Tag Archives: gala

Completely KIDS

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Imagine you’re a child. You spend eight hours at school every weekday, and you return home to an empty house every night. Sometimes, your only meal is the lunch provided at school. Your parents work day and night to provide for your family, but it’s never enough. Meanwhile, you have homework that you desperately need help with, but there’s no one around to help you. You want to talk about school, the friends you’ve made, or your latest art project, but you’re alone.

This is the life of many children in the low-income neighborhoods of the Omaha community. But it doesn’t have to be.

Completely KIDS is determined to make sure it isn’t. Enriching activities, help with homework, nutritious snacks, and people to talk to for guidance—these are all things the nonprofit organization offers to youth and families through after-school and family strengthening programs.

The organization was formerly Camp Fire USA Midlands Council, a nonprofit founded in 1920 as a club for girls and young women. In the 1970s and ’80s, the program admitted boys and young men, reaching out to the needs of the underserved through after-school activities in North and South Omaha. Now, Completely KIDS—which disaffiliated from the national Camp Fire organization in 2011 to keep its funds within the Omaha community—serves more than 2,000 youth from pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as their families.

Penny Parker, executive director of Completely KIDS, has devoted her professional career to serving children and families. Previously, she worked with American Red Cross, the Nebraska Department of Social Services, Child Saving Institute, and Douglas County Social Services.

“I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.” – Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator

“My prior employment focused on working with children who were already involved in the child welfare system, and I wanted to work at an agency where I could work with children to keep them out of the system,” she explains. That’s why she applied for the position with Completely KIDS, which she’s occupied for 22 years now.

Parker believes Omaha needs Completely KIDS because it offers out-of-school programming and family outreach services in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the community. “We provide opportunities for children and families that they would not otherwise experience, [as well as] programming to children who reside in homeless shelters. We [also] provide 385 weekend backpacks of food for children in our programs who may have little or no food to eat on the weekend.”

Making a difference in the lives of youth and families is what Parker thinks is the most important aspect of the organization’s work. If you ask her what her favorite memory of working with Completely KIDS is, she can list several: “The children who tell me that participating in one of our activities is the best day of their life; the youth who have graduated from our program and come to work for us; the children who had to beg for food before they got involved in our weekend food program; the teen who said that we saved her life…”

Lisset Hernandez, program coordinator at Field Club Elementary School for Completely KIDS, can certainly attest to the organization’s impact on the lives of youth, as she herself was helped by the program.

“It was long, long ago,” she says. “I was invited by one of my close friends in fifth grade. She told me about this program, and, of course, it was about a place to hang out other than home.”

Hernandez says Completely KIDS aided her more on a personal level than on a resource level. “Hispanic parents tend to be more at work to make ends meet than with their kids. I know Hispanic parents view this as giving children the necessities—food, clothing, and shelter. But it’s not enough. Youth need guidance,” she explains. “I think this is what [this program] was to me and many of the other youth.”

Today, Hernandez is a senior at the University of Phoenix, where she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in health administration. She’s also a mother to a 2-year-old son, Nazim. She believes her life has gone in a good direction because of the support she received from Completely Kids during her youth.

“Never in a million years did I think I would have ended up working with my community in this manner…I am very happy to be doing what changed my life growing up,” she says. “I think that’s why I feel responsible and passionate about working here, because I know the direct effects of doing this job.”

Even if she doesn’t work directly for Completely KIDS in the future, Hernandez plans to remain involved with the organization. “I would love to keep volunteering and donating because I know what their intentions are…I really would love to help them become nationally known and be able to serve more youth citywide.”

“I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer…I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess.” – Lynn Gray, volunteer

Lynn Gray, a special needs paraprofessional at Millard West High School in the Millard Public Schools district, began volunteering with Completely KIDS more than a decade ago after learning about their mission.

Back in 2001, Gray read an article in the Omaha World-Herald about Completely KIDS. “I thought I could stop in and see if I could volunteer,” he says. Shortly after, he began working with the nonprofit, helping kids with their homework and doing activities with them.

Although he and his wife, Cindy, don’t have children of their own, Gray loves working with kids and always has. As a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln years ago, he helped with a special needs swimming program through Lincoln Parks & Recreation.

These days, Gray volunteers playing chess with Completely KIDS youth. Gray learned how to play chess when he was 11, and it’s a passion he loves to share. “I read that they were playing chess in schools and how important it was for growing children, so I thought it would be neat to implement into the program.”

It’s not a formal chess club, of course. Gray says it’s just for fun. “Working together is a major benefit of chess. For some kids, they learn decision-making and problem-solving; others learn patience.” One of the things he enjoys the most is watching the older, more experienced chess players help the younger, newer kids just learning the game.

“I’m starting my 13th year volunteering, and boy, I tell you there’s something about seeing kids working together and seeing those lightbulbs go on when they’re playing chess…I’ve got so many memories,” Gray adds. “I’m just very thankful for this opportunity with Completely KIDS.”

Volunteers, as well as donations, are always needed to continue providing quality programs for youth and families in the community. Events, like the upcoming Big Red Tailgate, which will be held Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at Embassy Suites La Vista (12520 Westport Pkwy.), are major fundraisers for the organization. For more information about Completely KIDS, visit completelykids.org or call 402-397-5809.

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.

American Cancer Society

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Being “the official sponsor of birthdays” doesn’t mean the American Cancer Society shows up at parties to oversee the unwrapping of presents or the blowing out of candles on the cake. It’s a tougher sponsorship, one that requires copious amounts of fundraising, long-term research, and dedicated volunteers. Because they believe everyone deserves to have a full life without the looming threat of cancer.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century,” says Joy King, regional vice president of ACS in Omaha, who previously worked as a regional executive director in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “We want to change the stats from two out of three people surviving today in the U.S. to three out of three surviving. As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.”

The organization, which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, holds 47 Relay for Life events, two galas, and a breast cancer walk each year in Nebraska. Besides the events, ACS also supports several awareness campaigns and collaborative efforts, including Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March and the Great American Smoke Out each November.

“We are determined to make this cancer’s last century…As an organization, we have never been more ready to put the American Cancer Society out of business.” – Joy King, regional vice president

“We’ve played a role in nearly every cancer research breakthrough in recent history,” adds King. “Each year, we help cancer patients get the help they need when they need it. For example, last year alone, we assisted more than a million people who called us for help providing free services, like a place to stay while traveling for treatment, rides to treatments, emotional support, and so much more.”

King knows from years of working with ACS that silence and a sit-back-and-watch attitude don’t finish the fight against cancer—it’s action that accomplishes these breakthroughs.

Another person who understands the importance of action is cancer survivor Michelle Belsaas. She was 20 when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “I thought cancer was an elderly person’s disease,” she says. “It came out of nowhere. There’s no known cause, so no one really knows how I got it. I was just reaching down to start the shower one day, and my neck cramped up…I went to the doctor, and he was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lump.’”

Belsaas had two cancerous nodules in her neck, but the doctor told her not to worry. After all, thyroid cancer is one of the lesser evils with about a 96 percent survival rate. “They took my thyroid out the next day, and then they gave me radioactive iodine to kill off the thyroid tissue.”

Although Belsaas didn’t need chemotherapy or lose her hair during her treatment, her thyroid cancer reared its ugly head once more about 10 years later while she was getting a check-up. This time, the treatment made her very sick and required her to be quarantined to a room in her home for weeks. “They had me withhold from foods with iodine for six weeks over Thanksgiving, which was really tough. You don’t realize how much food has iodine in it until you can’t eat it.”

“For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” – Michelle Belsaas, cancer survivor

Today, Belsaas is 100 percent cancer-free. She still goes in for blood tests and ultrasounds every year to make sure her hormone therapy is regulated well—something that she will have to deal with for the rest of her life—but otherwise, everything is back to normal.

When she lived in Lincoln, Belsaas stumbled across Relay for Life. “I thought, ‘I’m a cancer survivor…let’s go!’” she says with a laugh. But when she did the survivor lap at her first Relay event, it suddenly dawned on her that what she had survived was a big deal. “I couldn’t emotionally handle it,” she says. “For once, I wasn’t alone. Knowing that there are people who go through the same thing and know how it feels to continually wait, it was like finding a family.” That’s when she decided ACS was the organization for her. She started getting more involved with ACS, volunteering her time and chairing events, like ACS’ newest fundraiser, Hope in the Heartland Gala.

This year’s Hope in the Heartland Gala takes place on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village and is themed “An Evening at the Races.” In its first year, the event raised over $201,000. This year, ACS hopes to raise at least $300,000 through auctions, honorary luminaries, and more.

Connie Sullivan, who is chairing the gala alongside husband Tim and co-chairs Addie and Robert Hollingsworth, hopes to make this event the premier gala in Omaha. She says she can’t think of another charity that affects more people—both those suffering and those who know someone suffering.

Sullivan herself can attest to the effect cancer can have, as she lost both her parents to lung cancer in just three years’ time when she was in her early 20s. “I hadn’t ever been involved with anyone personally with cancer,” she says. “I was devastated. It happened so quickly between diagnosis and death.” Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, she lost her aunt and her cousin to cancer as well.

“It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.” – Connie Sullivan, chair of Hope in the Heartland Gala

Following the overwhelming grief of losing loved ones to cancer, Sullivan got involved with ACS. She and Tim lived in Lincoln at the time, but they helped out with a jazz festival event for ACS. “We just called and said that we’d like to volunteer, and we started going to meetings. I love the cause. It’s hard to say no to a cause that you believe in…I lost four significant people in my life to cancer, so I can’t think of anything else that I’d have more passion for.”

Since moving to Omaha, Sullivan and her husband have only gotten more involved with ACS. “ACS does so many good things for people with cancer…Diagnosis is overwhelming. [ACS] is there to help.”

The American Cancer Society Omaha will host its annual Hope in the Heartland Gala on July 19 at Stinson Park at Aksarben Village. For more information, visit cancer.org or call 402-393-5800.

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.

Omaha Business Hall of Fame

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha Business Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1993 to honor the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s 100th anniversary. Since then, the chamber has recognized more than 100 men and women for their leadership in Omaha’s growth. Stories of the honorees inducted during the past 20 years are on display at The Durham Museum.

Five successful business leaders will join them at the museum after they are inducted on April 23 at the Holland Performing Arts Center: Susan Jacques, Mogens Bay, Marshall Faith, William “Willy” Theisen, and James Young.

Proceeds from the Omaha Business Hall of Fame gala support a permanent exhibit at The Durham Museum and provide funding for the Chamber’s Greater Omaha Young Professionals Summit.

Susan Jacques
President and CEO
Borsheims

A gem of an executive, Susan Jacques is one of five business leaders headed for the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. While studying at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, Calif., Susan Jacques met a classmate who would change the direction of her career.

Alan Friedman suggested she come work for his father’s store in Omaha to gain retail experience. His father, Ike Friedman, owned Borsheims at the time.

Sol “Coke” Friedman remembers that his late brother, Ike, had high regard for Jacques. “She probably knew more about gemstones than anybody in the store.”

Jacque’s passion for gems and jewelry began during her childhood in Rhodesia. She earned her graduate Gemology diploma in 1980 from the Gemological Institute of America. Jacques graduated with distinction from the Gemological Association of Great Britain and in 1982 was named “most outstanding student worldwide.”

Her knowledge, along with business savvy, propelled Jacques from a sales clerk and appraiser in 1982 to the store’s top position in 1994. Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway—Borsheims’ majority owner since 1989—named Jacques president and CEO.

Borsheims has become one of the nation’s largest independent jewelry stores, with 62,500 square feet of space and 100,000 pieces of inventory.

“I’ve watched her grow as an individual and as a business person with the company as it has grown,” says Coke, a retired businessman. “She is just a good person. That might be the highest compliment you can pay a person.”

Jacques is presently chairman of the Gemological Institute of America where she studied. She received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Jewelry Association and was inducted into the 1997 National Jeweler’s Retailer Hall of Fame. She serves on the Creighton University board of directors and is a trustee of the Business Ethics Alliance.

She and her husband, Gene Dunn, have three sons. The couple recently bought Gorat’s Steakhouse from the family that had owned the restaurant since 1944. Shareholders have gathered for dinner at Gorat’s during the Berkshire Hathaway meeting for years.

In a business that depends on trust and a handshake, Susan Jacques has found her niche at Borsheims.

“She is one of those people if you didn’t know her, you would want to,” says Coke. “Susan has the knack of treating everyone as if they are a friend, which in the retail business is very important.”

On April 23, Susan Jacques will join her former boss, the late Ike Friedman, and her current boss, Warren Buffett, in the Omaha Business Hall of Fame.

Mogens C. Bay
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Valmont Industries Inc.

20121218GJP_Valmont_016_01 copy

A career with Valmont has taken Mogens Bay to Hong Kong, Madrid, and to Omaha’s corporate headquarters. He has led Valmont through a significant period of growth over the past 20 years to become the world’s leader in engineered products for infrastructure and efficient irrigation equipment for agriculture. He heads an organization with 100 worldwide manufacturing locations and more than 10,000 employees committed to making products that make the world a better place to live.

Marshall Faith
Vice Chairman of the Board
The Scoular Company

Scoular_12092948-Edit copy

In 1967, Marshall Faith purchased a majority interest in The Scoular Company. Now with nearly 700 employees and 70 locations, Scoular serves customers in food, feed, and renewable fuel markets. Annual sales are more than $6 billion. In his 45th year with Scoular, Faith continues his philosophy of providing employees good jobs, good pay, and good opportunities. With a son and grandson in the business, Faith is counting on Scoular continuing at least another 120 years.

William (Willy) M. Theisen
President
Business Ventures LLC

Willy Thiesen

Many entrepreneurs come up with restaurant concepts. Making the idea work on a national level is how Willy Theisen stands out. He founded Godfather’s Pizza in 1973 and, by the time he sold the company 10 years later, Godfather’s was the country’s fastest-growing restaurant chain. The entrepreneur stayed “ahead of the curve” as owner of the Green Burrito chain in 1992 and Famous Dave’s in 2000. Theisen is now owner/founder of Pitch Coal Fire Pizzeria in Dundee.

James R. Young
Chairman
Union Pacific Corporation

James R. Young

Since joining Union Pacific in 1978, Young has steadily risen in the ranks to the top position. He chairs an internationally focused company that employs 45,000 people in 23 states and 8,000 communities. Young remembers when railroads had a shrinking workforce and concerns about the future. Today, Union Pacific is strong and integral to the U.S. economy. Young has led the evolvement of U.P.’s culture to a dedication to vision, commitment, teamwork, and respect.

Opera Omaha Guild

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1958, a volunteer organization called the Omaha Civic Opera Society took the stage, creating and fostering an opera-loving community in Omaha. After tremendous support, the organization became fully professional in 1970, making Opera Omaha the only professional opera company in Nebraska. As Opera Omaha has expanded its seasons of mainstage productions and increased musical events throughout the community, the company has found constant encouragement in the dedicated, fully volunteer-based Opera Omaha Guild, originally called Omaha Angels when it began in 1967.

The Guild stands behind Opera Omaha each year, raising funds to support its productions, creating outreach opportunities, and educating the community about opera through memberships and events.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role,” says Jillian Tuck, current president of the Opera Omaha Guild.

Tuck moved back to Omaha from Fort Worth, Texas, a few years ago and found that she wanted to support the arts in her former community. “I had been involved with a Fort Worth Opera volunteer group, so I decided to seek a similar opportunity here in Omaha.” Luckily for Tuck, the Opera Omaha Guild had just what she was looking for—a passion for opera and activities and social events that were accessible.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role.” – Jillian Tuck, president of Opera Omaha Guild

As president of the Guild, Tuck presides over the Guild meetings, appoints committee chairpersons, and serves as an ex-officio member of all Guild committees. “The Opera Omaha Guild is a working board with committee chairs and volunteers bringing the effort, organization, and energy behind all of the events. They are the reason for our success.”

Tuck loves opera and says that being in the Guild has allowed her to share that love with other people every day. Recently, she had the opportunity to talk about her passion at the Guild’s Cotillion graduation dinner. The Cotillion—French for “formal ball”—is one of the Guild’s fundraisers and provides the opportunity for Omaha sixth-graders to learn the art of formal dining, mature communication, and ballroom dancing through several classes and a final graduation dance.

Because the Cotillion supports Opera Omaha, Tuck knew she could reach out to a younger generation about opera. “Speaking to adults about opera can be challenging because they often have preconceived notions, [but] speaking to 300+ sixth-graders and their parents was something I found inspirational.” In her five-minute speech, Tuck felt she was able to open the door to an art that most of the children had never experienced. “I believe that opera truly is for everyone to enjoy throughout a lifetime, and creating young opera fans through the sharing of my own love for opera is something I will always cherish.”

Funnily enough, it was the Cotillion that got President-elect Lisa Hagstrom involved with the Guild. “I was in the first Cotillion class that Opera Omaha conducted in 1985,” she explains. “I had been looking for volunteer opportunities within the arts community and had attended a couple fundraising events for Opera Omaha. [Since then], I have been involved with the Guild as a board member for 10 or 11 years.”

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised [at Spirits of the Opera] goes back to Opera Omaha.” – Lisa Hagstrom, president-elect of Opera Omaha Guild

Hagstrom helps with several of the Guild’s events, including the Cotillion; the annual Opera Omaha Gala, which was held in February this year to celebrate the partnership of Opera Omaha and artist Jun Kaneko for the production The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s most famous operas; and the currently on-hiatus Burgers & Bordeaux chef competition event.

The Guild’s most notable event, however, is the award-winning Spirits of the Opera fundraiser, which replaced an event called Wine Seller. “Wine tastings became a very popular fundraising idea for many groups, so we thought a cocktail tasting would be something different,” explains Hagstrom. “The first year of [Spirits of the Opera], we matched cocktails with operas, and attendees tasted eight different cocktails. It was a fun event, but it was lacking ‘something,’ and we just didn’t know what that was.”

Fortunately, the president of the executive board for Opera Omaha at that time, Jim Winner, found exactly what that “something” was while he was eating at Dixie Quicks, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Council Bluffs. One of the well-known Dixie Quicks servers, Bruce “Buffy” Bufkin, suggested to Winner that the Guild include a drag show as entertainment at the event.

Today, Spirits of the Opera is a drag show set to opera with the performers singing popular arias and other opera selections of their choice. The event is held at local hot-spot The Max, which is known as the best gay dance club in Omaha. The Max donates its space for the event, and all of the performers donate their time and talents. “It is an amazing experience,” says Tuck. “It blends the classical arias of well-known operas with some of the region’s most talented female impersonators.” In addition to the drag show, the event has the themed cocktails, silent and live auction opportunities, a raffle, and food from local restaurants, including Dixie Quicks.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised goes back to Opera Omaha,” adds Hagstrom, who went out to Philadelphia last June to receive the Most Unique Fundraising Event award for Spirits of the Opera, presented by Opera Volunteers International.

As the Guild looks forward to this year’s Spirits of the Opera in May and further into 2013, Tuck says their goals remain the same. “[We just want] to support Opera Omaha and provide opportunities to educate the community about the importance and joy of opera.”

This year’s Spirits of the Opera will be held May 4 at The Max (1417 Jackson St.). For more information about the event or about the Opera Omaha Guild, visit operaomaha.org or call 402-346-7372.

JDRF

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Diabetes has long been thought of as a single disease only suffered by the overweight, the unhealthy, the elderly, or those with family members who have had diabetes. And while that might be true of some people with the more common type 2 diabetes, it’s not the case with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

“Type 2 diabetes is very different from T1D, as it is considered preventable and treatable,” says Brevard Fraser, Executive Director of the JDRF Heartland Chapter, which includes both the Omaha and Council Bluffs areas. As it stands today, there are no biological cures for T1D, which is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables people to get energy from food. It can occur at any age, and the exact cause is unknown.

Since its founding in 1970, JDRF has been behind T1D research funding, working to improve the lives of all people affected by accelerating progress on the search for a cure, better treatments, and ways to prevent T1D. Today, JDRF is the leading global organization focused on T1D research and has contributed more than $1.6 billion to finding a cure.

“Incidences of T1D are on the rise, and JDRF is the first stop of support for those just diagnosed,” Fraser explains. “We can provide education, mentors, outreach, and the opportunity to be a part of finding a cure, and so much more for those affected by T1D.”

Despite what many people think, Fraser and those affiliated with JDRF know that T1D is a very complicated disease. “From those who are diagnosed at 9 months to those living with T1D for over 40 years…The daily regimen [they] have to live with every day of their lives—it blew my mind away!”

One person who would agree with Fraser is Omahan Daron Smith, who was diagnosed with T1D in 1970—coincidentally, the same year JDRF was founded.

According to Smith, T1D is best understood by the illustration of an old teeter-totter. But instead of being a regular teeter-totter, this teeter-totter is held up by a pencil and has three wooden planks joining in the center. One of the planks represents food intake. Another represents insulin intake. The last represents the exercise, emotions, and stress in life. “I am attempting to keep a perfect balance of my blood sugar levels with all three of these [planks] hitting me at once, all day every day,” says Smith

Smith grew up in the Omaha area. After spending some time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he began his career at a young age, working for Better Business Equipment, a company started by his father, Coyner Smith, in 1968. When his father retired from the company in 2000, Smith took over as President.

“The funding raised by JDRF is making huge strides for the individuals who deal with this disease…There is significant progress toward a cure and much better treatment.” – Daron Smith

Despite his demanding career and raising 11-year-old son Joshua, Smith has a more overwhelming issue that constantly needs his attention—the injection of insulin into his body on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. A healthy pancreas will keep the body’s blood sugar level at about 80-100 all day regardless of activity, food intake, or stress. But for a person with T1D, like Smith, the levels must be managed in order to live. “My goal is to keep my blood sugar levels between 80 and 160. When my blood sugar levels get below 60, it causes major problems; and when it gets above 150, it will cause long-term, significant health issues, many of which are life-threatening.

“I decided a long time ago that I have to look at life with diabetes with a glass-half-full attitude.” Fortunately, Smith hasn’t had to rely solely on positivity to get him through the struggle.

“With the funding that has been raised for diabetes research through JDRF, tools like the insulin pump and the Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) would not have happened…Before I switched my insulin delivery to an insulin pump, I would deliver the insulin through the use of syringes. I’ve estimated that, in my lifetime, I have taken over 25,000 insulin injections.” JDRF’s research is why Smith now uses some fairly sophisticated technology to stay on top of his diabetes. “I use an insulin pump to deliver my insulin, and I also use a CGM to monitor my blood sugar level, as well as a glucometer to verify my blood sugar levels.”

Smith is also blessed to be on the Heartland Chapter’s board of directors. Through that connection, he says that he has become aware of how close we are to finding more significant, life-altering technology for those with T1D. “The funding raised by JDRF is making huge strides for the individuals who deal with this disease…There is significant progress toward a cure and much better treatment.”

Although JDRF is growing nearer to a cure for T1D each year, Smith hopes it comes soon, as it saddens him to think about the parents who have to help their children take thousands of insulin shots and prick their fingers six to 10 times a day for their entire life.

Cindy Irvine, who has volunteered with the Heartland Chapter for the last 10 years and is a former president of the board, says she is fortunate to have not been one of those parents. Her younger son, Tyler, was diagnosed with T1D at 14, which initially gave her the desire to work with the organization.

Cindy Irvine's son Tyler has T1D. She also volunteers with and is a former board president of JDRF Heartland Chapter.

Cindy Irvine.

“We were actually very blessed because he was older when he was diagnosed,” she says. “We had a lot of support in the medical community, as well as in our social community. He was pretty much able to give himself his own shots, and he knew he had to test his blood sugar.” Although her son was well adjusted to the management of his T1D, it doesn’t mean Irvine wasn’t occasionally at his school reminding teachers or coaches of his diabetic needs.

“JDRF, especially the Heartland Chapter, is doing such a great job educating people about what T1D is through their outreach programs and events.” – Cindy Irvine

Today, her son is 24 and has kept himself quite busy. “He just spent a year in Thailand, he spent a semester abroad in Mexico, he went to the Dominican Republic through a Creighton University program, and he’s now studying to get his master’s degree in public health.” While her son has traveled, Irvine has been constantly working with him to make sure he is managing his diabetes properly. “I don’t think people understand. When you go abroad, the supplies you have to take are massive. We sent six months of insulin with him when he went to Thailand, and then my husband and I flew over for the next six months. [Tyler] carries around a lot of stuff. He started carrying a ‘murse,’ which he said stands for ‘man purse,’” she adds with a laugh.

Irvine believes that the Heartland Chapter has done so much to provide help for children with diabetes and their parents. “There are so many resources that you really can’t get anywhere else—information on how to fill out the forms for school to make sure they’re getting the right care or how to prepare a child to go to college, and there are great programs to help parents and kids go through the transition after the diagnosis.

“I think there’s a lot of preconceived ideas about what diabetes is,” adds Irvine. “JDRF, especially the Heartland Chapter, is doing such a great job educating people about what T1D is through their outreach programs and events.”

As the chapter grows, greater emphasis is being placed on outreach efforts. The Bag of Hope is an education and outreach program available through the chapter that is designed to reach young children and teenagers with diabetes and their families at the time of diagnosis. The Bag of Hope contains a comprehensive collection of educational and comforting materials for the entire family. The chapter’s long-range plans include the establishment of support groups covering topics from initial diagnosis to adolescence issues and beyond.

Each year, the Heartland Chapter also holds two annual fundraising events: Walk to Cure Diabetes and the Promise Gala. This year’s Walk to Cure Diabetes in August raised more than $750,000 for diabetes research and included not only the traditional walk but also a T1D 5K Dash. Like the Walk to Cure Diabetes, the Promise Gala is another large fundraising effort during the year. “Funds raised during the Fund a Cure portion of the evening go directly to research—not overhead or events costs or anything else,” explains Fraser. “We also educate those new to JDRF through video presentations on cutting-edge research, as well as the very personal stories of children, adults, and families living with the burden of T1D.”

The 16th Annual JDRF Promise Gala will be hosted at CenturyLink Center Omaha on February 23. The theme of the evening is “Hit T1D Out of the Park – We’re Bringing Home a Cure!” The event will start at 6pm with cocktails and a silent auction, followed by dinner and a special program. Dress code for the event is cocktail attire (black-tie optional).

For more information about the JDRF Heartland Chapter or to reserve tickets for this year’s Promise Gala, visit jdrf.org/omaha or call 402-397-2873.

Merrymakers Association

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many elderly citizens, living in a retirement community or a nursing home can be a lonely existence, what with being cut off from family, old friends, and—what sometimes seems like—the outside world. Several factors can keep someone from being able to leave the senior facility, whether it be physical immobility or mental functioning, which can often inhibit residents from being able to enjoy the leisure activities they used to—going to movies, visiting with people in the community, or watching musical performances. But one nonprofit organization is dedicated to brightening the lives of those very seniors by bringing the music and laughter to them.

Merrymakers Association began serving seniors in nursing homes in 1986 after a local entertainer met with a group of Omaha businessmen to form the organization. Slowly but surely, this effort to provide the elderly with live, musical entertainment grew. Today, Merrymakers serves more than 40,000 seniors with free, musical entertainment annually. In 2012 alone, more than 100 facilities received Merrymakers musical programming.

Most senior facilities have a limited budget for activities for their residents; the cost of providing entertainment can use up most of the activities budget. In addition, many facilities have seen a dramatic decline in the number of musicians available to provide free or affordable entertainment for their residents. This is why Merrymakers never charges for their performances, and instead relies on donations from the community.

Merrymakers is all about fun in Executive Director Tricia Cottrell’s view. “While there are many wonderful and caring individuals and groups, who are willing to give their time and talent at senior-serving entities by volunteering to perform, we ‘take it up a notch’ by making sure our entertainers are trained professionals, who are in demand in the community at large,” she says. “We make a specific effort to provide the seniors with the music of their youth—to bring back the memories of that first dance at their wedding, the song they heard at their senior prom, or the one they sang to the children.”

GALA Merry Makers

Cottrell has been leading Merrymakers for the last two-and-a-half years. After a long career in business, she made the switch to nonprofit work. “I am a musician myself—third generation of the now five generation of musicians in my family…I love working with creative people and have a strong interest in seniors and their well-being. [Merrymakers] was a perfect fit for me…I have jokingly said I intend to still be leading the organization when I am living at one of the facilities we service.”

Cottrell’s very first “mission moment” occurred when a resident’s daughter thanked Merrymakers for the performance of WWII songs. “Her mother had severe dementia and had become disconnected from much of what was happening, but she sang all the words to the songs of her youth. Our performance allowed this daughter to have her mother present in the moment for the entire hour, and that is a gift I would gladly give anyone.”

Like many in Merrymakers, Cottrell knows that music is often used with the elderly to increase levels of physical, emotional, and mental functioning. The sensory and intellectual stimulation of the music can help maintain or improve a person’s quality of life.

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value,” asserts Cottrell. “While the arts may not be as critical as health care, housing, or food, we truly believe that we provide sustenance for the mind and for the soul of these seniors and that their feelings of joy are just as critical to their well-being.”

Merrymakers is home to 14 professional entertainers of all ages and backgrounds with their own unique styles of performance. Two such performers include vocalist and guitarist Kim Eames and vocalist Physha.

Kim Eames has been with Merrymakers for eight years now. She got involved after another entertainer, Joe Taylor (a.k.a. “Mr. Memories”), who has been there for 18 years, had her audition. “I was the only female at that time,” she says. “They had four men, and they were looking to gather up some female entertainers.”

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value.” – Tricia Cottrell, executive director with Merrymakers Association

Born and raised in Omaha, Eames has been performing for 40 years. After getting her first guitar at age 11, Eames threw herself into the musical world, playing weddings, private parties, lounges, and even heading out on the road. Since then, she has gained a performance reputation in Omaha after having performed at La Festa Italiana, Taste of Omaha, and other shows for businesses and corporations.

Eames likes to play different kinds of music. “My music usually spans from the 1920s to early 2000s, which allows me to play so many different things. I don’t call myself a country singer or a ‘50s singer. I try not to pinpoint any genre.” Eames says that because an audience is always filled with different people, a performer can’t play one kind of music because it will only hit a few people.

During her time with Merrymakers, Eames has heard her fair share of good memories from audience members. “I love hearing about their lives—what they did and who they are. A guy I met played in the brass section for Dinah Shore, and a woman I met danced for USO shows and knew Bob Hope personally…I love these unique stories. It’s amazing what you hear. I always come home with a lot more than I left with.”

Like Eames, vocalist Physha loves hearing stories and getting to meet the residents in her audience. “[A few months ago], I sang for a lady named Mary, who was 105 years old,” she says. “She said to me that those were tunes she hadn’t gotten to hear in some time. To see someone who has lived their life—who has paved the way from their time—respond like that…just the effect of music bringing them back to that time is an indescribable feeling.”

Physha has been with Merrymakers for a little more than two years. “I started a business called Classic Impressions Musical Entertainment a couple years ago, and I had been going to retirement communities to perform. Tricia Cottrell happened to be visiting the retirement community where I was performing one night. She saw my show and asked if I’d want to be a Merrymaker.”

GALA Merry Makers

Although she has only been performing for two years with Merrymakers, Physha is no stranger to the entertainment industry. After having been a model from a young age, she performed in musicals and with bands all over the Midwest. “I was born and raised here, so I’ve always come back to my stomping grounds.”

Physha likes to engage her audience during her performances. “I make sure they’re having a good time with me, so I’ll bring hand instruments like tambourines to get them involved.” As for her music, she generally performs songs from any genre between the 1920s and current time, but she bases her performances around her audience. “Ninety-five percent of my audience is in retirement communities, so my music is really about what they want to hear. I love seeing them smile as they tap their toes and sing along. To see that in the height of Alzheimer’s and dementia is truly amazing.”

Physha believes music is a universal language that brings people together and always has. “Everyone can relate to music,” she adds.

Merrymakers hold performances year-round at many different locations. They will also hold their Annual Roast on Nov. 8 with Sid Dinsdale, President and Chairman of Pinnacle Bank, as the guest of honor. Some of the past honorees at the Annual Roast include Governor Ben Nelson, Mayor Mike Fahey, Mary Maxwell, Bruce Lauritzen, and Walter Scott. The event will take place at Embassy Suites La Vista from 6-9pm, and all proceeds will go to help Merrymakers Association’s mission.

For more information, visit merrymakers.org or call 402-697-0205.