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UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention work: Giving the gift of sight to the world

March 17, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

 

picture disc.

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.”

Global reach
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 Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

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

 

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.

Bomb Girl Zedeka Poindexter Draws on Family, Food and Angst for her Poetry

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter.  Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin.  Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year.  Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.

 

 

Photo by Justin Limoges 

©Photo by Justin Limoges 

 

 

 

Bomb Girl Zedeka Poindexter Draws on Family, Food and Angst for her Poetry

©by Leo Adam Biga

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.

“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.

But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.

“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”

Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.

“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.

In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.

“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”

She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.

“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”

Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.

She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”

“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”

In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”

Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.

Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.

“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.

“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”

 

 

©photo by Eric David Herrera

 

 

 

She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.

“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”

She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.

Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.

“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”
Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.

“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”

She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.

“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”

She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.

Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”

She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.

“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”

She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.

“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”

She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.

“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”

She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”

She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,

“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.

“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”
Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.

View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.

For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi: Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

March 11, 2015 1 comment

In the spirit of somebody’s refuse being somebody else’s treasure, Frank Horejsi has made it his mission to save Omaha history by salvaging architectural remnants off of buildings slated for demolition.  After decades of dedicating himself to this casue, he’s accumulated quite a collection at a near Old Market warehouse he hopes to turn into a museum.  I hope you enjoy my Reaer (www.thereader.com) profile of Horejsi and his magnificent obsession.  On this blog you can find my story about another Omaha salvager who shared his obsession, the late Lucile Schaaf.

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi

©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi
Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

South Omaha native Frank Horejsi doesn’t care if he’s called caretaker, curator, historian, picker, salvager, architectural remnants archeologist or his favorite, urban miner.

Just don’t call him late to a salvage site.

For 30-some years he’s scavenged vintage buildings slated for demolition. His keen eye spots ornamental details of historical and artistic value before they hit the rubble heap. He rescues carved finials, corbels, gables, cupolas, columns and assorted hand-crafted items.

He sometimes reclaims entire facades. He saved the upper two stories of glazed terra cotta on the 14-story Medical Arts Building before it was imploded. A crew working 100-plus feet off the pavement dismantled the facing piece by piece. Some was reassembled inside the atrium of the First National Bank tower that rose in the razed building’s place. Parts of the facade adorn a Lauritzen Gardens’ Victorian floral display.

“You have to have some sort of appreciation for art, history, plus you’ve got to be pretty strong and willing to take risks, too,” Horejsi says of his work.

He’s found several decorative elements for Dave Lanoha, who’s integrated many into his southwest Omaha garden center, including an Italian imported frieze from the long-gone Rialto Theater.

What Horejsi doesn’t sell or donate goes into his private collection, It’s housed in a 14th and Marcy warehouse he envisions as an Omaha history museum. The by-appointment facility, whose open-span layout and truss ceiling resemble the Kaneko, is adjoined by a four-story brick building he owns. It all sits directly east of the factory-studio of designer Cedric Hartman, an Old Market pioneer who champions Horesji’s single-minded focus on saving history before it’s lost.

What Horejsi describes as “a hobby” is clearly a passion,

“This is Omaha history. You can’t replace this. The stuff I’ve got is very high-end and historical,” he says while giving two guests a tour of his 10,000-foot space, Its contents are like pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle of Omaha landmarks. Item by item, he describes the objects, the buildings they came from and any anecdotes about their salvage. Each has a story. The Medical Arts project stands out for sheer audacity.

“That was a very challenging job. Cold, hard, tedious. Risky. It took two months to do it. We had to label each piece, photograph it, crate it up – so it could be reassembled. There was close to 500 pieces, some weighing 500 pounds.”

The direct, personal provenance he has with most pieces separates what he does from many other salvagers.

“I document mine. Taking pictures to me is important to tell where the piece was. I like people to see a picture of the building we worked on and to know I was there to salvage it before its demolition.”

He traces his appreciation for holding onto history to his father, who junked-out old buildings. A young Frank assisted him. Downtown’s historic buildings captured Frank’s fancy as a kid.

“I grew up around it,” he says.

Then, as a young man working for Anderson Excavating, which won most bids razing Omaha’s old buildings in the 1970s and ’80s before historic preservation took hold, Horejsi found his calling to save history.

“It was just a matter that something should be done. In some cases I went in and fought to save the stuff. It wasn’t going to be saved. I did whatever I had to do to get it. I was on my own.”

When fire gutted an old streetcar barn in North Omaha except for an ornately inscribed facade he took it upon himself to rescue the front.

“That was the first time I pursued something hard. To get that was just a miracle. We had only a little area to work on top. Back then all I had was a pickup, pulleys and rope. We lowered pieces down. I didn’t even know what I was doing back then,” he says.

He’s since graduated to cranes.

He has remnants from iconic Omaha structures, including Jobbers Canyon warehouses, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Brandeis Theater, and from vanished landmarks outside Omaha, too.

Retrieving items can be hazardous. He nearly lot his life on a job he prefers not to specify except to say, “I fell 25 feet, hit the cement on my side and broke my hip.”

Not everything he owns is something he’s taken off a building himself. An 8,000-pound sandstone sculpture of Atlas from the old downtown YMCA building razed in 1968 was saved by someone else. He says, “It got moved around here and there and it ended up in Mount Pleasant, Iowa on a farm in the weeds. I was aware of its travels and so I convinced the guy who owned it it needs to come back to Omaha. So then I had this problem of how am I going to get it to Omaha.”

Enter Frank’s 15-minutes of fame on the A&E Network reality series, Shipping Wars that has haulers bid on oddball jobs. The trucker who won Frank’s gig, Jenn Brennan, enjoys a following for her model good-looks. Last year a crew captured her and fellow trucker Jess strutting and preening as they transported Atlas to its new home.

Horejsi welcomes any attention to his hoped-for museum. Citing City Museum in St. Louis as an attraction with a similar concept, he says, “This would be a neat thing for our community.”

There’s much work to be done though.

“It’s not at the level I want it to be. Things aren’t displayed on the walls as they should be. There’s no heat or running water in here.”

Despite its rough shape, he says “this building’s got a really good feel to it,” adding, “‘I’ve hosted parties for Restore Omaha and the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation and people are curious, they ask questions, they want to see these things. It’s really satisfying to see people happy and that’s what this stuff does – it makes people happy.” Everyone from elected officials to celebrities – “Alexander Payne loves this place” – to students and historians are fans of what he’s assembled.

“Telling people where all this stuff came from is part of the fun for me.”

Omaha interior designer and preservationist Jill Benz admires Horejsi’s “heart and will from a very young age to save Omaha’s treasures,” adding, “We wouldn’t have these incredible fragments and facades from our past if it wasn’t for his hard work and determination.”

She first met him in the late ’70s, when the ruins of early Omaha were being auctioned off.

“Everyone was saying someone should be saving these. Frank came through and pursued saving our heritage.”

Horejsi says, “This is all about preserving the stuff for future generations. It needs to be kept intact.” He suggests he’s taken it as far as his resources can. “I’ve invested a lot of time, money and sweat in this building just to get it to this point. I’m not saying I’m burned out or anything but I’ve put in a lot of effort and sometimes you wonder, Is it worth it?. I’m 60 years old, I’ve done this for a number of years, I ain’t got much time left.”

He hopes a benefactor or investor shares his vision for making his warehouse into an educational center. He has plans for a sculpture garden out front and a condo in back.

He just wants to know his history crusade’s not been in vain and to prove the skeptics wrong.

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘What’s up with Frank?’ When I bought this building it was, ‘Why and the hell do you want to go down there? That’s a blighted area, it’s dangerous,’ blah, blah, blah.”

He’s been stubborn enough to stick it out.

“Nobody’s going to change my mind – I’m a stupid Bohunk. Once I get onto something, I keep pushing forward.”

Besides, he likes that his 1880s building was home to Chicago Lumber when the transcontinental railroad ran through.

“They’d offload lumber, stone, whatever. All these materials went to different building sites to build early downtown Omaha, so it’s ironic it came out of here and now I’ve brought it back.”

Horejsi wants to ensure this history is secure once he’s gone. With no wife or kids, his legacy is his collection. With a sweeping gesture at his bounty, he says, “I’m married to this building. I’m married to all this.”

To arrange tours or to rent his space, contact Horejsi at 402-699-0845

10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors; Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Don’t take my word for it, but the Omaha Film Festival is one of the last best kept secrets of Omaha’s evolving cinema scene.  You would think that after nine years running and with its 10th annual festival happening March 10-15 that the OFF would be ingrained in the local film culture by now, but my guess is that most residents of Omaha don’t even know it exists.  If true, then that speaks to how hard it is to get your event message heard and received amid all the competing messages out there.  For those who know about it but don’t patronize it, it’s an indication of how much there is to do in Omaha when it comes to cultural activities and entertainment options.  The festival hasn’t helped itself by changing locations a few times in its short history.  But the festival is a well-mounted event that’s worth your time if you make the effort to seek it out.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2015 festival highlights a few films that you might want to check out.  One of these is the fine documentary There Will Be No Stay  by Omahan Patty Dillon that finds a provocative way into the death penalty debate by focusing on the trauma of two executioners.

 

 

Showcase for indie writer-directors

 

 

10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors

Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The metro’s work-in-progress cinema culture has lately come of age due to a montage of things. Alexander Payne making movies and bringing world-class film artists here. A surge of indigenous indie filmmakers. The advent of Film Streams. The slate at Omaha’s “original art cinema” – the Dundee Theatre.

Often overlooked as contributing to this invigorating mix is the Omaha Film Festival, celebrating 10 years with the March 10-15 edition at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. OFF showcases work by indie writer-directors from near and far. Three short film blocs are dedicated to Neb-made films. To commemorate the fest’s history there’s a separate bloc screening audience favorite shorts from the first nine years,

Among the feature-length documentaries is a moving and provocative work about the death penalty, There Will Be No Stay, by Omaha transplant and former stuntwoman Patty Dillon. The pic recently had its world premiere at the Big Sky (Mont.) Documentary Film Festival and will be making the national festival circuit rounds. CNN’s Death Row Stories will feature Dillon and her project in an upcoming segment. Series narrator Susan Sarandon champions Dillon’s film, calling it “a powerful and unique perspective on the death penalty.”

The film flips the typical death penalty debate by profiling two men, Terry Bracey and Craig Baxley, who worked as executioners in the same state prison and by charting the trauma that carrying out those awful duties caused them. They’re still paying the price today.

This is Dillon’s debut film as a director and getting to its premiere was a five-year endeavor. About the experience of Big Sky, she says, “It was truly a warm and gentle place to birth a first film. It was a bit surreal. You work on a project for so many years, revolve your life completely around it, then let it go for the world – hopefully – to see. You have taken your subject’s trust and just hope tyou have served their stories. It is such a controversial issue and I think the assumption is agenda or activism and that is certainly understandable. The foundation of the film is really more about dissolving human opposition, period. I was pleasantly surprised how receptive the audiences were. It’s intense watching people watch your film. They laughed, gasped, shook their heads and greeted me with many unexpected hugs and hand shakes.”

 

 

On getting the blessing of Sarandon, whose role in the death row dramatic film Dead Man Walking earned her a Best Actress Oscar, Dillon says, “Susan and her camp have been incredible. She was initially going to narrate the film and after the final re-writes she insisted I do it. She felt it served the story better. I had just received two festival rejection letters when I got the email from her assistant she had posted the trailer on Facebook and Twitter. Irony. It’s been a crazy ride indeed and I intend to keep riding it with loads of gratitude.”

OFFs roots are squarely in the state’s small but robust and ever expanding indie film scene. Founders Marc Longbrake, Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering have a history making or working on indie projects. A decade ago they saw a gap in the Omaha film scene, which never really had a full-fledged annual festival before, and they filled it.

Now that Omaha has its own version of bigger, better known festivals, area residents can see work unlikely to play cineplexes otherwise.

Festivals are the take-what-you-get buffet of cinema-going. There are choices representing different cultures, styles, genres and influences. But the menu wholly depends on what films are entered and curated for this screen feast. Some entrees (features) and sides (shorts) are safer bets than others. Some come with a track record and others are unknowns. With upwards of 100 films in play there are hits and misses, and so the operative advice is watch-at-your-own-risk.

However, if you’re a film buff with an appetite for something different, then you owe it to yourself to try this cinema smorgasbord. You can always design a sampler menu of your own choice.

Longbrake says there is a place for a mid-size festival like OFF that lacks world premieres of marquee industry and indie titles.

“There’s a ton of people out there making movies that aren’t part of the Hollywood system,” he says. “The only way to really see independent films in a theater, except for the off-chance they’re picked-up by a Hollywood distributor, is by going to film festivals. So you’re seeing a different kind of movie. Sometimes low budget, sometimes without a recognizable star, although familiar faces do turn up.

“People sometime think indie-low budget are code words for lesser quality. I would argue independent filmmakers tend to worry a bit more about the art and the story than the makers of big budget Hollywood pictures. Indie filmmakers are putting their passion, their guts, their heart, their soul and their grandpa’s money into making a film that’s personal to them as opposed to Hollywood studios that tend to be motivated to make something that needs to make them money back.”

The fest’s not all about the voyeuristic ritual of viewing movies either. The art and craft is explored at the OFF Filmmakers Conference and Writer’s Theatre program. A slate of OFF parties bring film geeks, fans and artists together for celebrating and networking.

In addition to Dillon’s film, others to check out include:

Documentaries
Shoulder the Lion
This self-conscious art film portrays three disparate people whose physical disabilities don’t stop them from being fully engaged artists. Alice Wingwall is a much-exhibited Berkeley, Calif-based photographer and filmmaker who happens to be blind. Graham Sharpe is a musician with a severe auditory condition. In his native Ireland he writes and performs music and runs a major music festival. Katie Dallam is a Spring Hills, Kan. visual artist who suffered traumatic brain injury in a boxing match that inspired Million Dollar Baby. Her art before and after her injury is markedly different.

In the spirit of Errol Morris, filmmakers Patryk Rebisz and Erinnisse Heuer-Rebisz use assertive techniques to create a visually stunning if sometimes overdone palette that gets inside the head of its subjects.

On Her Own
Morgan Schmidt-Feng’s portrait of the dissolution of a Calif. farm family, the Prebliches, plays like a dramatic film as tragedy and ill-fate befall the clan. The troubles of these salt-of-the-earth folks symbolize what happens to many small farm families. The story’s emotional heart belongs to Nancy Prebilich, who carries on despite losing it all.

Narrative Features
The Jazz Funeral
When an unhappy man fears his adult son may be turning into him, he concocts a scheme to spend a week with him in New Orleans to set him straight. As the pair’s insecurities and resentments come tumbling out, their relationships with the women in their lives come undone. James Morrison and Bobby Campo find the right notes as this awkward, strained yet loving father and son, respectively.

Slow West
This opening night film debuted at Sundance. It follows the adventures of 16-year-old Jay, who travels from Scotland to the 19th century American frontier in search of the woman he’s infatuated with. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay. Co-starring are Michael Fassbender as Silas, the mysterious man Jay hires to protect him, and Ben Mendelsohn as one of the hard characters Jay confronts.

Cut Bank
The closing night film is another young man in peril story, this time set in contemporary Montana. In his rural town Dwayne (Liam Helmsworth) captures something on video he shouldn’t have and bad men with mean intentions come for after him and his girl. Co-starring Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Bruce Dern and Oliver Platt.

For tickets and festival schedule details, visit omahafilmfestival.org.

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

March 10, 2015 Leave a comment

I keep getting assignments to write about various aspects of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in North Omaha and the latest is this Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com) feature about the church’s Freedom Choir.  The super-charged choir adds to the full-throated, body-swaying gusto that makes the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass there a draw for folks from near and far.  Just like the church is famous for its welcoming spirit, so is the choir.  Oh, and they can sing just a little bit, too.

 

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Feel The Revival

 

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com)

 

 

Rousing. Inspired. Dynamic. Electric. Animated.

All apply to Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Freedom Choir. Home for this contemporary gospel choir is a Late Gothic Revival-style house of worship in a poor, largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhood. The choir, like the congregation, is mostly white, the members driving-in from outside the community.

The popular 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass features the high-energy choir’s joyful noise. The choir also performs at the parish festival, community concerts, weddings and funerals. In 1997 the group traveled to Rome, Italy to perform at St. Peter’s. The choir’s recorded CDs,

Its up-tempo, full-throated, Baptist-style flavor, complete with swaying singers and musicians, makes for vibrant praise and worship rooted in radical hospitality and stand-up-and raise-your-arms spirituality. Far from your mother’s staid Catholic service, this is Vatican II reform given full license to bust out in song, embrace, even dance.

Though seemingly free-form, it’s the careful design of former pastor Jim Scholz, who sought to shake up an aging membership. Drawing from urban, gospel music-rich liturgies and with a nod to the Blues Brothers, Scholz hired Mary Kay Mueller to birth the choir in all its from-the-gut expressiveness. That’s when the 10:30 Mass took on a lively, high-pitched fervor. As word spread, people packed the pews. They’re still flocking there decades later.

Tom Fangman and JIm Boggess replaced Scholz and Mueller, respectively, to carry on this big, brassy, yet solemn celebration.

“When people first come it’s to hear the choir,” Father Fangman says. “Then when they come they experience it’s not just the choir, it’s the whole community. We really are big on making people feel a part of it and welcome.”

“There’s a sense of inclusion in our particular faith community that keeps me coming back,” says Boggess, who’s regular gig is Omaha Community Playhouse music director. He knows top-flight talent and has plenty in the choir. Percussionist Michael Fitzsimmons is a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist. Soloist Natalie Thomas is lead vocalist with the cover band Envy. Fellow soloist Moira Mangiameli is a veteran theater actress-director. Both Mangiameli and Boggess have written hymns the choir performs.

 

Jim Boggess

 

Moira picture

 

 

 

 

 

Moira Mangiameli

 

Many members have been doing this for years. That makes for tight harmonies and personal bonds.

“Over the years those people have gotten to be some of my best friends,” Boggess says. “They’ve been there for me in good times and in horrible times. I think whatever almighty spirit there be led me here for a reason and the reason was I needed to have those people in my life and I’m so much richer spiritually and as a person and as a musician for having known them.”

“It’s a family,” says choir president Sarah Ruma, who goes back 30 years, “We have our regular family and then we have our church family and that’s basically what Sacred Heart is and our choir is. Some of us have kind of grown up together. We started in our late 20s and early 30s and now we’re into our 50s and 60s.

“Unfortunately, we’ve buried choir members. That’s been hard. We sing together, we smile and laugh together and we cry together.”

Mangiameli says, “It’s the best part of my week.” She’s recruited her sister    Eileen to the choir. Like other devotees there Mangiameli was a disaffected churchgoer who got swept up in the spirit. “People get up and they clap and they rock out. It happens every Sunday. People are really happy to be there. There’s an incredibly positive and heartfelt vibe that just happens every Sunday and it extends to the choir, too.”

Fitzsimmons calls it “energizing.”

“It’s just a warm place to be,” Ruma says.

“I have been moved ever since my first Sunday here 16 years ago,” Fangman says. “I am moved every single week. I can’t wait for the 10:30 Mass.”

It doesn’t hurt that the music’s off the chain.

Mangiameli says, “There’s so many great people in the choir that it makes you better just to be a part of it.”

Boggess doesn’t turn anyone away. “If you can carry a tune that’s fine, but you don’t have to have a great voice, though I’ve got some people with magnificent voices, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “But really passion counts more than anything else. It’s supposed to be a gospel choir and that implies a certain freedom and that’s what I give them.”

“What really sets us apart is the musicians that play with us,” Mangiameli says. “They are just some of the best musicians anywhere around and they really inspire us as singers.”

 

Michael Fitzsimmons

Michael Fitzsimmons

 

Fitzsimmons says it’s the whole package. “The directors, choir and instrumentalists continually amaze and inspire me by their high quality presentation and soulful musicianship. “He says the experience of the Mass is very much interactive with the music.”

“The very best thing that happens is when you feel the energy coming from the congregation,” Mangiameli says. “When we’re in the middle of singing something and then all of a sudden they’re on their feet you know you touched them and made a difference.”

Sometimes, when the congregation’s really feeling it, she says, Boggess has the choir stop and listen to the collective voices. “You get goose bumps, it’s great, there’s nothing like it.”

Sacred Heart is located at 2204 Binney Street.

From the heart: Tunette Powell tells it like it is

March 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Tunette Powell has taken Omaha by storm since blowing into town like a mini-hurricane a few years ago.  This journalist, author, speaker, nonprofit co-founder, mother, and daughter is a high energy, speak-her-mind advocate for giving at-risk young people the foundational support they need to heal wounds and to pursue dreams.  In a very short time she’s garnered lots of attention and accolades and gained quite a following of admirers.  This story I wrote about Tunette for Omaha Magaizne (omahamagazine.com) charts her fast-rise to public figure.  On this blog you can find an earlier story I wrote about Tunette.

 

 

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