Tag Archives: Josh Dotzler

On a Mission to Revitalize North Omaha

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Wes and Candy Zollicoffer are not your average neighbors. Instead of plopping down in front of the television after a full day’s work, the Zollicoffers would rather pick up trash along the street or organize a neighborhood barbecue. They hold strong to small gestures like a friendly wave or an unexpected smile—things that can go a long way in maintaining a healthy community.

Longing for resources and a mission to guide those who share their outlook, the couple were happy to partner with Josh Dotzler, CEO of Abide. For more than 30 years, the nonprofit organization has strived to revitalize North Omaha. The enthusiastic couple joined Abide’s burgeoning Lighthouse Leadership Program, and the Zollicoffers found themselves surrounded by like-minded people eager to spread a positive message of kinship.

“My husband and I joined 34 other families acting as Lighthouse Leaders, or Urban Missionaries,” Candy explains. A University of Nebraska-Omaha alumna, she is native to Brewton, Alabama, and reminisces of the strong community ties of her childhood in the South.

“Everybody in my hometown knows everybody, and you can fall asleep with your back door unlocked,” Candy recalls. “I moved from Alabama to Omaha in high school, and the neighborhoods around here are lacking that sense of fellowship. The Lighthouse Leadership Program allows us to live in homes throughout North Omaha rehabbed by partners like Habitat for Humanity. It’s so rewarding to see the change an Urban Missionary’s family can bring to an area, and my three young children are thriving in the environment.”

On any given day you can find the Zollicoffers outside and involved in activities to strengthen the community. With their small children in tow, simple tasks—such as planting flowers around the neighborhood or going door to door singing Christmas carols during the holidays—give them opportunities to interact with their neighbors. Their children also learn the importance of camaraderie, something Candy holds onto when they are shoveling neighborhood driveways after a big snowstorm.

“I definitely appreciate the outdoor activities more during nicer weather,” she admits. “But if someone in my neighborhood needs help, then we are there!”

Abide’s CEO and his family have been transforming neighborhoods dating back to 1988, when Dotzler’s parents—Ron and Twany—moved their 14 children to North Omaha near 33rd and Fowler streets. When the warm weather was abundant, the Dotzlers extended the ultimate olive-branch to their new neighbors with the first of many neighborhood grill-outs. The turnout was huge. More importantly, it gave people a chance to get out of their homes and eat good food while bonding on a personal level.

Dotzler’s parents continued to feel the positive effects their gathering had on the community long after the party ended. The Omaha Police Department eventually acknowledged the family, observing that violent crime in the area had dropped significantly since their arrival. That one-time grill-out expanded into an annual block-party that continues to this day, and Ron and Twany went on to establish the Abide Network in 1989.

Twenty years later, Abide’s Lighthouse Leadership Neighborhood Strategy took shape with the rehabilitation of the first Lighthouse starting in 2009. The Zollicoffers came along not long after, joining the program and moving their family to 33rd and Fowler streets as official Lighthouse Leaders around 2013.

“As Urban Missionaries, we focus on ‘The Three C’s’ to help make everyone proud to be part of our community,” Candy says. “‘Connection’ is important, so we make it a point to have neighborhood events so that everyone can commune and get to know each other. ‘Caring’ about our neighbors and issues within our community is essential to our wellbeing. Finally, we believe that everyone has a ‘calling,’ so we encourage each person to meet their potential.”

After four years, the Zollicoffers saw a significant change in their neighborhood. They had advocated for families dealing with slumlords, and helped decrease gang activity in the area by engaging with their community. Wes and Candy decided to continue their mission and moved their growing family to their current Lighthouse in 2018.

Wes works part-time at Wheatfields downtown and as a personal trainer, and he recently interned at the Boiler Room as part of the No More Empty Pots’ Culinary Workforce Training Program. Candy is employed with Abide in the Development Office.

“We want to keep bringing hope and effective change to the community we live in,” Wes says. “Before the Lighthouse Leadership Program, I’d never known anyone that had been shot. But I saw my family become a beacon of hope after such a tragedy affected our old neighborhood. I ran with a bad crowd back in my days at Central High School, so I am proud to be a testament to our mission and live up to my own God-given potential.”

Abide partners with companies such as Thrasher, Pacific Life, Westin Foods, and many others to provide their Urban Missionaries with a steady stream of resources for nearby residents in need. Combine that with the Better Together Campus established in 2016, and the Zollicoffers have the backing they need to revitalize the North Side, one neighborhood at a time.

“Sponsored programs like the Better Together Children’s Basketball, Second Saturday Serves, and the Bridge Church located on the Better Together Campus are great assets,” Candy says. “We even put our slogan on a T-shirt: ‘We are Better Together.’”


Visit abideomaha.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.

Candy and Wesleyon Zollicoffer and family

The Zollicoffer family

Radical Simplicity

November 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ron Dotzler grew up in defiance. The small town of Defiance, Iowa, that is.

“I’ve been rebellious ever since,” he says with a chuckle.

That’s a good thing for his home of the last four decades—a city some have referred to as the most dangerous place in America to be black.

According to a 2014 report by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center, 30 black people were murdered in Nebraska in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. Of them, 27 were murdered in Omaha. That put the state’s black homicide rate at 34.4 per 100,000 people—twice the national average. And in Omaha alone, Dotzler points out, the FBI reports an average of 23,000 major felony incidents each year.

Dotzler has seen the devastation firsthand. Four years after moving to north Omaha, two girls in his neighborhood were murdered. That’s what got his defiant nature fighting back.

“That was kind of the straw that broke my back,” Dotzler says. “I felt like God was saying to me, ‘Ron, will you give me your life so other children won’t have their lives cut by violence?’”

The murders made him ever more committed to Abide, the inner-city nonprofit he and his wife, Twany, had launched in 1989.

Abide works “one neighborhood at a time,” helping develop healthy communities through four main foci: community building, family support programs, housing, and partnerships. It has become one of the most successful—and increasingly well-known—nonprofits affecting change in Omaha.

But significant change didn’t come until 2007, when Abide altered its strategy. Most importantly, Abide began a holistic, grassroots tactic of “adopting” neighborhoods. With partners and volunteer power, the nonprofit began mowing lawns, cleaning litter, fixing abandoned properties, and more. They got to know neighbors personally. Relationships were built and change followed. People felt safer. Crime went down.

Law enforcement officers wanted to know what was happening. They were pointed to Abide. “The police showed up and said, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working,’” Dotzler says.

With help from partner Lifegate Church, Abide has since adopted more than 100 neighborhoods with help from 15 partners and more than 8,000 volunteers each year. They have targeted 600 other neighborhoods to adopt.

Abide also establishes “Lighthouses,” abandoned homes that are fixed up and occupied by families. More than 30 Lighthouses have been established since 2009.

It has three community centers and offers family support and employee development programs, plus basketball and swimming programs for children. It throws block parties, hosts grill-outs, and stages Easter egg hunts. Abide’s annual budget has grown to nearly $1.5 million.

Dotzler, 57, is board president. Son Josh, the former Creighton University basketball star, now is Abide CEO. Three other Dotzler children—Ron and Twany have 14 total—also are employees. Abide has 24 full-timers and 11 who work as paid, part-time interns. The organization’s work has earned recognition from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Dotzler says Abide doesn’t “market itself as the savior” of north Omaha. “We’re just one entity” among others working to make things better, he says. They’re just trying to “put the neighbor back in the hood.”

And those neighbors include Dotzler and his family.

Abide headquarters is a former Immanuel Hospital boiler facility on Fowler Street. The building doubles as the Dotzler home.

The family originally moved to north Omaha from Millard in 1988. Dotzler had worked as a chemical engineer in the computer industry but felt called “to really invest in the lives of others.” To him, that meant mission work overseas. The Dotzlers sold their house and many of their possessions, but needed a temporary place to live before deciding where they would serve. A friend said he could stay rent-free at his house in north Omaha—if Dotzler fixed it up while he was there. It needed more than a bit of work.

“I had grown up around pests, but not roaches like I saw in that house,” he says.

He was more shocked, though, by what he saw outside. “I started seeing the brokenness of lives like I’d never experienced before,” he says. “I saw more police in a couple weeks living in north Omaha than I saw in my whole life. I’d never dialed 911, and suddenly it began to be on my speed dial.”

In north Omaha today, he says, nine out of 10 homes are headed by a single parent. And at least 70 percent of families, he estimates, don’t own their own homes.

That’s radically unlike his childhood home in Defiance, Iowa, a small, rural community halfway between Denison and Harlan.

“I grew up with a mom and dad in the household, and the whole culture surrounding you had that kind of parental influence,” he says. “There was an infrastructure in rural Iowa. You were on the same page. There was a culture of understanding. We were all working toward the same things.

“In urban settings the autonomy is so greatly individualized and independence is so great that you don’t have those connections anymore.”

Before moving to north Omaha, Dotzler says he was “cold, callous, judgmental, and critical” of those living in the inner city.

No longer.

Now, he abides with them.

“We’ll never see the brokenness of crime and violence transformed,” Dotzler says, “until the brokenness of crime and violence transforms us.”

Visit abideomaha.org to learn more.

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