Mike Whye and I did a panel on freelance journalism this morning at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Conference at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. The audience was made up of students, working professionals and educators from Nebraska and surrounding states. It was fun talking sharing craft and business aspects of freelancing. That’s Mike on the left, me in the middle and moderator Jonathan Garcia on the right. Thanks to Chris Bacon and Jeremy Lipschultz for the photos and thanks to Rob McLean for the invitation to participate. I enjoyed meeting Mike (mwhye.home.radiks.net), Jonathan and Rob and I enjoyed seeing my collleague Jeremy again. Doing events like this help remind me why I do what I do, the way I do it. FREElance = Indpendence.
In January Opera Omaha went rogue again with its annual gala, this time infiltratiing a section of the Crossroads Mall for a swank sit-down dinner given a theatrical going over with surrealist set dressings inspired by the contemporary opera, A Flowering Tree. Live excerpts from the mythic opera were performed tableside for a rapt audience that sometimes felt as if they were a part of the dramatic and transformative experience. A Flowering Tree’s staged production in February at the Orpheum Theater gave audiences the full measure of this beautiful and imaginative work whose ending is one of the most sublime artistic expressions I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. If you didn’t know it already, Opera Omaha is one of America’s leading opera companies and its reputation only grows with time.
Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with A Flowering Tree
Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world
Breaking the mold to build new audiences
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
A contemporary opera all about transformation got its legs at an unconventional site slated for rebirth, the Crossroads Mall, during the January 16 Opera Omaha Gala.
The gala featured glimpses of A Flowering Tree, a 2006 opera by American composer John Adams, who adapted its romantic, mystical story from an ancient folktale from India. This saga of love, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption set in an enchanted land unfolded in a 20th century space normally associated with shopping.
A 10 p.m. after party for the millennial crowd followed the gala.
Unlike the best known works in the Adams canon that draw on historical, politically-charged events, such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree is purely metaphorical. Adams co-wrote the libretto with Peter Sellars.
Kumudha is endowed with the magical gift of morphing into a flowering tree and returning back to human form. When a prince secretly observes her transformation he’s smitten and marries the enchantress. His obsession with her gift and his sister’s exploitation of it drives the couple apart. Bereft without her, the prince loses everything, even himself. Kumudha gets stuck in a hideous in-between state that makes her a curiosity. The couple can only be reunited, so the folktale goes, if true love leads them to find each other again.
The Adams Touch
Wunderkind director James Darrah, who at 30 is a rising star, says, “It is a fabulous story and a fabulous piece of theater. It’s entirely based in storytelling, with large overarching themes of humanity.”
Musically-speaking, Darrah says, “The orchestral writing of Adams is just unbelievable – he is giving an audience an entire soundscape in the way he employs instruments and chorus and voice. The way he writes for the human voice is operatic and virtuosic and familiar in that way but also really surprising and beautiful. At times it can fluctuate from feeling incredibly intimate and simple to virtuosic and cinematic.
“He has the ability to both understand and interpret the immense musical history that comes before him and to be on the exciting electric edge of innovation. He creates these worlds of sound that are sometimes totally unexpected but rapturously beautiful.”
Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz calls Adams “one of if not the most important American opera composers living today,” adding, “I saw a performance of Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater and I was blown away by the music, by the drama, by the potential for magic and transformation on stage. I really fell in love with it.”
Snatches of the opera on gala night happened amid the empty storefronts of a closed section of the ill-fated Crossroads Mall – specifically the two-story glass atrium at the north end. The mall is slated to be razed to make room for a new mixed-use village.
A Flowering Tree will have its main stage full production February 13 and 15 at the Orpheum Theater. The same team mounting that production produced the gala – Los Angeles-based director Darrah and a cadre of collaborators. They also designed last year’s gala featuring bits from the early Handel opera Agrippina as well as that work’s main stage production. After making the nontraditional space of the Omar Baking Building into a retro Roman banquet experience inspired by Agrippina, the team’s repurposing a symbol of American consumerism into a mythological garden inspired by A Flowering Tree.
Weitz has charged the company with making its galas singular events that go beyond the standard sites and programs for such events. The Omar experiment was such a success, he commissioned Darrah and Co. to surpass it at another unexpected site – the soon defunct mall.
Darrah says. “If you’re doing something different you want a space that architecturally and energetically has flavor to it as a set. If you go to a big empty room you have to put everything in there to give people some sort of feeling. You have to create atmosphere from whatever you put into it. The thing I loved about the mall when scouting it is that even without us doing anything to it, it had this eerie energy of all these people that had been
“It’s this place that had a different purpose and now it’s this empty thing. It had so much to do for me with the socio-political stuff John Adams writes about America, and the mall is such an American icon that is changing and morphing. I like the idea of using it in a different way. This piece is all about transformation and new beginnings and new growth. The mall is going to be torn down and I love the idea we can see the echoes of what it once was.”
Then there’s the bold move of bringing opera to where people shop.
“I also think it gives us the right narrative of audacity. After last year’s success everyone was wondering what it was going to be. Well, I don’t think they knew what we’re going to do. They probably never expected what we did last time and, and they wouldn’t recognize this either. Parts of what we design felt like a sheik chic, elegant gallery. [People would] walk in and be totally in a dream.”
©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The idea is to so fully immerse audience members in this re-imagined environment that they find themselves inside the live performance. Because opera scenes will seem to spontaneously happen around them, guests will be intimate, active participants, not merely passive witnesses to the spectacle. Darrah says the same folks you have cocktails with before dinner may suddenly break into song or dance. It’s all about shattering the walls between performer and viewer so that everyone, actors and guests alike, becomes joined in the experience.
“I like the breaking of barriers in that way,” Darrah says. “It’s the whole point of the John Adams piece, and that’s what it all comes back to. It’s not about showing people the design of A Flowering Tree, it’s about saying this team has been hired to do this massive new production and if you listen to John’s music you will be exposed to the qualities of innovation.”
Darrah says the excerpts on display at the gala were intended to give guests a sense for his organic treatment of the opera.
“I didn’t want this to be a project where three singers and dancers move around them as they sing. I want people not to know who the singer is and who the dancer is.”
He feels privileged to have worked with a stellar roster of creatives interpreting it, including Andriana Chuchman as Kumudha, Andrew Staples as the Prince and Franco Pomponi as the Storyteller.
“It’s an unbelievably fantastic cast – a world-class, formidable group of people,” Darrah says. “I think of them as actors first who happen to have powerhouse, awesome voices. They’re all theater people who are also aware of art and culture. I love artists that have that kind of awareness and bring a lot to the table, that listen to Billie Holiday as much as they listen to opera.
When you get these well-rounded individuals willing to throw themselves into new ideas, they bring a really good energy. They fit very well with my team. Like minds do very good work.”
His team includes associate director Zack Winokur, set and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set and properties designer Emily Anne MacDonald, projection designer Adam Larsen and costumer designer Sarah Schuessler. All but Winokur worked with Darrah on last year’s Agrippina gala and production. Together, they used lights, sets, music and dance to turn a banally familiar existing space into an enticing dreamscape for the gala.
“[We were] not going to treat the stores – [we left] all the stores as dark, empty things, though we used certain storefronts for things like cocktail hour and catering,” Darrah says. “Beyond the tangible, this (was?) is a surreal dream you walked into.”
Atmospheric videos added to the trippy vibe.
©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Darrah says Adams took a keen interest in how the opera would be teased at the gala and produced at the Orpheum.
“He knows about this and he’s been very helpful and involved and supportive with the team and the choices. He’s very humble, so he’s not overly controlling. He answers questions. I sat down with him and he told me a bunch of things about why he wrote it, what he thought about. He’s been really great. He told me, ‘Do your thing.’”
Darrah and his team create harmony from collaborative give-and-take.
“So much of everything designers choose to do affects what a director is able to do on stage,” he says. “At the same time a director can choose moments that actually give designers lots of opportunities to create. I think the interconnected qualities of that are something that aren’t often talked about but are absolutely true.
“Here in Omaha, for many reasons, including the time and resources we’re allotted, we actually get to explore that a lot more than normal.”
According to Darrah, Weitz’s vision and enthusiasm are attractive to talents like himself and his colleagues.
“For artists like us, Roger is an incredibly adventurous, interesting, proactive part of assembling the team, crafting, casting, all these things.”
Weitz, in turn, says Darrah has taken Omaha by storm.
“The community has really embraced him and is really interested in his work. I think he feels a lot of support here and feels like this is a place where he can do what he wants to do. We’re talking about next season right now and we’ll keep dreaming. I mean, there will come a day when he’s too big for us but I hope by establishing this relationship early on Omaha will always be a special place to him.”
This year’s gala was chaired by Cindy and Mogens Bay. To learn more about Opera Omaha’s innovative approaches to performance based events, or to reserve tickets for performances of A Flowering Tree, visit operaomaha.org.
Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants. Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations. Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement. Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson. Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too. Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs. In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there. I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it. Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.
Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club
©by Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.
Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.
His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.
“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”
He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.
He didn’t always do food this way.
The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.
He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter
“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”
Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.
“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”
Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.
His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.
“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”
Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.
“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.
He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.
His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition
Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus
“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,
He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.
“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”
Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.
His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.
“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”
Project Interfaith was a passion project that a young Omaha professional, Beth Katz, thought up and ran with and during its run it made a lot of noice and connections in trying to foster greater understanding between people of different religious and spiritual beliefs. This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) focuses on a program Project Interfaith inaugurated called RavelUnravel that gave people from around the country and even around the world a platform for sharing their personal faith experiences. No sooner had I completed the article and it went into production than Katz resigned and within three months of that the organization disanded, and presumably RavelUnravel ended with it. The official reason given for the disbanding was declining financial support, according to board president John Levy. I don’t believe Katz has yet to publicly comment on the reason for her departure or on her response to the organization she created and led having dissolved so quickly after she left. What is odd is that in my interview with her for this story there was no hint of her forthcoming departure or any internal problems with the organization. Whatever the reasons for her exiting and however she feels about the end of what she started and nurturted, this piece and an earlier one I did on her and Project Interfaith will make clear that she really was on a mission and that her organization really was making a difference. I have to believe in some way, shape, or form she will continue this good work in the future.
Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel
Religious-spiritual-cultural identity expression at heart of program inviting people to tell their stories via videos
Project Interfaith program ravels-unravels questions of who we are
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
The Tri-Faith Initiative’s goal of creating a shared campus housing the three Abrahamic faith groups is not the only Omaha interfaith effort netting wide attention. Project Interfaith seeks to engage people in dialogue about their religious-spiritual-cultural identity and experience. What began as a one-woman crusade of founder Beth Katz to foster interfaith work in Omaha now reaches far beyond Nebraska.
Reflective of its 30-something-year-old founder and her even younger staff, Project Interfaith has embraced the digital age through its online RavelUnravel video program and other educational resources.
“We’ve always seen the potential for our work to have an impact on multiple levels and I feel we’re just beginning to fully realize that,” Katz says.
The RavelUnravel initiative began in 2010 when she and her team assembled volunteers to capture flip camera-recorded interviews with diverse people at various sites around the Omaha metropolitan area. Each participant was asked to answer four questions revolving around their religious or spiritual identity, any stereotypes they’ve encountered around that expressed identity and the degree to which they find this community welcoming or unwelcoming to their religious or spiritual path.
Individuals and groups wanting to participate so surpassed expectations the campaign was extended. The campaign’s since been opened to the general public. More than 1,100 unique videos can be viewed at ravelunravel.com today. The submissions, all screened for content and minimally edited whenever possible, are from folks identifying with a myriad of religions and belief systems including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, agnosticism, atheism as well as every imaginable variation that exists within each category. A wide range of ages and races are represented. Viewers are able to comment on their own and others’ videos.
She says the program reflects emerging trends, such as a growing segment of the population that does not affiliate with a particular religion or belief system.
“I think we’re seeing an evolution of how people articulate their religious and spiritual identities and experiences and how they connect to established religions and belief systems.”
The organization recently became a formal partner of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a joint initiative of the White House and the Department of Education, thus positioning it to actively solicit videos from across America. It’s going global, too.
“We’re in the process of entering into partnerships with some organizations outside of the U.S. who would incorporate RavelUnravel in their interfaith work. We’re excited about the possibility of having videos from beyond the U.S. being part of the project.”
She emphasizes, however, it’s really not about the volume of videos “that makes this a meaningful, impactful program, it’s what people do with the videos and how they respond. Certainly we want and invite as many people to share their stories as possible but it’s really about what the stories do when people watch them and talk about them.” Conversation kits have been developed to guide productive dialogue around topics typically considered taboo.
“Hopefully what they’re doing is inviting people to ask themselves those questions and to do some important self-reflection. Hopefully they’re giving people a tool to enter conversations with other people about these core questions that really drive our experiences and speak to this underlying humanity that connects all of us.”
The videos’ intensely intimate content is moving to Katz.
“I have been so honored by what people have been willing to share in their videos. This is not like do you prefer Coke or Pepsi. These are questions that really hit at the core of people’s identity and experiences as humans. There’s a video, for example, of an individual that talks about his identity as a gay Christian man and how for so many years that was something he could not reconcile. It drove him to try to commit suicide. He then talks about his experience of really finding peace with it and where that’s’ brought him to now.
“It’s some of the most personal information a person could share. I think all of us at Project Interfaith feel an incredible sense of responsibility and stewardship with these stories people are entrusting with us. Hopefully they’re presented in the most integrity-filled and authentic way possible. We want to use this as a vehicle to encourage and inspire others to share their stories.”
She feels the program is an antidote for this age of dislocation.
“There’s universal experiences that really connect us and I think Ravel Unravel illustrates those. I get struck over and over by how deeply human the videos are. When you see a person’s video it’s the next best thing to sitting across the table from someone because these aren’t scripted. It’s real people sharing their experiences and I think it just melts away so many of the labels, sound bites and preconceptions constantly being swirled around in our heads, in media, in advertising. I think there’s incredible power in that.
“What makes this work meaningful is that we have the potential to create new ways for people to connect and interact with one another.”
Katz is encouraged by more interfaith opportunities available today than when she launched her nonprofit nine years ago.
“It’s exciting to see all the different ways people can explore these topics and enter into these types of conversations.”
She says Omaha’s seeing increased activity with the Tri-Faith Initiative, progressive religious studies programs at local universities, open adult forums at Countryside Community Church and Urban Abbey and interfaith exchanges among synagogues, mosques and churches.
“I think it’s remarkable so much is going on here.”
On the other hand, she says, Omaha, like the rest of the nation and world, has a ways to go. “It’s still such a nascent and emerging field that I don’t think the idea of openly, respectfully talking and learning about a person’s religious identity and experiences is normalized. That’s really what we’re striving to do – to make this a part of people’s every day lives, so it’s a very comfortable process.”
She does like the direction interfaith efforts are going, however.
“There is a lot of innovative good work coming from a lot of different places. This is really about trying to elevate the quality of people’s lives and relationships and the strength of our communities and so it’s important we have a lot of different models we can look toward to find meaningful ways to engage each other and to work together.”
Technology both aids and hurts this movement.
“As we’ve seen with RavelUnravel it can be an incredible way of inviting access to these conversations, experiences and learning. The flip side is you also have a lot of misinformation circulating out there. Extremist and hate groups are extremely sophisticated in their use of social media and technology to present their message and galvanize their base. We need to really become creative and sophisticated in our use of technology and social media to present a counter-narrative that engages people in thoughtful ways and connects them with credible information.”
Interfaith efforts may be more needed today than ever.
“I feel like it’s the best of times and the worst of times for this work. 9/11 brought to the forefront a lot of ignorance and curiosity people had about religious diversity. We see in surveys the level of polarization, social hostility and government restrictions on religious freedom increasing. Some of the RavelUnravel videos call us to think about these really complicated, rich experiences in a more humane way. For a society to be really healthy and functional we have to have space for everyone to share who they are.”
As another way to spur conversation, Project Interfaith invited visual artists to respond to RavelUnravel. Fifty-two artists submitted and a jury selected works in various media by eleven from around the nation, including Omaha artists Molly Romero, Bart Vargas, Kathryn Schroeder and Paula Wallace. The exhibit, titled Unraveled, opened in Omaha and is traveling to sites in Neb. and other parts of the nation.
“Using the arts to engage people has always been a track of our work at Project Interfaith,” Katz says. “Now that it’s traveling to a diversity of institutions and communities it’ll be really exciting to get feedback from those host sites about how it’s being used and what people are responding to.”
The exhibit premiered at Omaha’s Jewish Community Center, whose art gallery director, Lynn Batten, says, “What makes this exhibit unique is its potential to develop community education and understanding around the concept of religious identity and how it permeates our every day lives and society as a whole. By asking the artists to represent their personal stories, the viewer begins to see the common denominator between them all. They begin to see that we are all universally connected beyond what our religious beliefs might be – that we are united through our experience of the human condition.”
“That’s part of what this is all about – trying to help people appreciate and delve into the complexity and the richness of identity and experience as it relates to religious, spiritual, cultural backgrounds and identities,” Katz says.
Unraveled’s next area stops include: Saint Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln), Nov. 3 to Dec. 1; Iowa Western Community College, Jan. 12 to Feb. 6; and Countryside Community Church (Omaha), July 1 to July 31.
Follow Project Interfaith news at projectinterfaith.org. View RavelUnravel videos or upload one at ravelunravel.com.
UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention work: Giving the gift of sight to the world
There was a chance of me going to Nepal in February to accompany Omaha ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Feilmeir and a team of doctors and residents who perform hundreds of eye surgeries there, mostly to remove cataracts. I met the good doctor preparing this story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) and when I informed him of my interest in doing some international reporting he and his wife Jessica, who does development work for the Global Blindness Prevention Division he heads up at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, encouraged me to join the winter trip he was leading to that Himalyan land. In applying for an international journalism grant offered by my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I proposed making one or the other of two trips: traveling with that medical mission team to Nepal or going to Africa with world lightweight boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha. I had no real expectation of getting the grant, which goes by the name The Andy Award. As it turned out, I did get it but it was awarded too late for me to join the group going to Nepal. However, I will be traveling to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa in June. Much more to come on that. For now, read about the good works of Feilmeier and Co. in giving the gift of sight to people who otherwise would either remain blind or go blind.
UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention Work
Giving the gift of sight to the world
Global medical missions and fellowships making a difference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
It is no play on words to say the leaders of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Blindness Prevention Division and its professional home, the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute, share a big vision.
The personnel behind these endeavors want nothing less than to create an army of well-trained international eye physicians to retain addressing preventable blindness around the world.
This cadre of care is already providing international ophthalmology training and surgical opportunities to a next generation of eye physicians. Teams of medical students, residents and physicians are going to remote places and giving the gift of sight to hundreds of patients during weeks-long medical mission trips to developing nations on different continents. Global Blindness Prevention Fellows are spending a year or more overseas learning how to deal with complex vision problems, training local eye medical professionals and performing life-altering procedures.
In some instances eye physicians from the developing world are coming to Omaha for advanced training and clinical research unavailable in their home countries.
Taken together, this international focus is extending its reach wherever people are in need.
Returning sight and much more
For the Omaha ophthalmologists leading this charge, making a difference beyond borders brings personal and professional satisfaction. Dr. Michael Feilmeier, medical director of the Global Blindness Prevention Division, was a fourth year medical student at UNMC when he got his first international ophthalmology experience. He’d already had his eyes opened to the “incredible need throughout the world for well-trained health care providers” on trips to Nicaragua and Belize. But his passion for global blindness prevention was stoked when he joined the Himalayan Cataract Project of Dr. Geoffrey Tabin.
He spent several weeks in Nepal assisting Tabin and his team give sight to people who’d hiked in from long distances. Over and over again he witnessed people’s lives changed by a short, inexpensive procedure that saw people come in blind and walk out sighted.
The impact of it all, Feilmeier says, “hit me like a lightning bolt.”
“When you take the patient’s patch off after surgery they just kind of light up,” he says. “This person who was previously maybe an empty shell of themselves kind of fills up and comes back to life. So for me it was like, This is it, this is how I want to spend a major part of my career.”
There and on subsequent trips to Haiti he’s observed parents regain sight and thus be able to see their children for the first time and he’s witnessed children’s lives turned around by sight restoring surgery.
“Being a parent I understand that joy of parents seeing their child or having their child get the health care they need. Those are the stories that resonate most with me. You could put together an amazing book of stories of the life changing transformations of people undergoing cataract surgery. We always ask patients the question, ‘What are you going to do now that your sight’s restored?’ It’s amazing the way people respond. The overwhelming majority say, ‘I want to work, I want to contribute.'”
Gaining a new perpspective
The experiences, Feilmeier says, “changed me a great deal,” adding, “We all have these pivotal moments in our lives and going to Nepal was one. It really changed the course of my life forever. It changed the trajectory of my life at a very young age and I’m grateful for that. It changed my perspective in a lot of ways.
“Obviously it makes you appreciative of what you have. It makes you realize your problems are so small relatively speaking to the problems of the majority of people who live in the world.”
Feilmeier’s wife Jessica accompanied him on trips to Nepal, Ghana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and their experiences overseas compelled them to form the Division in 2011 with the help of donations. She’s development director for the Division.
“I was struck by here’s this major component of human suffering that we haven’t cured that costs about 20 dollars and can be done in about 5 minutes and can be taken anywhere in the world,” Michael Feilmeier says.
“I always knew I was fortunate to grow up in the U.S., but never realized how truly blessed I was compared to the rest of the world,” Jessica says. “I never knew the conditions that individuals living needlessly blind faced each day and the knowledge I gained from witnessing their struggles to complete the simple tasks we take for granted: walk unassisted to a bathroom, navigate across a busy street or meet the gaze of a laughing child changed me in the most profound way. I came to understand my true capacity in terms of what I could be doing personally and professionally to see that as few people as possible lived their lives in needless darkness.”
A broadened perspective is exactly what Dr. Quan Nguyen, professor and chair of opthalmology and director of the Truhlsen Eye Institute, endorses. He and his physician wife, Diana Do, came here from Johns Hopkins University with years of international medical travel behind them. Do serves as vice chair for education at the Institute.
Nguyen says, “We as physicians should recognize when we treat patients the care of the patient not only depends on the surgical-medical skills of the physician but also on the ability to incorporate the social-economic needs of the patient in order to achieve a successful outcome. I think that is the most valuable lesson for our residents, trainees and fellows when they travel like this. I truly believe the most important experience of traveling like this is to be able to gain additional perspective of what other people need so we can serve them.
“Yes, they will also have opportunities to operate on a number of patients and to enhance their own surgical skills but I think the most important aspect, which I hope is a lifetime experience for them, is to recognize and remember what the people there value and need. Then when they return home they can be advocates to help these people.”
The ongoing program aligned perfectly with the arrival of Nguyen and his expanded vision for the Department of Opthalmology by way of the international mission he’s put in place at the Truhlsen Eye Institute, which opened last year. A large photographic mural entitled “The Gift of Sight” in the center’s lobby dramatically expresses that global reach and the work being done by entities and individuals to prevent blindness. It pictures patients whose sight was restored and physicians who performed the surgeries.
“In the past. global eye care has never been a focus of the department,” Nguyen says. “The Truhlsen Eye Institute was founded on the basis of not only serving the citizens of Neb. but patients from every corner of the world with the best possible eye care. To do so we must first demonstrate our expertise and our mission in education to bring people over and to train them.
“We would like to make it a place that serves patients wherever they live in the world. Whether it’s global or local, our goal is to preserve vision, prevent blindness and restore sight to people of different economic and social backgrounds.”
UNMC is doing that in several ways, One is by sending teams to high-need areas where they can directly benefit individual patients through what Feilmeier’s calls “blitzes” of intense, concentrated surgical visits.
Nguyen says, “We are at the same time training eye physicians and surgeons who can continue with our mission long after we have left a specific country because we know it is not possible for just a group of physicians and surgeons from Omaha to be able to prevent blindness across the globe or even in one country, So we know that as part of our mission teaching is very important to be able to train the next generation of surgeons and eye physicians to carry on the work.
“We look for how do we spread the disciples from the Truhlsen Eye Institute in Omaha across the globe.”
A blitz may also impact underserved populations right in our own backyard. For example, the Division regularly provides eye services to Native Americans in Omaha.
Collaboration with local partners is key to ensure high quality eye care continues after visiting teams leave. Before a team ever arrives, locals get the word out about their coming and do screenings.
“Your success in a country depends not upon how much you want to do there and how much money you have, it’s who your local partners are,” Michael Feilmeier says. “So we continue to search for good in-country local partners – young, motivated people who work together as a team and who have good skill sets. We’ve found those in all of the places we’ve worked so far. We’re really fortunate.”
Paying it forward
Feilmeier wanted to create a vehicle for aspiring or emerging eye care physicians to have the same experiences he did overseas and thus the Global Blindness Prevention Division came about.
“We work with people at different levels in their training,” Feilmeier says. “For medical students we’ve developed a one-month rotation similar to what I did. We arrange everything for them for their experience in Nepal. They spend a month in Kathmandu. They’re mostly observing and feeding off the experience.
“In residency we take the third-year residents for one or two weeks abroad to actually engage in screening the patients, doing the surgery and being part of the whole process. Our two fellowship programs are for people who have graduated from residency. They spend a full year or a full two years working abroad. So at different points in the training process we can engage people.”
For Feilmeier, it’s paying forward his own eye-opening experiences.
“I look at the opportunity someone gave me to engage in this kind of work and how it changed my life forever. My main focus is becoming more about engaging other people and making it easy for them to have an opportunity like that themselves because it will have the same impact on everybody who gets a chance to experience it. It will influence their life and career.
“I’ve never met a single person who did a medical mission who didn’t want to do another one. Then you think about the ripple effect that those people have and all of a sudden you have this army of people who are aware of this problem and who care about this problem and who are actively engaged in dealing with it and finding solutions.”
Count Dr. Shane Havens a member of that army. As a senior resident he went to Cap-Hatien, Haiti in 2013 as part of a team led by Feilmeier.
He had one “touching experience” after another with patients overjoyed at getting their sight. back.
“A lot of times it gives them their life back.”
Feilmeier says, “It’s just really remarkable the amount of faith the patients put in the whole process and the emotional transition and transformation of patients and their family – seeing people laugh and dance and cry.”
Or in the case of one young man who regained his sight at the hands of Feilmeier and Havens, picking up his two surgeons in celebration.
Aside from the emotions elicited, Haven says a mission “offers you invaluable, unparalleled training experiences in the operating room and clinic you just cant get from a textbook or any training program,” adding, “I think the skill set it takes to manage the mature or complex cataract we see there really benefits the patients we treat back here.”
On these trips, Feilmeier says, “you really get out of your comfort zone in a new environment and you really test the limits of your abilities. You learn to have a new set of tools in your tool box. The most beneficial surgical training I have is when I’m sort of tested and I don’t have everything I’m used to having.” It means adapting to rough conditions, even operating by flashlight when electricity and generators go out.
Havens says opthalmology is “a ready-made speciality” for international medical service “because it’s one of the few where you can go for a trip of a week or two weeks and maximize your clinical experience and leave a lasting impact.”
Feilmeier feels the earlier people have these international experiences the better.
“We want to make a difference early on in careers. I think that’s probably the most impact we can have. I could sit at the scope 13 hours a day and do thousands of cataracts but ultimately I think it’s far more impactful when you engage young people. It’s about having that experience and feeling it in your heart and soul.”
Fellows and funders
The Global Blindness Prevention Fellowships are unique. The newest is in partnership with Orbis International, an NGO dedicated to saving sight worldwide.
“There’s been two Fellows thus far,” he says. “Starting next year we’ll hopefully have two per year, maybe even three per year, all working full-time in developing nations. The two-year fellowship with Orbis will be started July 2015. With that one we’re trying to groom some of the next generation of leaders in public health and global eye care. Fellows get a certificate in public health after completing it. They spend five months with us and seven months on the Orbis Flying Hospital – a fully functional, state-of-the-art operating theater – and they travel around the world for a year. It’s just sort of the next level of being involved from a global standpoint
“We want the Fellows to see things they’ve never read about, they’ve never dreamed of seeing. We want them to expand their skill sets and to experience things they would never see here in the U.S.”
Nguyen says it’s the only fellowship of its kind in the world. He and Feilmeier say there’s strong interest in both fellowships from applicants around the country.
Sustaining these international efforts requires financial support. The Global Division is an unfunded arm of UNMC, therefore the Feilmeiers work hard to find donors. Two fundraisers help. The annual Bike for Sight charity ride in April is growing in popularity. A Night for Sight celebrates the life-changing work of these global initiatives. The Oct. 25 event staged a Masquerade Ball for guests.
The Feilmeiers volunteer their time with the Division, covering all their own hard costs (food, travel, lodging) in order to give 100 percent of donated funds to curing blindness.
“We’ve made a pledge that for every $20 we receive, the cost of the consumables, we will give one free surgery to someone living needlessly blind and fortunately the community of Omaha has supported us and donated generously, which has allowed us to perform 1,000 free surgeries to date,” Jessica Feilmeier says.
“Our overall goal would be some type of endowment with naming rights to the Division,” Michael Feilmeier says. “If we could come up with a million to a million and a half dollars in endowment that would secure what we want to do over the course of time. We want to provide eye care to people who desperately need it, assist in training opportunities for international ophthalmologists in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia or Haiti to enhance their skills. And we want to provide these opportunities to medical students, residents and fellows because it’s expensive to get involved in this type of work and you never want that to be a limiting factor.”
The next Bike for Sight is April 25. Follow UNMC’s global eye care efforts and events at http://www.unmc.edu/eye/international.htm.
Gina Ponce has a passion for helping girls and women reach their potential because people helped her find her her own best self. She leads an annual event called the Women On a Mission for Change Conference that is designed to empower women and girls to achieve goals in core quality of life areas. This year’s all-day conference is Friday, March 13 at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. Read my El Perico story about Gina and her event and some of the participants it’s helped. The story includes contact information for registration.
Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
When Gina Ponce meets first-time participants of her Women on a Mission for Change Conference she sees herself 15 years ago. Ponce was then-executive director of the local Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). The single mom was making it but didn’t see much more ahead educationally or professionally.
Then an opportunity came her way. She didn’t think she was up to it at first. But Ponce followed some advice and trusted herself to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That added education anchored a 10-year work career at Bellevue University. “It was the best thing I could have ever domn,” says Ponce, who then moved into her current job as Salvation Army Kroc Center education and arts director.
She says the annual conference, which this year is March 13 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Community Engagement Center, is for all women but particularly aimed at those stuck in life, unsure how to reach their potential.
“The women I’m serving have slipped through the cracks. Maybe they went to college and didn’t finish after getting married or having kids. Some are in relationships where they get emotionally, mentally beat down. These women may be in that stagnant part of their life where they don’t know which way to go. We talk to them about going back to get their degree and how important that is to moving forward.
“Some may be senior citizens who still have the ability to do something else after retirement. We empower them to believe that just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you have to sit home and do nothing. You can go out and get a job or volunteer or go back to school.”
At the event motivational speakers accomplished in various fields address five pillars of self-improvement: change, health, applied life skills, nutrition, growing your spirituality and education. There’s also a meet-and-greet and a luncheon.
“Through this conference women have the opportunity to talk to professionals who are great at telling them the importance of having all these things in their life,” she says.
The event also has a girls component that includes a mentoring program, Women Influencing Girls. Separate speakers present to women and girls. Networking and mentoring opportunities abound. Ponce wants to light a fire under participants to stop settling, start dreaming and pursue goals.
“I hope they take away being motivated to become whatever they want to be. I want them to really walk out of there saying, ‘I can do this and I’m going to do it,’ and to really stay focused and motivated to get a degree, change their job, improve their diet and health, whatever it is. I want women to know they can have a family and still get an education and have a career. I know, because I did it.”
Ten years ago Bellevue University officials asked Ponce to help fill the position of South Omaha outreach coordinator. After searching, officials told Ponce they wanted her. Afraid her two-year associate’s degree wouldn’t make the grade, Bellevue agreed to pay her way through school if she took the job. She wavered until she walked out on faith and believed in herself.
“I was scared. I had been out of school 25 years. I had all those feelings of, Oh my God, can I do this, how am I going to balance this with working and raising kids? All that stuff, But I didn’t let it get in my way. It was an incredible opportunity given to me. Yeah, it was a big strain, but it was worth everything I went through.”
Ponce wants conference participants to believe in themselves and take positive steps to aspire higher and live deeper.
“I want them to do it now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, just do it. This is something you’re going to do just for yourself.”
Conference veteran Judy Franklin is sold on Ponce and the event.
“When we met I was going through a time in my life where I knew I needed more and needed to expand my horizons, and Gina said, ‘I know exactly where you’re at – come to the conference.’ I did,” Franklin says, “and it really let me look at myself to see the potential in me and what I can do. She really took me under her wing to become a mentor with no strings attached. She just wanted to see me be successful in my work, my family, my relationships.”
Franklin says the conference exposes her to “powerful women doing the things I desire to do,” adding, “I get some good insights. It’s not just a conference, it’s your life as you go forward in your calling to find what you have to do. It’s a very empowering thing.”
She says Ponce has a heart for helping people tap their best selves.
“She’s just all about getting us to where we need to be. She opens up so many doors for me, for other women and for young girls and then it’s for to us to step through.”
Franklin, a state social security district manager, has done some serious stepping. She credits the conference and Ponce with “having a lot to do with me getting the job I’m in now.”
Alisa Parmer has come a long way, too. Parmer was a single mom and an ex-felon when her transformation began 10 years ago.
“I found myself being identified as a leader and a change agent with my employer, Kaplan University. I was a college graduate with a variety of degrees and letters after my name. I was giving back to the community. But I was caught up with working for others – attempting to balance family, career and a variety of roles.”
That’s when she came to the conference, whose board she now serves on.
“It gave me the first opportunity to share my story to empower women, to be empowered, to network and develop life-changing relationships with women in the community whose lives mirror pieces of mine or where I strive to be. The conference is a life-changing experience, Ms. Gina (Ponce) does not settle for anything less for each attendee.”
That holds for girl attendees as well. Judy Franklin says her daughter Abrianna, who earned the conference’s first academic scholarship, and other girls learn goal setting and leadership skills and do job shadowing. “It’s amazing to watch how she grew in a short time.”
When Ponce meets conference veterans like Judy or Alisa she sees her empowered self in them. It’s all very personal for Ponce, who feels obligated to give other women what she’s been given.
“I’m at a place in my life where I want to do it for others. I want to see more motivated women be successful and do the things I know they can do,. They just need somebody to tell them that.”
She believes so strongly in paying-it-forward that she underwrote much of the conference herself, along with sponsors, when she launched it five years ago. She’s since obtained nonprofit status to receive grants. But she feels she’s only just getting started.
“When I retire I’m doing this full-time and I’m going to make it bigger.”
The 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. conference is $40 for adults, $25 for students and $10 for girls 14 to 17 years old.
For registration and schedule details, visit womenonamissionomaha.org or call 402-403-9621.