owens herself still can’t believe she’s on the court again dishing, dancing, and driving after not being able to do much of anything.
“It’s really amazing to me after everything I’ve been through,” she says. “It’s just crazy for me to even think about.”
Then there’s the way she has defied medical opinion.
“Some doctors told me, ‘We don’t know if you can [play basketball] anymore.’ I’ve been hearing that for a long time,” she says.
Her road to recovery began when she noticed pain in her upper thigh during a pickup game on the eve of her junior year. It was treated as a groin problem. Surgery in Omaha didn’t relieve the issue. Then she went home to be examined by a Chicago orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Benjamin Domb, who found the real problem—a right labrum tear. He repaired it. Following six months of recovery, she was no sooner cleared to suit up again when the labrum popped out and she suffered a fracture during her first practice back. Then, this past summer, she suffered a meniscus tear in her right knee that meant another procedure—her third surgery in less than two years—and another arduous recovery regimen.
Fellow CU senior Audrey Faber and junior Olivia Elger marvel at what their teammate has endured.
“I can’t even imagine the long months, days, hours she’s gone through,” Faber says. “Everyone’s excited to have her back. She knows the game, and we have a lot of trust in her.”
Elger says the resilience and mindset Owens has shown “should be a lesson to anyone” dealing with adversity.
That fortitude has not only impressed teammates and coaches, but also Owens’ twin sister, brother, and parents.
“She’s been an inspiration to the family,” her father says.
She is just glad to be back on the court; however, her experiences have done more than nurture athletic recovery. They have inspired a possible career interest. She is applying to medical school (at Creighton and other universities), and she hopes to study orthopedics. She’s even aiming for an internship with her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Domb.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and I know the lingo,” Owens says. “I think I have some insight into sports medicine and what it’s like dealing with injuries.”
According to a 2016 study done by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, women make up only 19 percent of the board members at S&P 500 companies, and 25 percent of executive or senior level positions at those same companies.
That same study found that 42 percent of women in Nebraska work in management, a better figure yet. And one method of increasing those numbers may be for women to mentor other women in the workplace.
In this abridged roundtable discussion, B2B talks about mentorship with four businesswomen from Omaha—Anne Branigan, senior vice president of Innovative Services at Greater Omaha Chamber; Melissa Farris, marketing manager at Boystown; Sharon Robino-West, community employment coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Omaha; and Dr. Maria Vazquez, vice president for Student Affairs at Metropolitan Community College.
B2B: As a female mentor, what do you bring young women that benefits them as younger women in the workplace?
Vasquez: I am just in awe of the young women I mentor. They are dynamic, further along than I was at that age.
Farris: I’m open to being OK to saying “I don’t know.” I want you to be able to collaborate. I want you to find the answer to better the team.
Robino-West: To be able to say I am weak in this area and I need your help.
Branigan: The younger women have been able to adapt to technology so well. The acceptance of that new technology, to me, is something else.
Farris: We have grown up with technology. There is an expectation that this is going to work.
B2B: What do you gain from being a mentor to young women?
Vasquez: I like to see them having the confidence to do things, and if they make a mistake they own up to it. I want young women to be their authentic selves. Accepting who they are and what they can contribute to the workplace.
Robino-West: Last year, there was a Girl Scout who has risen through the ranks, and I asked her what she wanted to do after college. She looked right at Fran [Marshall, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska] and said, “I want your job.” That was so empowering.
Branigan: I really enjoy learning from them. You think of mentoring, and you think it’s one way. But I always appreciate someone making me think, or learn something, or showing me a new way to do something.
Farris: I’ve been on the receiving end. I’m still close to one of my mentors from college [Dr. Eileen Wirth of Creighton University]. One thing that always stuck out to me was her availability. The fact that I maintain that relationship 12 years later is a success.
B2B: Can you give us an example of a great experience with mentoring?
Robino-West: I did a TEDx Talk last year, and I partly did it to challenge myself. I didn’t think I’d get picked. It was about healing by writing. I got done, and I got in the elevator, and there was someone right there, wanting to know if I could speak to a different group. Rita [Paskowitz, a TEDx Omaha coach] “get ready, you’ll be asked to speak on a regular basis.” so I could see him paying it forward and spoke out. I thought “Wow—you just never know what kind of an impact you will make.”
Vasquez: About 10 years ago, I was contacted by someone [Amanda Ponce] to speak in a Latina sorority. We stay in contact, and now she works at MCC. Her growth has been quite dynamic. We’ve always collaborated informally, but now we can do so formally as colleagues. That has been rewarding.
This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
From left: Dr. Maria Vasquez, Melissa Farris, Anne Branigan, Sharon Robino-West
There were so many dimensions to this situation. Emotions ran high. I put politics aside because I am angry at both parties that seem to put themselves before country.
Instead of politics, when I thought about what played out in the media, I focused on the question, “What are the ethical implications of the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies for women and men in the workplace?”
First, for some people, the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies were an in-your-face example of the double standard that exists. It appears that how she reacted was measured with a different ruler than how he reacted. Let me explain.
For Christine Ford to be credible she had to maintain a calm, measured, unemotional demeanor. If she cried as she testified, she would be seen as weak and unreliable. Yet Kavanaugh could be credible even when he raised his voice and interrupted others. When he showed emotion as he testified, he was perceived as passionate and strong in his convictions. This disparity in gender norms is striking and exists in the workplace. But it puts females at a disadvantage if males are allowed a wider range of acceptable behaviors.
For some people, the highest hope was that the process for making a decision about what she said versus what he said would be fair. Procedural justice should be served. The stakes, the reputations of individual people, are too high for anything less.
The American public had an expectation that the system would not only allow each person to be heard by unbiased investigators, but that exhaustive evidence would be sought, red herrings would be sorted out, and facts would be found. If it came down to she said/he said then clear-headed, fair-minded leaders would calmly and rationally make the best decision based on the exhaustive information gathered in a timely fashion, and then be accountable for that decision.
If we believe that the process is fair, we can live with an outcome with which we disagree.
Many believe procedural justice did not take place. Exhaustive evidence was not sought. Red herrings were not identified and put aside. Expectations were not met. If the senate judiciary system is not just, can we hope that corporate institutions will do better?
We must. We cannot let the distrust and anger felt from watching the senate judiciary process bleed into the workplace. The implications for women and men, working together, will be devastating.
This is a call to action. Our corporate systems must be fair. We must each be able to expect that when we step up to speak up, or when we defend ourselves against allegations, the process used to reach a decision is rigorous and unbiased.
If nothing else comes from this horrible mess, let’s at least have this one thing happen. Let’s re-examine our organizational processes and ensure that they are just, noble, and true.
This column was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kellie Hatcher, and Keri Hatcher
The wait was torture. Six months of back-and-forth, missing documents, interviews, and paperwork.
Finally, Ismail Ntakirutimana had a passport in his hands. Now all he needed was a student visa to the United States.
But on July 10, the day he was supposed to have an interview with staff at the U.S. Embassy, he was turned away. “You aren’t in the system,” they told him. His appointment had vanished.
“I felt like it was the end,” Ismail says. “When they told me that, I was really discouraged.”
With a heavy heart, he walked to the bus stop to catch a ride back to the apartment he shared with several other former street kids and orphans from the slums of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Regardless of the application’s outcome, Ismail’s academic record is already a miracle. His impoverished upbringing, however, remains commonplace for youths growing up in the aftermath of the country’s 1994 genocide.
His identity card says he’s 20 years old, but his actual age remains a mystery. Ismail’s father abandoned him and two younger siblings when Ismail was only 5 years old. His mother eventually gave Ismail and younger brother Isaac to a neighborhood orphanage, hoping to spare them from starvation.
If he received the student visa, Ismail would be able to continue his studies at Creighton University on a scholarship. “By the grace of God,” Ismail says he received conditional admission to half a dozen American universities. Of the possible schools, only Creighton was located in the Midwest, close to the adoptive family that had been sponsoring him for the past five years.
Without the visa, he wouldn’t be attending any university in the U.S. He prayed for God’s mercy. But in this imperfect world of men, Ismail knew the student visa was not guaranteed.
He heard rumors that the U.S. had become tight-fisted with foreign-student visas, and he was all too familiar with how his story attracted scornful looks from neighbors in the slums of Kigali’s Kimisagara district.
Omaha, Nebraska—more than 8,000 miles away—seemed impossibly exotic from the tropical highlands of Rwanda. Ismail could imagine how embassy staff might view his case: a street kid with dreams bigger than his means.
He had never seen snow or traveled on an airplane, let alone left the country. Nevertheless, ever since his primary school days, Ismail had prayed for the opportunity to study overseas. Even when he was starving on the streets of Kimisagara.
The realization of that dream felt so close, yet so far. “Maybe it was just a fantasy after all,” he thought to himself, discouraged.
The bus continued onward. Ismail returned his attention to prayer.
“And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.”
Ismail did not witness the Interahamwe militia shouting “Hutu Power!” as they rounded up his mother’s family for extermination. He did not see relatives butchered by neighbors, indoctrinated by a caste-like system of tribal identification that lingered from the days of Belgium’s colonial rule.
Blood stained the streets, and the air stunk of rotting human flesh.
The genocide in Rwanda lasted approximately 100 days, and the international community turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s economy came to a standstill amid the government-sponsored killing spree to purge the nation’s Tutsi minority population. By some accounts, nearly 1 million Tutsi died in the genocide—roughly 18 percent of the total population in the small, landlocked, eastern Central African country.
Ismail was not yet born when his homeland turned into hell on earth. But like so many young Rwandans, he would grow up under the crushing weight of trauma so heavy that his mother still struggles to get out of bed each April (the month when the 1994 genocide started).
“She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t eat, and she is always crying,” Ismail says of his mother’s recurring post-traumatic episodes.
Among those murdered in the genocide was her first husband. The Interahamwe—men and boys, civilians with machetes, rifles, grenades, and deep hatred for Tutsi—had a list of all the people with Tutsi identity. It was a death list. Ismail says the name of his mother’s first husband was at the top of the document.
From the side of the road, his mother saw her husband’s body piled in the back of a truck filled with corpses. “She only told us that she saw him,” Ismail says. “During the 1994 genocide, it was not easy to take someone who was dead to bury them or to have a funeral.” She saw his feet had been cut off, and other body parts were mutilated. Burns covered his body. She could assume his fate. “The bodies were put in trucks so they could throw them in the river,” Ismail says.
She could not mourn. She escaped on foot, fleeing with their three children (Ismail’s half-siblings, with whom he does not have a relationship), as she had just enough money to bribe her way into Zaire, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Horrific scenes repeated across the country. Elderly were slaughtered alongside adults and children. Infants were ripped from mothers’ arms and left for wild animals to devour. Men infected with HIV raped Tutsi women and girls. Hutu sympathizers and intertribal spouses met similar fates. Some were given the opportunity to pay for a swift death by gunfire rather than machete. But not all of the murderers would take payment, especially in the early days of the genocide.
“Weed out the cockroaches,” urged the newspapers and radio stations. “Get rid of the cockroaches!” jeered the Interahamwe, hunting their countrymen in public. Terrified Tutsi refugee families gathered in stadiums and churches for safety. Interahamwe attacked them in confinement. They tossed grenades into the stadiums and bulldozed the churches filled with innocent people, massacring the huddled masses.
The bloodshed made no sense. Hutu and Tutsi people speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. They have intermarried for generations. They were neighbors and classmates. There were stereotypes that supposedly differentiated the groups: Hutus had wider noses, Tutsis were taller; Hutus were the working class, Tutsis were the royalty complicit in the old colonial system. But the reality wasn’t so simple.
Today, Rwanda is a model society in many respects. The economy is booming. International investment is pouring in. Kigali streets are clean and orderly. Meanwhile, President Paul Kagame has remained in power since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (a militia consisting of exiled Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu) overturned the extremist Hutu government in 1994.
The nation’s future appears bright, and discussing Hutu or Tutsi tribal identity has become taboo. Tribal divisions once enshrined in identification cards—dating back to the colonial era—have been wiped clean from public discourse.
In the early ’90s, regional massacres of Tutsi provided a testing ground for ethnic cleansing techniques and international reaction prior to the 1994 genocide. Bugesera was one of those regions. Imana Kids sponsors children from Bugesera (including students at this school).
“You can’t say Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda at this time,” Ismail says. “At the moment, it is like it is illegal, because they want us to see ourselves as Rwandans in one shape. What we are taught is this: We are all Rwandans. No one has to belong to one of these [tribal] groups.”
Ismail only knows of his parent’s tribal affiliation from the few times his mother spoke about the dark days that preceded his birth.
After the genocide, she returned to Rwanda from Congo. She began living with another as man and wife in Kigali. “She was Tutsi, and my father was a Hutu,” Ismail says. “After meeting him, she thought he was going to change her life.”
But her hopes never came to fruition. “Instead her life became worse, and that increased her trauma,” Ismail says.
“Call me Ishmael.”
(Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1851)
In accordance with Rwandan custom, Ismail received his two names from his parents. One of his names, Ntakirutimana, means “nothing is greater than God” in Kinyarwanda. Traditionally, Rwandan families do not share surnames or pass them from parent to child. The names are meant to be unique.
His other given name translates from Arabic to “God will listen.” The choice indicates religious affiliation. His parents were Muslim, so Ismail received the Muslim spelling of “Ishmael.” In both Christian and Muslim accounts of Genesis, Ishmael is the firstborn son of Abraham and the ancestor of Muslim people. Ishmael is Abraham’s son by his wife’s servant in the Bible; the “wife’s servant” is Abraham’s second wife in the Quran.
Although the Constitution of Rwanda explicitly defines marriage as monogamous, Ismail says having multiple wives is not unusual among the minority Muslim population of the predominantly Roman-Catholic nation.
Ismail was the first son to his father’s third “wife.” They never officially married. Parents are supposed to list their offspring on their own identity cards, but Ismail’s father did not claim them.
With money from selling her previous husband’s home, Ismail’s father bought his third wife’s current mud hovel—located a 20-minute hike up a steep hillside on a treacherous path of broken cement and sandbags for stairs—overlooking the crowded Kimisagara slum that stretches across the valley. There was no running water. They had to haul jugs of potable water for cooking and cleaning. In the rainy season, the steep path became a torrential waterfall preventing access up or down.
Ismail remembers his father leaving the family’s hillside home in 2002, but he returned after a while. “The oldest one of my father’s wives really hated us and didn’t want us to stay with him,” Ismail says. “I think she could be the one to tell him that he doesn’t need to come home.”
His father left again in 2003 and never came back. That was the end of their family unit. Financial support disappeared with the father figure. Then came starvation. Meals were a luxury. Sugar cane was the only food in the house for a time, and there were days when they didn’t have that, either.
Paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles turned their backs to the plight of the third wife. “Our dad’s family rejected us,” Ismail says. “They didn’t want us. Since then, I have carried a big burden in my heart. I was worried about my mother and younger siblings. This made me want to work harder so I can bring a big change in their lives.”
He knew academic success would be his path to change. But his mother could not afford fees for the local primary schools. Fortunately, a school in the area waived tuition for Ismail and his siblings. Walking several kilometers there and back on an empty stomach was still difficult, though.
“Most of the time, I had to go to classes without taking any food,” Ismail says. “Going to school was somehow easier, but turning back was really hard. Sometimes I had to sit on the street and wait until I regained the energy so that I could move on.”
After classes or during holidays, Ismail and Isaac made extra money for food; they gathered scrap metal or crafted little metal toys from fence wires. Life on the streets could be dangerous. Police would capture street kids and put them in jail. Some of their friends carried razorblades to slash the officers in order to escape.
“When I was picking scrap metals, I had to communicate with my friends who were in the streets to give them what I had collected instead of going to the place,” Ismail says. “My friends on the streets were good at escaping the police. Then they would get the money and give me some.”
Adults in the neighborhood called him a “street kid” and “illegitimate.” The words stung his heart. Although Ismail slept at his mother’s home, he felt like one of the street kids. “I was on the streets most of the time, and many of my friends were street kids,” he says. “That’s why I felt rejected from society. I didn’t love the other kids from better families. I felt different, like the street kids were the only ones I could associate with.”
His mother converted to Christianity in 2008. Ismail and his siblings eventually followed her lead. Meanwhile, a makeshift orphanage sprang up on the hillside next to his mother’s home. The owner, Antoine, seized part of the family’s small plot of land for his orphanage. He also started offering Ismail and his family food. Without Antoine’s handouts, Ismail suspects they might have died.
When the time came to take the national high school entry exam, Ismail received one of the region’s top scores. It was news in the community, and the achievement brought him into the spotlight for ridicule. His academic future was in limbo without enough money to even pay for the daily bus fare to attend high school, never mind the tuition fees.
“Everyone knew that I passed the national exam,” Ismail says. “People were making fun of me, saying I was a street kid from a really poor family, that I passed the national exams at the highest grade but I’m not going to high school. There were some adults who were being mean, because they had seen how we were living.”
Then, Ismail says, Antoine would only give them more food if they lived at the orphanage. He would also cover Ismail’s expenses associated with attending one of Rwanda’s top high schools, St. Andre College. Ismail couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He moved from his mother’s mud home into Antoine’s next-door orphanage with Isaac. The small building housed anywhere from 60 to 100 kids (depending on the day) in roughly a dozen cramped, cage-like rooms.
He felt like an imposter. Ismail was a day-student at St. Andre because the boarding option was too expensive. When other students talked about their families, Ismail kept silent. He felt out of place at every turn, so he endured abuse from others without protest. Loneliness crept into his heart.
Imana Kids purchased land in Bugesera to build Hope Village (a trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village). All of the “original Imana Kids” joined the land-dedication ceremony on July 18. Among the group was the first of the former orphans to be married. His wife joined, too, with their baby on her back.
“At St. Andre, I had a classmate that made fun of my name saying I am the son of a slave woman and saying that I’m an illegitimate kid,” Ismail says, comparing the at-school insult to the hurtful words hurled by adults in Kimisagara. “He [the classmate] didn’t know where I was from, but calling me that made me uncomfortable. The school was attended by many rich students from rich families, and this made me feel even more isolated.” He didn’t protest. He didn’t want to make a scene.
In those days, life at the orphanage was better than his mother’s home. At least there was food. But there’s no such thing as free lunch, Ismail learned. Antoine had the children make mud bricks, gather water, care for his cow, dispose of manure, and do other labor-intensive chores. When they misbehaved, Antoine would beat them or lock them in the dark without meals.
Girls at the orphanage suffered worst of all, though Ismail says he did not learn of their trauma until the end of his time lodging there. Antoine had a prostitution ring on the side. He made some girls go home with men to perform sex acts.
There were times when Ismail considered running away from Rwanda to join one of the militias in the forests of Congo. Most of the time, though, he dreamed of enrolling at a foreign university, somewhere far from his Kimisagara slum and the troubles of daily life.
Ismail turned back to his school books, and he prayed.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda reminded the world of the country’s genocide. Nominated for an Academy Award, it tells the heroic story of the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines giving shelter to more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees in Kigali. The hotel manager responsible was Hutu (the son of a Tutsi woman) and married a Tutsi woman.
A few years after the film’s theatrical release, Kara and Ryan Higgins were watching a DVD rental of the movie at their home in the suburbs of Kansas City. The experience set in motion a series of life-changing events for the married couple.
“Initially, I was shocked that I didn’t know more about the genocide because I can remember seeing it on the news,” Kara says. “Later in the same week we watched the movie, the adoption agency we were in contact with told us about a new pilot program for adoption from Rwanda. We thought this must be a right fit, our kids must be in Rwanda.”
“At the time, I didn’t think of it as the turning point for our family, but it definitely was,” Ryan adds.
Adoption was an ongoing discussion for the Higginses since before they had married. By the time they watched Hotel Rwanda in 2009, they had two biological children—6-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Blake—but complications during both pregnancies meant they couldn’t have more biological kids.
Watching the movie, they realized a humanitarian crisis was looming over a new generation of Rwandan youth. The genocide had orphaned tens of thousands of children. Many were born to victims of rape during the ethnic cleansing. Some had watched the murder of their parents. Others—Hutu and Tutsi alike—were simply falling through the cracks of an overburdened child welfare system.
The Higginses added their names to the waiting list for adopting Rwandan orphans as part of the new pilot program. After months of waiting, nuns with the Sisters of Charity at the Home of Hope Orphanage paired the couple with Etienne and Ezekiel. The nuns estimated Etienne was close to 3 years old and Ezekiel was about 18 months old.
Kara and Ryan didn’t hesitate. They jumped at the opportunity to complete their dream family. Flying to Rwanda for the first time, they arrived and fell in love with the country. The boys’ adjustment to the foreign, white American family was difficult, Kara admits, but worth the struggle.
“They were No. 7 and No. 8 to be adopted out of Rwanda,” Kara says. “The government closed international adoptions in 2012, so it’s a pretty small community in the U.S. of Rwandan-American adopted kids.”
Just before adopting the boys, the Higginses relocated to Council Bluffs to be closer to Kara’s family in Omaha. Ryan was teaching engineering at Abraham Lincoln High School. Kara was a midwife and nurse practitioner at OneWorld Community Health Center in South Omaha.
In the year that Rwanda closed foreign adoptions, destiny came calling again.
Clockwise from left: Blake, Molly, Ryan, Kara, Etienne, and Ezekiel Higgins (the founding family of Imana Kids)
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”
Visiting Orphans, a faith-oriented nonprofit out of Tennessee, wanted to know if the Higginses would lead a summer 2013 trip to volunteer at an orphanage in Kigali. The organization had learned of the Higgins family through Kara’s blog, Room4More, which had attracted a large following in the adoption community.
Eager to give more to the country that had completed their family, Kara and Ryan answered, “Yes.” But Kara gave one condition: “We wanted to go to the place with the greatest need.” The Visiting Orphans coordinator knew of just the place, a difficult-to-access orphanage in the slums of Kimisagara in Kigali.
The Higginses’ daughter, Kara’s parents, an aunt from Omaha, friends of the family, and Kara’s midwife mentor (Manya Schmidt) joined Kara and Ryan’s first organized group to Rwanda.
They had plans for a grand vacation bible school week, but the number of children they found crowded into Antoine’s dilapidated orphanage overwhelmed their plans. Most of the kids weren’t even going to school. Ismail was one of the few children even interested in studying.
“That very first day, I knew that this is going to change the rest of our lives,” Kara says. She started collecting profiles of the kids with the help of a translator. They asked each child what they wanted to do when they grew up. Very few had answers. The struggle of living day-to-day fully occupied their minds.
One of the older boys was Ferdinand. With broad strong shoulders, Ferdinand was one of the bigger kids. He was an orphan of the 1994 genocide. As an infant, his sister tossed him in a river to save him from killers. Then she jumped after him. She saved him, and she took care of him for several years—until she died of HIV-related illness, a result of being raped.
When he was living on the streets, Ferdinand was one of those street kids carrying razor blades to escape police. He was one of those street kids tossed into jail. Eventually, he ended up under Antoine’s roof in Kimisagara.
Ananias (pictured in the center) joined the Hope Village dedication ceremony. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
The orphanage, high on the hillside, was packed with children. Sewage seeped into where the kids played, and many suffered from serious health problems. Overwhelmed by the dire circumstances of the orphanage’s living conditions, the Higgins family and their group of foreign volunteers didn’t notice anything amiss, at least not yet. Kara says they were naive.
“On the first day, we learned a phrase that means, ‘See you tomorrow.’” The kids didn’t believe us that we would come back a second day,” Ryan says. They had seen foreign aid groups before, but none returned for a second day. The kids were overjoyed when the muzungu (slang for “white people” in Kinyarwanda) actually came back to the mud-walled and mud-floored orphanage the following day.
Their final day was a tear-jerker. “We can’t come back tomorrow, but we will see you again,” the Americans told the kids. “That last day was gut-wrenching. I remember getting on the bus and just sobbing,” Ryan says. Kara had never seen him cry like that.
Discussions on how to help the kids began as soon as the volunteers returned to their hotel in Kigali, before they had even flown home. Back in the U.S., the Higginses and the rest of their team began researching how to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to the desperate children trapped in Antoine’s orphanage.
By July 2013, about a month after returning home, they had formalized a nonprofit called Imana Kids, with headquarters at the Higginses’ dining room table. The first part of the name, Imana, translates to “of God” in Kinyarwanda. Their mission: “Love one child, change the world,” with a focus on building sustainable person-to-person relationships.
The first trip under the new nonprofit came in September. Ryan and Kara flew back to hire an in-country director, open a foreign Rwandan bank account, and find boarding schools for all the children. Most schools, however, declined to take “street kids” because of the potential liability.
Before they could do anything more, Imana Kids needed a dependable translator. Kara and Ryan contacted the Rwandan husband-wife pastoring duo who had helped with translation during the previous Visiting Orphans trip. But they weren’t available on such short notice. Jane, the wife of Pastor Peter, suggested her brother—a born-again Christian named James Odongo. James would eventually become the team’s in-country director (also accountant, chaperone, father figure, mentor, disciplinarian, pastor, and friend to the kids).
James grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp. A Hutu-led revolution against Belgian colonialism overturned Rwanda’s monarchy and dispossessed the Tutsi ruling elite during the early 1960s. As persecution of Tutsis became a recurring threat in Rwanda, members of the minority group fled to neighboring countries.
Abandoned by his father, James led a life of vice and adventure before devoting his life to the gospel. He served in Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, pursued Hutu militias into Congo, and occupied high-ranking military positions with regional revolutionary armies. He even led a gang of robbers before finding redemption through Jesus Christ.
He learned to speak English from the Lord. James says he never studied it, but could one day make sense of the foreign tongue like the Book of Acts (where the Holy Spirit descended to earth in flames, granting Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak in foreign unfamiliar languages).
Ryan returned over Christmas. He and James got the kids from the Kimisagara orphanage ready with assorted school supplies and mattresses for boarding school rooms. During the visit, Ryan discovered that the secondary school had unexpectedly blocked the orphans from enrollment. So, they had to find a replacement school.
The orphanage’s academic all-star, Ismail, soon joined the rest of the older kids for a fresh start at the high school known as Lyceé de Kicukiro Apade. American sponsors began stepping up to cover associated fees and expenses. Ryan’s parents became Ismail’s sponsor. Kara and Ryan sponsored another boy named Ananias (who they later flew to Omaha for surgery to correct the uneven length of his legs).
Kara and Ryan began alternating their trips to Kigali. In January 2014, two weeks after Ryan’s trip to finalize new school logistics, Kara and another Imana Kids board member flew back to tie up loose ends.
They were worried about the younger kids trapped in the orphanage, not yet able to attend boarding school. But it was also on this trip when one of the older girls revealed a darker depravity of the Kimisagara orphanage. Antoine was forcing the older girls into prostitution.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
(1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
“She told us in passing, ‘Now that I’m at school, I don’t have to do anything for a meal,’” Kara says. James began to probe with questions. “What do you mean?” She explained, “Well, I used to have to work for Antoine.” “What do you mean by work?” James continued. “I used to have sex, and then I would be able to get deodorant and things like that.”
The career midwife has seen many abused women in clinics. But she had never heard anything like this. “She was just sharing the facts like she was talking about the weather,” Kara says of the candid teenage girl.
Kara began reaching out to local representatives of International Justice Mission and the Rwandan government. “The law in Rwanda is that you need physical evidence of sexual assault crimes, and that was difficult for the girls who were underage,” Kara says. Four of the girls were willing to wear hidden cameras.
But the Imana Kids leadership didn’t feel comfortable asking the girls to let themselves be abused. Before catching her flight home, James hired nannies to look after the younger kids. Kara gave stern instructions to the nannies and the older boys that they should protect the girls.
Meanwhile, Antoine was out recruiting new orphans for the spaces vacated by the children Imana Kids placed in boarding schools. The older orphans were safe in their boarding schools, and Kara only had to worry about them during school holidays or sick days when they were out of their school’s dorms.
Back in the U.S., Kara persistently contacted officials who could close the orphanage. “We were calling or emailing weekly, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” she says.
To the left of Kara and Ryan Higgins, James Odongo preaches at the future site of Imana Kids’ Hope Village.
The first Imana Kids group trip was part volunteering, part Mission: Impossible. In July 2014, Kara and Ryan led a dozen board members, sponsors, and participants from the prior Visiting Orphans trip that the Higginses had led.
“We had to tell that team what was going on in advance,” Kara says. “The environment was really tense. Antoine had put padlocks on the door, and he had a notification system where they rang a cowbell when cars arrived at the base of the hill. But Antoine still wanted us coming in because he wanted food for the kids, and thought he could get money from us. He didn’t want to lose the relationship with us.”
In between time spent at the Kimisagara orphanage with children, Kara was trying to meet with government officials and aid groups.
One night early in the visit, several Imana Kids board members organized a secret rescue mission to meet four older girls at a Kimisagara gas station. The girls were in beautician trade school and didn’t have a dorm like the boarding school students. Vulnerable and scared, they wanted out. James arranged for a safe house with friends in another neighborhood.
The day before leaving Rwanda, Imana Kids rented a soccer field in the valley below the hillside to avoid the mounting tension and fear that pervaded the orphanage. Kids ran and frolicked away from Antoine’s surveillance.
Their group came back to say goodbyes the following day. When Antoine was out, Ferdinand surprised Kara by drawing the deadbolt on the door of the orphanage. He cornered her while other boys kept lookout. They needed privacy to discuss threats facing other girls. He also worried what would happen to everyone if the orphanage was successfully closed. Where would they go?
With their departing flight a few hours away, crying children followed the foreigners down the hillside to their rental bus. Just then, a fleet of expensive cars—shiny black BMWs and other luxury vehicles unusual for Kimisagara—pulled to the side of the road.
“It was like a movie,” Kara says. “The minister of the Office for Vulnerable Children, who I had been emailing every week since the previous winter—until I gave up in April—walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you firstname.lastname@example.org? I just got your emails.’”
The government official did not expect to find Imana Kids or Kara there. As the foreigners drove away from the coincidental encounter, authorities marched up the hill and closed the orphanage. It was a success and another crisis at the same time. Orphans scattered from Antoine’s building. Some ran away and were never found. Others were in school and found themselves without a home for the next school break.
James tracked down kids with help from the older orphans. Imana Kids bankrolled a transitional home they called the Sparrows’ Nest (a reference to Psalms 84:3). Kara and Ryan found themselves continuing to take turns on return visits every few months. James found himself the 24-7 custodian for up to 50 kids at once, depending on the time of year.
By 2017, Kara needed more time to focus on Imana Kids every week. She took a second job as a nurse-midwife in the Navy Reserve, a lieutenant position, which allowed extra hours for Imana Kids while working less at OneWorld in Omaha.
The reach of Imana Kids has grown steadily. By fall 2018, the nonprofit has led 10 groups to Rwanda. They have 173 sponsor kids, including orphans as well as underprivileged children throughout Kigali and nearby communities. Ages range from preschool up to older students in trade schools and universities in Rwanda.
The Higginses refer to all the children from Antoine’s orphanage as the “original Imana Kids,” and they have enjoyed watching them gain confidence and mature into adulthood. The first of the original Imana Kids got married in summer 2017; Ryan and Kara attended the ceremony in place of his parents.
Cows are a traditional status symbol in Rwanda, and an important feature of wedding ceremonies. Kara and Ryan hired a herdsman to bring the sounds of a herd to the wedding (the actual cows were too expensive, so they paid him to walk through the service carrying a tape recorder with mooing on loop—a cheaper alternative that the herdsman suggested for their budget).
The next major milestone for Imana Kids was to get one of the former street kids into an American university. “For the rest of the world, I think this would legitimize that what we are doing is working, that any kid can succeed,” Kara says. “They just need to be given a fair opportunity.”
“And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful…”
“From the very moment we met Ismail, we thought he could handle a university in America,” Kara says. During the wedding visit, she and Ryan started to lay out the steps that Ismail needed to follow. He had already finished high school and was volunteering for the country’s national service program as a census worker.
After taking the necessary English proficiency exams, Ismail began sending applications to several dozen American universities. Creighton was always his No. 1 choice. But he tried not to get his hopes up.
His first conditional acceptance to an American university came from Franklin Pierce University, a private school in New Hampshire. He was also accepted to a university in Rwanda, backup if he could not secure a U.S. student visa.
The Kimisagara district in Kigali, Rwanda
On the bus, after being unable to complete his first scheduled visa interview appointment at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Ismail thought it was all over. Luckily, he had a guardian angel keeping tabs with the embassy from halfway around the world.
“I got on the bus and headed back home, feeling very discouraged,” Ismail says. “Then Kara sent me a message telling me to go back: ‘They said that you can meet someone there.’ I told the driver to stop. I was halfway home, so I took the moto [motorcycle taxi] and went back to the embassy.”
It was the middle of the night in the middle of America, but Kara Higgins was following up with the Rwandan U.S. embassy over the phone. She was texting updates back to Ismail in real time, and he followed her instructions.
His motorcycle taxi driver sped through traffic, swerving around honking cars and trucks. He arrived back at the embassy, but was too late. Closing time. They told him to come back another day. “I was getting a little bit of hope,” Ismail admits with renewed optimism. He returned the next day, and the embassy gave him an interview (thanks to Kara’s persistent phone calls).
Unfortunately, he still had to wait another week to receive confirmation of whether or not the visa would be approved or rejected. With the uncertainty hanging over Ismail’s visa hopes, Kara and Ryan embarked on their largest-ever group trip to Rwanda. The 24-person team consisted of board members, familyrelatives, a married couple from Minnesota going to meet their sponsor daughter for the first time, pastors, college girls seeking missionary experience, and strangers from across the country who had only recently learned of Imana Kids on the internet.
Upon arriving in Kigali, the Imana Kids team hopped between boarding schools and preschools. A mountain of suitcases stuffed with crafts, sports equipment, and bible lessons traveled along with them. It was a weeklong, multi-stop vacation bible school for the younger kids (the sort the Higginses’ Visiting Orphans group had intended but were unable to accomplish). Older sponsor kids participated in workshops to build life skills. Every sponsor kid received a care package stuffed with goodies and a letter from their sponsor family.
Ismail’s day of reckoning at the embassy was scheduled for mid-week of the Imana Kids trip. If approved for a visa, Imana Kids would book his airfare to travel back to Omaha with the Higginses.
Though Ismail was anxious, Kara had no doubts. “Sure, he could be rejected,” Kara says. “But honestly, with every miracle that has happened for Imana Kids, I expected it. Because every idea and dream we planted, we have been able to watch unfold…although it hasn’t always been on the timeline we were hoping for.”
En route to the embassy with Kara and James, Ismail asked to stop by the old Kimisagara slum. He wanted to say goodbye to his mother. He might not see her again for four or five years, the length of his visa for undergraduate studies.
Ismail led the way, wearing a blue Creighton T-shirt. They trudged up the steep hillside between ramshackle mud structures. Her home sat just above the old orphanage. Antoine was still in the neighborhood, James says, but he remains under surveillance.
Entering inside the mud-walled home, Kara met Ismail’s mother for the first time. She thanked Kara and James, praising God, for everything they have done for her son. Tears poured down the face of Ismail’s mother.
The minutes slipped away, and suddenly it was almost time for Ismail’s embassy appointment. If he received the visa, he told his mother, he would be leaving for a place called Nebraska. He might not see her for several years. Then he was off, back down the hillside with Kara and James to discover his fate.
Their van speeds back to central Kigali for the appointment. A crowd of people hover outside the embassy’s entryway. When an officer announces names for appointments, Kara pushes Ismail to the start of the line.
An hour passes. Some of the people in line with Ismail begin exiting the embassy. Ismail was one of the first in, but he is one of the last to exit. Finally, he steps outside with a wide grin on his face. He’s holding a passport in his hand with the fresh visa page open. Kara screams and rushes to give him a big hug.
When they meet back with the rest of the Imana Kids team at a local boarding school, everyone swarms around Ismail offering congratulations.
Kara and Ryan’s checklist for Imana Kids is making progress: Ismail’s miracle. Check. The next miracle on the agenda? Hope Village (a purpose-built, trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village in Bugesera, an hour south of Kigali). Imana Kids has already purchased the piece of land, which is empty except for bushes and wildflowers. Construction is slated to begin in July 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.
They take the team to Bugesera to bless the land, joined by all the original Imana Kids from Antoine’s orphanage. Everyone forms a circle, holding hands. James offers a prayer. The Americans and former street kids sing, dance, and pray until the sun comes down. Just before sunset, a herdsman pushes a herd of cattle over the property past the revelries. Cows moo along with the singing voices.
“We’ve seen too many coincidences for them to be mere coincidence,” Ryan says. Ismail says the cows are a sign of good luck.
Ismail’s brothers and sisters from the orphanage join the following day at the Kigali airport to say farewell.
On an airplane for the first time, he buckles in for a long haul—more than 28 hours with layovers in Burundi, Ethiopia, Ireland, and Washington, D.C. Many passengers try to sleep the time away. Not Ismail. He’s too excited to sleep.
At Dulles International Airport, he tastes his first American hamburger and samples sushi for the first time.
His final connecting flight lands at Omaha Eppley Airfield in the afternoon of July 21. There is a crowd waiting to greet him with balloons.
Ismail walks into his new life like a dream—and prayer—come true.
The spring gala for Imana Kids—“Love One Child”—will feature a film screening and international speakers over three days, March 21-23. Visit imanakids.org for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.