Tag Archives: non-profit

The Man in the Marine T-Shirt

December 27, 2014 by
Photography by Jon Pearson

Logan McDonald reported for duty as a U.S. Marine in October 2011. A month later, the then 18-year-old recruit from Mississippi was in a coma.

He had sustained a severe brain injury from viral encephalitis, which doctors believe was transmitted by a random insect bite. The brain injury resulted in cognitive, communicative, physical, and neuropsychiatric impairments. McDonald could not walk. He required assistance completing a majority of daily tasks and demonstrated severe communication deficits. He had trouble recalling information.

Thus began a three-year journey through a series of medical facilities. As McDonald crisscrossed the country bouncing from one rehab facility to another, some doctors advised the family that the young man in the Marine T-shirt was destined for a lifetime spent in assisted living facilities.

That’s when his grandmother, Anita Loper, found Quality Living, Inc., the Omaha non-profit that for two decades has raised the bar by working with individuals and families whose lives have been affected by brain injury or spinal cord injury.

“I just couldn’t picture him in some assisted living place forever,” says Loper, a retired nurse. “He’s always been such an independent person. He wouldn’t even let me wait with him when I dropped him off to report to camp. ‘I’ll be okay, Grandma,’ he said.”

McDonald is now inching his way to regaining his independence through QLI’s non-traditional, industry-changing rehabilitation programs.

By any measure, Loper says, McDonald has made remarkable progress at QLI. He now needs little if any help in tasks that once required round-the-clock assistance—showering, dressing, fixing breakfast.

“Now I come to visit and I can’t even find him because he’s out socializing with his friends here,” Loper chuckles as a broad grin spreads across McDonald’s face and his cheeks redden ever so slightly.

“That’s been our only problem with Logan,” says Taylor Kerschke, QLI’s coordinator of speech therapy services, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “He’s quite the ladies man.”

Cue a full-blown, rosiest of blushes now for the man in the Marine T-Shirt.

“Logan is a resilient young man who is completely engaged in every aspect of his rehab program,” says QLI president and CEO Patricia Kearns. “His program underlines QLI’s individualized approach to brain injury rehabilitation. Logan’s therapies are rigorous and specifically tailored to his personal goals and passions, and they are designed to ensure he will get back on a path in life that is meaningful to him.”

That path for McDonald, adds Kerschke, is independence. “Logan is only 21 and has his whole life ahead of him. The aim is to have Logan live with the least amount of assistance possible and we are relentless in doing everything we can to make that happen. We want him to be able to do the things he is passionate about.”

One of those passions, Loper explains, is McDonald’s love of the outdoors.

“Big…big…bass,” are the words that McDonald struggles to find as he gestures, holding his hands far apart to indicate that he landed a whopper on a recent QLI fishing trip.

McDonald’s forays into the wilds have also been facilitated by a gift from the Semper Fi Fund, a non-profit organization founded and coordinated by the spouses of injured and wounded Marines. McDonald’s high-tech Action Trackchair, something of a cross between a traditional wheelchair and something you’d see in the Transformers movie series, allows him a once unthinkable range of mobility. QLI has since acquired their own Action Trackchair, a gift from Steve Hornady, the CEO of Nebraska-based ammunition manufacturer Hornady Manufacturing.

“My goal is to set Logan up for success for independent living. That’s why we’re here,” says Loper, who has been living in Omaha throughout McDonald’s stay at QLI. “Much of the mindset of the medical community—even in the V.A. community—is that there are few gains to be made after a year in rehab. People hit a plateau, they told us. We couldn’t accept that. We knew there had to be more. We’ve found it here at QLI.”


Towering Presence

June 1, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This has been a banner year for Justin Beller. The 38-year-old Benson-based artist has completed several major private, non-profit, and corporate commissions, been picked up by two art galleries, purchased a home, opened a new studio, and he’s getting married this month.

Of course, it’s only May, so a lot more may happen—especially given the increasing visibility the artist is enjoying thanks to his distinctive abstract paintings, geometric installations, and soaring towers, works that all incorporate dramatic lines, angular planes, and color fields both vibrant and muted by turns.

A full-time studio artist since 2009, Beller has been developing a keenly unique style. His earlier paintings had an ethereal, otherworldly feel, one that often replicated water-like surfaces and wide-open skies. In recent years, his work has become stronger and more confident—bigger, bolder, brighter—all indications that he’s maturing as an artist and bringing his work in new and
exciting directions.

The artist has also expanded his work beyond paintings, creating three-dimensional works that aren’t readily definable as sculptures, but rather exist as hybrids between the two. These elongated, free-standing towers and tapered wall installations are distinctive for their ability to magnify space without taking it up, blending seamlessly into surrounding interior landscapes, whether a 1,000-square-foot living room or an expansive corporate lobby.

Beller credits his ongoing maturation to both the amount of time he logs in studio, semi-eponymously called Studio B, as well as his relationship with his soon-to-be wife, Katie. “I have a really strong work ethic. Even when I’m not working, I’m working,” he remarks. “I’m pushing the envelope. I’m experimenting with texture and shape and playing shadows off shapes. My techniques have grown. I approach pieces with more knowledge in the back of my head, and I’m keeping the work more classic.”

As for his fiancé, the artist muses, “Katie has really changed me as a painter. She’s so soft, and she’s added a softness to my work. It’s part of being in love and getting married, I suppose.”
The effects of both are clearly resonating. In recent months, several high-profile clients have commissioned Beller to create custom pieces. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln purchased four pieces for its campus —two for its Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery and two for a student dormitory center. Gordman’s installed one his 8-foot towers in its new corporate headquarters in Aksarben Village. These commissions join others at locations such as the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dundee Dental, Aristotle Group, Kohl’s Pharmacy, Proxibid, the Orthodontic Group, and Huber Automotive. Additionally, Moberg Gallery picked up the artist’s work for both its Des Moines and Chicago locations, and Daniel Hyland, a well-known interior designer with Clodagh Design in New York, has begun placing Beller’s works with clients.

The artist, though, doesn’t need to look far afield for collectors. His work is increasingly sought after, and Beller prides himself on creating work that collectors aren’t just happy with, but that they love. “I want to keep the work special and for it to be a gem for my clients,” he emphasizes.

Molly and Mike Erftmier are two of Beller’s most recent collectors. They began by purchasing one piece for their new home, and then decided on three more. All four are distinct stylistically and not readily identifiable as having been created by one artist. “I love his work. I’ve never seen anything like it,” enthuses Molly when explaining why the couple decided to include so many pieces in their home. “I love the way he incorporates techniques. If you looked at the four pieces, you wouldn’t say they’re by the same artist. They are all unique.”

Indeed, they are radically different in conception and articulation and serve as ideal examples of Beller’s wide-ranging artistic vision. On one end of the spectrum is a three-part rectangular piece composed of lines of shiny black and cloud gray. The sections interlock and almost give the impression of a magical puzzle box. On the other side is a long, thin hanging tower with muted colors painted in fine, threadlike strokes that blur into one another to create a contemplative effect. Then, there are the studies in contrast: one painting that features vibrantly primary colors while the other is created out of soft russet tones and light, earthy browns.

In reflecting upon recent months, Beller smiles. “Everything’s been going well,” he says. “I have an eye to the future, though. The next phase is to start a family.” For the artist, that will most likely be his most challenging and rewarding work to date, one that will eclipse even the best of everything that’s occurred thus far.

And in 2014, that’s saying a lot.

The Science of Charity

May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kali Baker knows well how the better angels of our nature think. She knows that although they are angels, they still love a little competition. They love variety, too. They love prizes. Like their less-noble brethren, they even like to party.

Omaha Gives 2014, the 24-hour-long, online telethon Baker organizes, is as much a psychological experiment as it is a charity. Still, the bottom line isn’t rocket science: The event raises a heck of a lot of money for a heck of a lot of Omaha charities. Last year, in its first outing in the city, this online telethon put on by the Omaha Community Foundation raised $3 million for charities in the area.

“It was just remarkable to watch,” says Baker, who is director of communications for the Foundation. “It’s such a different type of event, we didn’t know for sure what we were getting into. It just felt so good when we saw the numbers.”

Impressive numbers. From midnight to midnight one day last spring, nearly 11,000 people made online donations to 318 participating non-profits.

This year’s Omaha Gives 2014 will be held May 21. At 12:01 a.m. that Wednesday, you can go to omahagives24.org and donate to any one of more than 500 charities in the region.

Here’s how it works. Area non-profits sign up to be a part of the event. All the participating charities are then included on a sort of “Big Board” on the Omaha Gives website. On May 21, people can begin going to the website and donating to any one (or, of course, any number) of the charities listed. Each charity’s name on the board with have a real-time running tally of the money they’ve received.

So, here’s where the mind games come in. The website becomes a scoreboard. All of a sudden, somebody is winning. As is human nature: The volunteers and donors for the five hundred or so other charities decide it would be neat for them to be the leader.

Baker calls that “incentivizing” the event. It gets better.

Last year, many of the charities held events during the day. Donors and volunteers gathered, had fun and very often got on their smart phones and donated. Also, as the excitement built through the day, they contacted their friends, who contacted their friends. That social media thing. Pretty soon, the event was drawing hundreds of new donors and volunteers to the charities involved.
Then came the prizes for hitting certain donation targets. This year, non-profits will compete for prizes in three categories depending on the group’s annual budget.

The Omaha Community Foundation also will be offering matching funds. In addition, each hour, one donation will be randomly selected to be augmented with an additional $1,000.

That’s yet another clever carrot.

“Things can get a bit slow at some points, especially in those early hours of the day,” Baker says. “But that $1,000 each hour should get people fired up to stay involved all day long.”

One group that benefitted greatly was The Union for Contemporary Art. The young non-profit (started in 2011) hosted a lunchtime pizza party the day of the event last year as well as an open house for donors. Numerous donations were made from donors onsite, but most of the donations came through social media, says Brigitte McQueen Shew, The Union’s executive director.

“I basically spent the entire day jumping online and reminding people that even a gift of $10…would make a huge difference.”

More than 200 people donated a total of $13,000, “A huge amount for us,” she says. The Union’s effort earned them one of those $1,000 bonus prizes.

“Omaha Gives basically enabled us to launch (programs) years before I thought we’d have the funds available to make it happen,” she says. “We are truly looking forward to the event this year.”
Sara Boyd, president and CEO of the Foundation, echoes that sentiment. There’s good reason to believe Omaha Gives could grow exponentially in coming years.

“As we look at these event in other communities, the second year presents a huge opportunity to get more people involved in giving,” she says. “People who didn’t know it was happening last year or didn’t understand the premise have a greater opportunity to participate.”

The Omaha Gives day is modeled after a few similar 24-hour, online fundraisers that have popped up in recent years around the country. Because of the immense success of this fundraising formula, Baker says, more and more will likely be showing up around the country.

“It just has been proven to work on numerous levels,” she says. “It has an amazing way of getting people involved, even people who have never been involved before.”

That may be the greatest power of this fundraising formula. Thanks primarily to that intense social media burst, it’s estimated that 30 percent of last year’s donations at the Omaha event came from first-time donors.

“I think one of the great things about Omaha Gives is that it gave us a vehicle for raising awareness about our programs and work,” McQueen Shew says.

That new awareness, and all those first-time donors, means a whole new army of volunteers and donors for those charities as they move forward.

“It’s not just about the money raised, it’s about introducing a great number of new people to a great number of non-profits,” Baker says. “All these neat incentives are just ways to promote giving and bring the community together in new ways.”

Omaha Gives “is empowering, accessible, and meaningful,” Boyd says. “That’s especially important as we seek to develop a new audience of givers in our community.”


Renaissance Man

January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scholar, lawyer, professor, arts administrator, university dean. David Thompson has had all these professional titles, but he’s impossible to pin down with a simple job description.

Although he took the helm at KANEKO in July as executive director, it’s unlikely this position will similarly define or limit what he does. That’s because Thompson, who grew up in Bellevue, is a man driven by intellectual curiosity, academic rigor, and a constant desire to learn. This is evident in everything he has accomplished.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he earned a master’s degree in literature and Victorian Studies at Oxford University before receiving a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University. As disparate as these fields may seem, each enhanced the other and strengthened Thompson’s ability to work across unrelated disciplines.

“I enjoy exercising different skills,” he explains. “I love the back and forth between practical applications and creative ideas. There are so many ways to make an impact. I find it invigorating.”

His career trajectory likewise allowed him to engage in dynamic back-and-forths.

After attaining his law degree, he joined Sachnoff & Weaver in Chicago, where he practiced securities and intellectual property law. He soon realized that his interests were in the nonprofit world, and in 2004 he became Associate Director of Gift Planning at the famed University of Chicago, where he learned about the inner workings of successful cultural organizations. Pivotal in Thompson’s professional development, however, was his subsequent position as Associate Dean for Planning & Programs in the school’s Humanities Division.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” he recalls. One of his most impressive accomplishments was his role in the creation of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which opened last year. “I was on the steering committee for a $100-million interdisciplinary facility,” says Thompson. “It was one of the most exciting projects of my career.”


In 2008, Thompson broadened his experience by serving as Director of Development & Strategic Initiatives at Chicago-Kent College of Law before becoming a consultant specializing in assisting non- and for-profit organizations with integrated approaches to strategic planning and resource development.

Throughout each of these transitions, Thompson remained engaged with the community. He regularly taught students of all ages, participated in public discussions on such topics as the arts and environmental sustainability, and served on several boards, including the National Public Housing Museum, 3Arts, and the Resource Center. Through all these experiences, he developed a unique expertise that makes it possible to pull together multiple skills in law, business, art, strategic planning, and operations.

Despite living outside Nebraska for almost three decades, Thompson maintained close ties, and in March he returned to assist his family, which still lives in Bellevue.

Serendipitously, KANEKO, which is dedicated to exploring the creative process, was hiring a new executive director. Thompson sought out the job description and found it meshed with his professional interests. “My background is automatically interdisciplinary,” he says. “I’m interested in everything from how to revitalize neighborhoods to how the brain works.”

Thompson’s ability to think broadly was compelling to KANEKO. Board members Robert and Polina Schlott note how impressed the organization was with his background. “We wanted someone who would be a perfect fit,” explains Polina. “There are so many facets involved in being an executive director of a creative foundation. You need business skills and an understanding of creativity—not to mention academic experience. It’s difficult to find that all in one person.”

Bob agrees. “That’s why David’s an awfully good fit. He can fulfill a variety of different tasks, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Adam Price, who became the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art’s new executive director last March, also began his career as an attorney and knows how a background outside the arts can contribute to strengthening an arts institution.

“Our backgrounds give us different approaches,” he observes. “They are different, and that can be exciting. I think it’s great for KANEKO and great for the cultural scene.”

Thompson is also looking forward to contributing to that scene. “I feel fortunate that KANEKO is still small enough that I can be involved in areas such as fundraising and curatorial programs,” he says.

Fundraising comprises one of his first major duties and presents the exciting challenge of dramatically transforming the organization. He is overseeing KANEKO’s capital campaign, which will add a 20-foot-wide atrium across its front entrance and extend the 30,000-square-foot facility by another 5,500. This, says Thompson, will help make KANEKO a major cultural center in Omaha. “We will provide a better sense of the organization as a vital part of the community,” he observes. “There are so many ideas that come into play here. I see us becoming involved in areas we’ve maybe not been before and thinking about our role in the community in a new way.”

The opportunity to accomplish these goals has come at precisely the right moment for Thompson. He turned 50 last August, an age that for him is highly symbolic.

“I have a strong desire to reach a kind of professional peak during this decade,” he explains, “and to feel like I am having a meaningful, positive impact on the organization that employs me and on my community.”

The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.