When Josh Dotzler was 2 years old, his father sold everything they owned, including their house and cars, and relocated his family to a rundown building in a crime-ridden neighborhood in North Omaha.
The reason: He felt called to God’s mission.
“My father said if he ever wrote a book about moving, one of the chapters would be titled Roaches and Rats,” Dotzler, now 29, says. “Because the building was infested with both of those.
Dotzler says his father, Ron, a chemical engineer, witnessed more police and more crime in the first three weeks after moving than he’d experienced in his entire life. It was then, he says, that his father knew he was meant to be part of a solution for the Omaha community.
It was due to this revel-ation and mission that the nonprofit organization, Abide, was founded, which Dotzler now runs alongside his father. However, Dotzler admits, his current work is a far cry from the original blueprint for his life.
“I grew up in that environment and loved what my parents were doing, but I didn’t want to be a part of it,” Dotzler says. “We experienced neighbors being murdered, our house and cars being shot at, windows broken. There were lots of experiences that we had in North Omaha that caused me to have a sense of fear being in the community. That was part of the reason I didn’t want to move back.”
Dotzler says they had a saying in the area growing up: “Work hard, get an education, and you, too, can move out of the ghetto.” Dotzler’s hope was that his graduation from Creighton in 2009, complete with a degree in public relations and a position on Creighton’s basketball team, would mean his ticket out of North Omaha for good.
However, after attending the funeral following the murder of a childhood neighbor, Dotzler had serious cause to reevaluate his life.
“It had me thinking,” Dotzler says, “how could my friend’s life have been different if more people were a part of it? That was the catalyst God used to redirect my life. That was when my wife and I came to the conclusion that this is what we’re called to be doing.”
Dotzler and his wife, Jen, moved back to North Omaha shortly after that, into a one-bedroom space in the original building his family had refurbished. Their hope was to work with Abide to identify and revitalize 700 pockets of Omaha’s most crime-infested neighborhoods.
Already, Abide has a presence in 100 of those areas.
When Dotzler was a child, his father moved their family of 16 a second time into a neighborhood that the police had red-lined as the most dangerous in the city. With the aid of several volunteers, the Dotzlers hosted neighborhood clean-ups, home constructions and renovations, and block
parties in a full revitalization effort. Crime and drug abuse declined; community morale skyrocketed. This success is the prime example Dotzler wishes to follow with his work.
“We watched this red-lined community become one of the best neighborhoods in Omaha,” Dotzler says. “Our dream is to see all 700 of these neighborhoods transform in the same way.”
The most rewarding part of Dotzler’s job is witnessing the effect Abide has on members of the North Omaha community within their own neighborhoods.
“We’ve seen crime decrease, relationships in the community increase,” Dotzler says. “We see freshmen in high school getting ready to drop out; not only do they then graduate, but they go on to college and invest in the program to give back to other people. People in prison have turned their lives around and are now part of the solution.”
Currently, Dotzler is the executive pastor of Bridge Church and the father of three—Joshua, 5, Joseph, 3, and Julianna, 1. His family is enthusiastically involved in Abide’s various efforts in the Omaha community, including afternoon tutoring programs, a basketball league, a youth club, and even a recording studio.
“Our organizations are really family-centered,” Dotzler says. “We couldn’t do what we’re doing if our family wasn’t a part of it. We live in the community that we work in. For the most part, our lives are really centered around what happens in North Omaha.
Dotzler adds that some of his kids’ best relationships are from the programs that Abide provides. Dotzler even coaches one of the program’s 10 basketball teams, which his two sons participate in weekly.
As for the future, it’s Dotzler’s hope that Abide will continue to revitalize and expand its efforts until it reaches its end goal: transforming the entirety of Omaha, one neighborhood at a time.
“We’re beginning to build the foundation for the future,” Dotzler says. “Our hope is that there won’t be any inner city in Nebraska.”