Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped. There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands. Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment. Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again. The following story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre. Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival. These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.
Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody
Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
What a difference a decade makes.
In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.
Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.
Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.
By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.
OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”
Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.
This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.
“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”
“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”
OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”
Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.
“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.
“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”
The public’s done its share, too.
“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”
She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”
Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.
That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.
“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”
Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.
“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”
She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”
Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”
The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.
The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.
Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.
“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”
With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.
“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”
The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.
“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”
The search for new headliners never ends.
“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”
More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.
“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”
The experience people have is more important than anything.
“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.
“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”
In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.
“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”
OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.
She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.
“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”
Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”
A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.
“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.
“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”
She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.
“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”
“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.
With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”
Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”
“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”
“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”
“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.“
“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
One look at me and my duds and you instantly know I am no fashion plate, at least where my own apparel is concerned. However, I do feel I have a good enough fashion sense where others are concerned. None of which means a hoot when it comes to the fashion stories I write, and I’ve written a whole bunch of them, mostly in connection with Omaha Fashion Week, because I go the experts who know fashion for my information. This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is the latest OFW piece I’ve done and where in the past I’ve focused on designers and shows and trends, looking sometimes back and other times forward, this story examines a burgeoning business relationship between emerging designers and a local lending-financial institution, SAC Federal Credit Union. The idea being explored by this pilot program and thus by the story is the importance of desginers having access to capital to grow their lines, their brands, their businesses if Omaha is to ever foster a true design community and industry.
The next Omaah Fashion Week is August 17-22.
ecosystem: Omaha Fashion Week & SACFCU
Building the fashion eco-system via business focus
BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Originally published in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
When Nick and Brook Hudson aren’t caring for their new-born girl they nurture their other baby, Omaha Fashion Week (OFW). The couple cultivate the local fashion eco-system through a multitude of showcase events, educational experiences like Omaha Fashion Camp and fashion sales organizations such as Design Parliament LLC. They were the inspiration and catalyst for the developmental organizations Fashion Institute Midwest and Omaha Fashion Guild.
This infrastructure gives area designers venues to show their work, experts to advise them on aesthetic and market matters and a support system for resources and professional development opportunities.
Now, with SAC Federal Credit Union as a partner, the Hudsons are bringing designers together with bankers to maximize commercial potential. Thus, the new financial support program gives designers the financial acumen and services to put their creative pursuits on a business basis. As SACFCU members, designers have access to credit lines for purchasing materials or equipment, for expanding into new spaces or for doing anything else to enhance and grow their business.
Banking on potential
The test program may eventually work with other kinds of designers as well as visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, playwrights, et cetera.
SACFCU president-CEO Gail DeBoer opted to work with fashion designers to initiate the program since her institution already had a sponsor relationship with OFW. She shares the Hudsons’ vision for building a sustainable fashion community.
“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region,” she says. “We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”
DeBoer says her credit union is well-positioned to work with the micro-size businesses most local designers operate.
“They’re small and so there’s not a lot of profit at the beginning for a financial institution and that’s probably the difference between a credit union and another financial. I don’t have shareholders to satisfy, so I don’t have to show necessarily a return on every deal we make. The return on the relationship isn’t our motivation.
“Our mission is people helping people, so we have a passion for helping them reach their goals and hopefully someday they will grow. But that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is just to help our members. This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”
The Hudsons see close alignment between OFW’s goals and SAC’s.
“One of the things the team at SAC is very passionate about is helping people get started. They’ve got that mission,” Nick says. “And we have that, too,” Brook says. “We’re a social enterprise.”
Nick says, “I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”
Getting up to speed
A typical designer who shows at OFW requires assistance with everything from establishing a business checking account to devising a business plan. But there’s much more they need to learn, including
understanding finance, buying, pricing, sales tax and various legalities.
“There’s a whole set of skills around doing those things,” Hudson says. “You might have it all worked out but then you need access to money – you need some money to make some money. Designers might have an opportunity to sell $10,000 worth of clothing but they don’t have the money to buy the $1,000 or $2,000 of fabric they need.
“We still have a lot of designers we deal with who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.”
The Hudsons regard the financial literacy entrepreneurs have to gain as empowering and critical to their success.
Nick says OFW and SAC are committed to “help people turn their passions into businesses or to help their existing businesses go further to make them self-sustaining. We’ve got wonderfully talented people having to fund their passion by working in a coffee shop during the day and then spending all night doing their passion.
“We’re trying to help them get to the next stage.”
He says with the skills development that goes on now informally through OFW and formally through Fashion Institute Midwest “more and more are now making a living – some are even employing people.”
Brook Hudson says it’s all about giving designers the tools required to reach more customers and find financial stability.
“In this day and age it’s a lot easier for an artist to turn their passion into dollars because of the Internet. They have a worldwide community they could potentially be selling to. So part of our challenge is helping them unlock that opportunity,” she says.
It’s important designers have the right mindset by being, what Nick calls, “more commercially-minded and thinking what customers want.”
“It”s a totally different ballgame to go from custom pieces to something designed from the beginning to be mass-produced,” Brook says.
Tailoring financial services to designer needs
The Hudsons introduce designers to SAC they consider ready to take the next step.
“Not every designer is ready for that,” notes Brook, who adds that some are intimidated by the prospect of working with a lender.
Bryan Frost and Erica Cardenas, owners of vintage-inspired boutique Wallflower Artisan Collective and designers of their own Wallflower apparel line, are excited to see how SAC can help them expand their apparel production capabilities. They say money’s critical if they’re to grow their business and if Omaha’s to grow a fashion hub. They’re encouraged that designers and lenders are finding alignment.
Samone Davis, owner-designer of the luxury streetwear brand Legalized Rebellion says she’s worked “diligently” with the SAC team to establish a line of credit for her label. She adds, “I definitely feel financial help is key to growth as long as there’s a solid plan and execution behind it. As designers we tend to get lost in our own minds. Sometimes we have to make sure we are focused and know exactly who we want to market to, otherwise there won’t be any progression.”
For designers like these, Gail DeBoer says, “we’re offering a kind of a concierge service,” adding, “We’re walking them through this journey. That begins by really developing a relationship with them to know what each one needs because they all have different needs depending on their business stage. We do look them in the eye to gauge how serious they are, how committed they are. We do talk with them in order to understand the uniqueness of their business and their challenges.”
SACFCU vice president of operations Keli Wragge is that concierge figure working with designers.
“Some are ready to take their designs to the marketplace and others are just getting started and wondering what they need to do in order to be ready for financing down the road,” Wragge says. “One client needs to expand and is looking at buying a commercial building. Another is about to open their first business checking account. Prior to this they transacted in all cash. There is a big gap between what the first member needs and what the second member needs.”
There are also many common issues designers face.
“Supplies and the cost of production are large expenses, especially if the designer isn’t a seamstress and has to hire outside talent,” Wragge says. “One of the big issues faced by designers is irregular cash flow and finding a way to live a comfortable life while trying to perfect their craft, innovate new designs and get a collection ready. Many designers have to have another income or job in order to support themselves.”
DeBoer says, “Just getting started and getting them to think about things they’re not even thinking about – often you don’t know what you don’t know – is huge. We bring in the right person at the right time from the credit union to help them through that next decision or that next product they might need. We want to make sure they have a business partner holding their hand, walking them through the process.”
There’s no guarantee any designers will make it.
“Whether they will all be successful, that’s up to them,” DeBoer says. “But we can certainly help them by taking away the challenge of writing a business plan or getting some early money to realize their dreams.”
Growing a design community and fashion industry
Nick Hudson is heartened by the way the metro’s fashion eco-system has evolved in less than a decade.
“There’s just so many more people and organizations involved and that’s what makes it grow,” he says.
The Hudsons have been planting seeds to see what takes root.
DeBoer says if a true fashion industry is to emerge here it must take the same intentional, step-by-step path that OFW has followed.
“You don’t start out with everything all at once. It has a life cycle and I think this is an exciting next step for Omaha Fashion Week and for us. I think everybody’s excited about taking it to that next level.”
Nick says, “The next stage is going to be helping with marketing and bringing the customers and sellers together.”
Increasingly, he says, designers sell their wares before and after OFW events.
He and Brook envision a brick and mortar base to anchor a dedicated design district. Having a critical mass of designers in close proximity to each other would provide access to shared spaces, facilities and services for sample making or material production and to economies of scale, efficiencies of operation and synergies of creativity.
“We’ve got to have everybody together working in one place and all that collaboration going on in order to reap some of those other benefits,” Brook says.
Ultimately, the Hudsons say if enough capacity is built a factory would be needed to manufacture the garments and accessories of not just local designers but of some select national and international designers.
Brook notes several major designers already have or are looking to move manufacturing from overseas to America, but many U.S. cities make that cost prohibitive. She says Omaha offers certain advantages, such as “great work ethic” and “low cost of doing business and living.”
Should fashion manufacturing ever happen here at scale, she says, “it would be powerful because that positions Omaha on a whole different level as a national player on the fashion scene, plus it’s creating jobs.”
Meanwhile, the creatives behind Wallflower and Legalized Rebellion say they appreciate the financial support system SAC offers as it propels their dreams and strengthens the design community.
The next OFW designer showcase is August 17-22. For details, visit omahafashionweek.com.
~ GAIL DEBOER
~ NICK HUDSON
~ GAIL DEBOER
My travels in Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with Pipeline Worldwide’s Jamie Fox Nollette, Terence Crawford and Co.
Here is my second published story about the Africa trip I made with a group of folks with Omaha ties, including two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford and his former teacher at Skinner Magnet School, Jamie Fox Nollette. This story in the August-September-October issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is a more comprehensive, overarching look at that experience than the piece I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
At the conclusion of this story is some expanded material explaining the impetus for my going to Africa, namely Terence Crawford, including more insight into him, his motivation for going, his relationship with Nollette, and how he wants to help people there and right back here in his hometown of Omaha, where he makes his home and has his B & B Boxing Academy.
My travels to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa were made possible by the Andy Award grant for international journalism I received from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. My reporting is meant to raise the global awareness of Nebraskans.
AFRICA TALES IN IMAGES
Here is a link to a video slideshow of the June trip I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with The Champ, Terence Crawford and Alindra I Person, Jamie Fox Nollette, Scott Katskee, Joseph Sutter and Julia Brown.
The visuals were edited, set to music, given movement and in some cases captioned by my friend Victoria White, an Omaha filmmaker.
NOTE: I am available to make public presentations about the trip and the video slideshow will be a part of the talk that I give. We will be updating the video slideshow with new images to keep it fresh and to represent different aspects of the experience we had in those developing nations.
My stories about the trip can be accessed at-
Our travel group, minus Jamie Fox Nollette, who took this picture outside the Adonai Guest House in Kampala, Uganda
My travels in Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with Pipeline Worldwide’s Jamie Fox Nollette, Terence Crawford and Co.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appeaing in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Nebraskans connect with Africans on trip
A chronicle of the June 1-12 humanitarian visit The Champ and his ex-teacher made to developing nations
I never imagined my first venture outside the United States would be in Africa. But in June I found myself in the neighboring East African nations of Uganda and Rwanda as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
I accompanied a small group under the auspices of Pipeline Worldwide, a charitable organization with strong Omaha ties. The nonprofit supports sustainable clean water projects as well as self-sufficiency programs for vulnerable youth and women.
Pipeline co-founder and executive director Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native, goes three times a year to check progress, assess needs and meet partners. She also raises awareness by bringing folks over and documenting the visits for prospective donors. She’s among scores of Americans, including Nebraskans, serving Third World countries. Though secular, Pipeline partners with faith-based groups. Her passion for serving Africa began with a 2007 church mission trip there.
She was Mother Hen for the trip I made.
Our ranks included a star – two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha – who’s perhaps the most accomplished Neb. athlete in my lifetime.
Despite being a newsmaker, his visits to Uganda and Rwanda last August with Nollette went under the radar. It’s the way he wanted it. He’s low-key, even nonchalant about what he does to broaden his mind, see the world and help his community.
He doesn’t want to be thought of as just a fighter, though.
“I’m a human being just like anyone else,” he said,
You may wonder what compelled this 27 year-old at the top of his game to go, not once but twice, to developing nations beset by poverty, infrastructure gaps and violent legacies when he has the means to go anywhere. Well, it turns out Nollette was his fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School in North Omaha, where they bonded, and they still click today.
He was a hard-headed kid from the streets carrying “a chip on my shoulder.” She was a calming influence at school, where he often acted out, except not in her classroom.
He and Nollette, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, reconnected in 2014. She’d followed his prizefight success from afar and reached out to congratulate him.
“I told him how proud I was of him,” Nollette said.
When he discovered she did work in Africa he asked her to take him to the “motherland” he feels an ancestral draw to.
Traveling there also feeds Crawford’s heart for people less well off than himself, especially children. His generosity’s well-known. Crawford supports Pipeline’s work by bringing attention to it – he’s headlined fundraisers in Omaha and Phoenix – and she supports his B & B Boxing Academy. She’s leading a capital drive to expand the facility so it can serve more youth.
Loyalty is important to him. The coaches and trainers in his Team Crawford camp have been with him for years.
His “trust” in Nollette as someone who’s got his best interests at heart is reciprocated by him having her back.
After learning their shared history, their having gone to Africa and their planning to return, I applied for the grant to fund my Africa travel. That’s how I ended up half way around the world with a boxing star and a humanitarian.
A well that Pipelne Worldwide helped make happen in Atiak, Northern Uganda
Our merry band in far distant lands
However, those two weren’t the whole story. We were a diverse seven-member group all affected by the places we went, the people we met and the stories we heard. The experience stretched us in new directions and offered new perspectives.
Nollette, our laidback leader, encouraged us to appreciate the human dimensions of what we witnessed as active participants,
Crawford, our by turns stoic and silly star, traveled with his girlfriend and the mother of his children, Alindra “Esha” Person.
Person, who’s a match for her man, expressed fears about the trip but proved a real trouper. Like her mate, she has a soft spot for kids and loved on them every chance she got.
Scott Katskee, an international apparel entrepreneur originally from Omaha and now living in L.A.,, is a big, gregarious, inquisitive man with a blend of street smarts and sophistication.
Joseph Sutter, a 2015 Millard West graduate, loved being in the company of his idol, Crawford, whom he played sidekick to.
Julia Brown, a recent Phoenix-area high school grad, didn’t say much but her heart for children shined through.
That left me capturing Africa’s contrasting tableaux. Traveling by mini-bus and land cruiser, we bounced from urban to rural areas and back again, often via heavily rutted dirt roads.
Busy, jam-packed cities gave way to sleepy rural spots. Hours of open plains followed by winding hilly terrain. I’ll never forget the beauty and power of hiking Murchison Falls or the wonder of being on safari and coming up on two lion prides. Roadside shanties sometimes sprawled only a stone’s throw from gated communities and luxury hotels.
Nollette said there’s no substitute for going to remote regions and urban slums “if you really want to see how people live.”
Sights that stick in my mind:
Vendors hawking wares.
Workers tending fields.
Farm animals foraging in front of homes.
Boda boda (motorbike) drivers darting through traffic.
Roosters waking us in the morning.
Children singing, drumming, laughing.
Catholic Mass celebrated in Latin, English and Swahili.
We’re not in Nebraska any longer
As fellow travelers we shared something potent together we won’t soon forget. Our June 1-12 journey was an odyssey for all, even those with extensive international experience. For this virgin globe-trotter it constituted an outside-the-box leap of faith.
Nollete described what the trip demanded and gave.
“These trips are hard, We are all away from home, out of our comfort zones – some way more than others. Not in control, thrown in a group with people we do not really know and usually would not try to get to know. We eat different, sleep less and see some really impactful things we’re not sure what to do with. That creates some dynamic situations. My hope is people come and see some things that are new, feel something different and learn not only about the countries and people but about themselves.
“Being out of control, uncomfortable and in new surroundings can foster growth. That’s not what people sign up for but most people will probably admit they experience some sort of transformation.”
I don’t know yet how I’ve grown from this, except perhaps I’m more patient and tolerant.
It’s important to note I went as an innocent abroad. Going in, I knew little about Uganda and Rwanda and after being there only 10 days I don’t pretend to be an expert. Our itinerary revealed different sides of those nations, but they were just snapshots of complex societies and cultures.
My greatest takeaway from Africa is its immense resources and challenges, which equates to vast unmet potential. As Nollette pointed out, the people want the same things we do but the barriers to entry for Western-standard living are steep. These are developing nations in every sense. Folks trying to improve things there measure progress in small steps that might seem insignificant to us but make a big difference in people’s lives.
On the flight from Amsterdam to Uganda I sat next to medical anthropologist and linguist Anna Eisenstein, a University of Virginia doctoral student doing field work in southwest Uganda. She lives with a village family and as she builds relationships with locals she conducts interviews. Her explanation of her work lent insight into the world I was entering:
“I’m studying the way people think about their bodies, how they think about health care and how they make decisions about when to go to the healer or the herbalist or when to go to the public health system. If they’re going to see a healer their family knows, it looks very different than going to the public hospital. If people are coming out of an encounter with bio-medicine rooted in colonialism then they have a lot of reason not to trust doctors or to take pills or want to be proactive. Also the public health system functions in English, which can be a barrier as well.”
Her comments stuck with me during my stay in Uganda, where vestiges of colonial rule persist.
She also told me what I could expect from the people.
“Everyone I’ve met has been so welcoming and friendly and kind and I hope you’ll find the same. There’s a lot of emphasis on hospitality and on making others feel welcome.”
Indeed, we came face to face with warm hospitality wherever we went. In Kampala, cancer-stricken children and their mothers at Bless a Child welcomed us with sweet formality. Sports ministry officials treated us like VIPs owing to the presence of The Champ, whom they greeted like a returning prince. In Atiak. a region of northern Uganda, young women recovering from trauma honored us with a rousing tribal dance and a hearty meal in appreciation for our group outfitting their newly dedicated dorm with bedding. Their sweet sisterhood enchanted us. In Luwero trainees at the African Hospitality Institute prepared a gourmet feast for us.
In the Rwanda highlands, pygmy village residents performed a traditional dance we reciprocated in kind.
We were welcomed into homes with mud walls, a thatched roof and bare possessions. When we visited organizations staff eagerly showed us classrooms, nurseries, clinics, guest houses and residential units. In many areas, access to clean water is an ever-present issue. The presence of a working community well or tank or pipe is cause for celebration. All too often rural folk must travel distances by foot or bike or boda boda lugging plastic yellow Jerry cans to fetch or return water. Without any or reliable home refrigeration, people shop at outdoor markets to supplement daily food needs subsistence farming doesn’t provide. Wooden stalls overladen with fruit, vegetables, oils, spices, grains, meat and fish do a brisk business as do their equivalent piled high with clothes, bags, tools, electronics. In slums, where there’s no sanitation system, human refuse runs free when the rains come.
I left feeling humbled by the scale of need and grateful for my own good fortune.
This impressionistic account dispenses with chronology in favor of moments and individuals that impressed me. My hope is you’ll find something that sparks your own journey or quest.
Young women being reintegrated into society after suffering harsh things at the hands of rebel soldiers; those pictured here were among the residents of the newly dedicated dorm in Atiak who fed us and danced and sang for us in appreciation for our outfitting their living space with bedding
Getting to know you: Partners
I barely knew Nollette before the trip. I soon saw her dedication is sincere. She’s learned lessons in eight years serving Africa, none more vital than finding the right people on the ground to work with. She introduced us to several Pipeline partners in Uganda she’s close to. Ben Kibumba with Come Let’s Dance, Richard Kirabira with Chicken City Farms and Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe at Saint Monica’s. They lead efforts to educate, train and employ locals, no small feat in places where poverty and unemployment are widespread and opportunity limited. Adding to the challenge are transportation issues, resource shortages, misappropriated aid monies and emotional scars from civil war (Uganda) and genocide (Rwanda).
“Partnerships and relationships are crucial,” Nollette said. “It is very difficult to manage projects overseas. Since there is a great deal of corruption, you have to develop trust. Once we’ve identified potential partners with strong leadership, we start slow with small projects. We see how they do with communication, execution and accountability. We don’t expect them to be perfect. Many organizations we work with are grassroots just like us, but we believe in their vision and leadership. We emphasize collaboration and problem solving.
“It’s so hard here to try and do things on your own.”
Nollette cultivates leaders and facilitates their networking together. At one stop she presented partners with Samsung Galaxy tablets so they can better communicate-coordinate with each other and do better project management.
“They’re all great leaders. The cool part is these guys are now collaborating.”
Networking helps Pipeline track projects and programs. Pipeline is a conduit feeding the change agents it supports with what they need. Sometimes that means connecting partners.
Nollette said, “For example, Richard with Chicken City Farms has figured out brick making using a brick making machine with interlocking bricks. It can cut the cost of construction by 30 percent because it doesn’t require as much cement. We introduced him to Sister Rosemary and Ben Kibumba. Richard’s team is training Sister Rosemary’s and Ben’s teams on this process by building guesthouses for them. Not only will they learn this new skill that cuts costs, but they can continue to make bricks and sell them as an additional revenue stream.”
Leveraging expertise and resources, Pipeline strives to create synergies for sustainable change.
Nollette said it takes time to fully discern needs and challenges and get people thinking longterm.
“I’ve learned many Africans want to withhold information for fear the support may go away. They also tend to think about immediate fixes rather than long-term solutions. When most people wake up each day and have to walk for water and get food for the day, it is difficult to think beyond that. We talk a lot about solutions that are sustainable.”
Two of her most trusted liaisons are Apollo Karaguba in Uganda and Christophe Mbonyyingabo in Rwanda. Besides serving as our tour guides, they took us to programs serving residents of urban slums and isolated rural villages. Pipeline partners with Apollo’s employer, Watoto Child Care Ministries, and with Christophe’s own CARSA.
Nollette sings the praises of Apollo and Christophe, two affable men with burning intensity.
“I’m mostly impressed with their passion and commitment to make a difference in the lives of others. I can count on them for anything and truly think of them as brothers. It’s an honor to work with them. They are also eager to listen and learn and help with other projects even when it doesn’t benefit their own organizations.”
She and her family are especially close to Apollo, who in turn is close to Terence Crawford.
“I feel like I’ve adopted both of them,” she says of the guide and the boxer.
Nollette’s brother is financially helping Apollo and his two siblings finish their university studies. When Crawford hit it off with Apollo on his first Africa visit, he flew him to America to watch his Nov. lightweight title fight defense in Omaha. Apollo enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with Nollette’s extended family. A friend and associate of Apollo’s, George Lingo, was our driver in Uganda. Pipeline is helping pay for one of his son’s studies.
Apollo’s employer, Watoto, houses and educates orphaned children in Uganda, where soaring teen pregnancy and poverty create a crisis of abandoned youth. We met boys living in a Watoto family-style home. Each home has a maternal caregiver and her own children. The caregiver is mother to them all.
Three of the boys we met stayed with Nollette and her family in Phoenix when traveling to perform in a Watoto choir last year. She’s attached to one of them, Peter. He and his buddies joined us for dinner one night and Peter, who spent part of a bus ride next to Nollette, didn’t want to return to Watoto that night.
“It was particularly painful when Peter asked me if they could stay the night and if he could have more time with me,” she recalled. “It reminded me again that everything matters. Even If it doesn’t seem like much, it has huge impact. All Peter wants is my time and love – something so easily given.”
The attention he craved reminded her of The Champ at that age. Crawford was a handful in school but never gave Nollette grief as he found in her a caring, compassionate teacher.
“I remember Terence saying the same thing to me on our last trip back in August. I asked him why he didn’t get into trouble in my class and he said it’s because he knew that I cared about him. Some things we do, it’s hard to measure the impact.”
Pygmy villagers showing their gratitude for our visit to view their challenging living conditions and to hear their needs
People helping people
Ben Kibumba, like many Pipeline partners, escaped the same dire straits of poverty and homelessness as the children that his Come Let’s Dance (CLD) serves through its school, clinic, farm and housing. He’s learned you can only move people forward when their basic needs are met.
“You can’t dream when you’re hungry,” he said. “When you’re fed, you can dream of things bigger.”
CLD’s Thread of Life program targets single mothers in the slums, some of whom who turn to prostitution to get by. Others can’t afford sending their kids to school. Thread of Life gives women a safe place to live and the opportunity to learn sewing-beading skills they use to make jewelry and apparel whose sales earn them a living wage.
Program directors Mercy and Florence say some participants have left behind exploitation and dependence to move out of the slums and live healthy lives with their kids.
Pipeline supports this and similar programs that train and employ African women to sew. Nollette’s also launched a business, C ME Stories (http://cmestories.com/), where U.S. designers create patterns for apparel-accessory products women in Uganda produce.
“We pay women for each piece they make. The idea is to have a recurring business model and pay women a good wage for the work they do. They learn to save as well,” Nollette said.
At her Saint Monica facilities in Gulu and Atiak, Uganda world renown humanitarian Sister Rosemary and staff empower exploited females, who are trained and employed in sewing and beading. Many were abducted as girls by rebels and forced into sex slavery, marriage and childbirth. Through education, community and work, they build self-esteem and self-reliance.
“She’s my type of person,” Nollette said of the charismatic nun. “She’s a problem-solver and knows how to get things done. One of the things she said to me was, ‘You know Jamie, we understand how to do all the little things that turn into big things.’ She loves those women and it shows. Her work is incredibly difficult and yet she is always fun to be around. Contagious is the best word to describe her.”
About the women at Saint Monica’s. Sister said, “They’ve seen a lot of bad stuff. That’s why it’s good to get a lot of people who can come and show them a different face of the world. If they remain by themselves they will not know anything else.”
A shy resident she introduced us to, Evelyn Amony, was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels at age 12 on her way to school and like other taken girls forced to do and witness awful things. She became one of LRA leader Joseph Kony’s many wives and bore him three children. She lived in hiding with him until the Uganda army intervened.
Since regaining her freedom, she said, “I find a lot of improvements and changes in my life.” Amony said she enjoys the work she does and the pleasure it gives others. As if to prove it she modeled a blouse she makes and designs, too. She smiled as we admired her handiwork.
Nollette said, “When you empower women to be able to actually support themselves and to be able to pay for their kids’ schooling it’s really important. When a mom is able to afford to send her own child to school it teaches the value of education.”
Giving people the means to break cycles of misery and achieve self-sufficiency is a big focus of Pipeline and its partners. In his own way, Crawford tries doing the same thing at his gym.
Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira’s passion for helping others led to them getting full-ride college scholarships in the States. Now these entrepreneurs are applying what they learned by giving back to their homeland.
“We came back with a a very single purpose – to create startups that help youth get the opportunity to work. That’s the biggest need – jobs,” Mugabi said.
His telecom service business Connect offers employment and internship opportunities and conducts tech training at colleges.
Kirabira, whose Chicken City Farms ministry trains young men to raise chickens to market and to operate their own small farms, said, “We want to lead people in all areas but focusing on economic empowerment because we believe when someone is economically stable you can talk to them about Christ. But if I’m not stable, if I am not sure what I’m going to eat tomorrow, your message may not even make sense to me. So we try to tackle the gospel by bringing some hope for people to take care of their families and their needs.”
Bottom-line, Kirabira said, “Young people here need an opportunity to work. That’s what will turn around the country.”
Jamie Fox Nollette with Sister Rosemary at the nun’s Saint Monica’s campus in Gulu, Northern Uganda
In places haunted by terror and violence, healing’s in order, too. Gacaca courts attempted to foster healing In Rwanda, where CARSA walks directly related genocide perpetrators and survivors through reconciliation workshops. After years of mounting tensions, a contrived ethnic war pitted the majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis. Wholesale slaughter ensued. We met survivors who lost their family and home. Pipeline’s building a home for a widow survivor named Catherine. We met a young man who’s forgiven the person who killed his siblings.
Christophe translated for us.
A man and woman bound by pain shared their testimonies. He’s Hutu and she’s Tutsi. They were neighbors. He was friends and drinking mates with her husband, He admitted getting caught up in the blood lust of atrocities. He participated in her husband’s murder and stole her home and possessions. He served 11 years in prison for his crimes. She had trouble moving on after losing so much, including two children. After the perpetrator’s release from prison he returned to their village and she couldn’t bear to see him. With support from CARSA she found the strength and grace to forgive him. The pair now share a cow they tend, enjoying the milk and calves it produces.
Of the man who caused such heartache she’s neighbors with again, she said, “He was able to open up and open the secret of his heart to us and I did the same towards him and I’ll tell you since then things have changed. Now we not only greet one another but we are friends.”
We were all struck by what we heard. Scott Katskee said it was the most moving thing he experienced in Africa. Crawford found it “crazy” i.e. amazing one could find peace amidst such angst. Julia Brown doubted reunification could happen here.
Nollette said, “The stories in Rwanda are deeply personal and I always feel honored these people share them with us. Catherine, the widow who lost her husband and child and is currently living with her sister, seemed especially sad. I could sense she feels hopeless. Christophe told her we wanted to build her a house, but I don’t think she believes it will happen.”
Catherine, a genocide survivor in rural Rwanda
We met other Westerners whose Africa commitment has changed their lives. Former CNN reporter Patricia Smith does marketing for Saint Monica’s. During our visit she documented the blessing of a new dorm in Atiak and our supplying bedding for the female residents, who worked merrily alongside us. Maggie Josiah sought radical change and found it at the African Hospitality Institute she carved out of the bush in Luwero, a district in central Uganda. AHI trains women to work in Uganda’s booming hospitality industry.
A few years ago Canadian Randy Sohnchen and his wife moved to Uganda, where he now runs Omer Farming Co., one of several agricultural concerns looking to turn millions of untouched acres of rich soil into producing croplands. “It’s got all the makings of a classic land rush,” he said, adding productivity gains should improve Ugandans’ quality of life. His decision to live there, he said, is based on his experience that “nothing lasting happens unless somebody dwells.”
Apollo agrees that “being on the ground” is indispensable and “totally different” than managing things long-distance.
Sohnchen’s done development work elsewhere and he said, “In 15 years this country will be transformed. It’s gonna happen, I’ve seen it happen in other places. It will happen here.”
Americans Todd and Andria Ellingson caught the vision, too. but soon after moving to Rwanda to start a school they thought they’d made the biggest mistake of their lives.
“Everything fell apart. It was nothing what we thought it would be. Finally, after much reevaluation and just staying the course,” Todd said, “we’re seeing the impact, we’re seeing the fruit of what we planted and watered.”
Their City of Joy consists of a school, a kitchen, a well, a water tower. A church is being built. They brought electricity to the community. They’re looking to help farmers reap more yield. That doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier,
“Still lots of doubt, even today,” he said. “Am I really making a difference or am I just enabling and spoon-feeding?”
He said living and working in an isolated area so far from home “there’s that constant stress of being in a different culture,” adding, “If you don’t focus on keeping yourself healthy, you can crash and burn here. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, but the hardest.”
Respecting African autonomy and aspirations
Nollette said many Westerners who come make the mistake of wanting “to fix everything,” adding, “If you try to do everything for everyone then it’s unlikely you’ll do anything of much substance. It’s easy to come in and act like Santa Claus. It will make you feel better, but the reality is when you leave you haven’t done anything to help. I want our help and support to be meaningful and sustainable. I want to have real impact that outlives our visits.
“The key is collaboration. It requires us to be true partners – ready to listen and learn. We need to be the supporters and empower the local leaders. It’s not as glamorous but it is what allows for meaningful change.”
She used as an example the Rwandan pygmy village Christophe took us to. Residents depend on an unreliable water supply and they can’t make a living from the pots they fire and sell.
“It’s obvious they need help but what to do will take some time,” Nollette said. “Is there a way to capture and store the water? Do we train them on a new skill so they have a better way to earn income? Christophe and I both agree we don’t know the best solution at this time. We’re going to have to learn more and discuss various options.”
Apollo said there’s no shortage of resources flowing in from governments, NGOs and other sources. Corruption siphons off much of it, but even what’s left he said is controlled by outside, often non-African forces. It’s an old story in these former colonial lands where British rule persisted.
“They brought civilization, they brought education, clothing, but they also promoted slavery. They gave us guns to kill ourselves, they divided us, they diluted us.”
Africa’s come to rely on and rue white influence. In the poorest spots we visited children excitedly waved and shouted “mzungo” (rich whites). Apollo did, too, as a child.. I asked what he was thinking when he saw whites then.
“Opportunity. Every time you saw a white person you thought of opportunity, financially, because when you’re growing up you watch movies and everything you see about Europe or America is nice roads, nice cars, nice houses. Even the poor live in very decent homes. So maybe a white person might throw some money at you. Yeah, growing up that’s what I felt. Sometimes just being able to have a white person notice me was big. I remember standing by the roadside when a car or a bus went by with white people. I would run screaming and waving, and it just took one person to wave back and that was just heaven to me. I can say the same for most of my friends.”
“Is it the same with today’s kids, too?” I asked.
“Is there ever any negative connotation to this?”
“Not with the children. The adults, if they’ve had education, they know what the British did, they came and looted our continent, so there’s a bit of bias.”
Joseph Sutter articulated the conflict many of us felt as privileged Americans just passing through. “You have a guilty conscious the way they look at you when we’re driving by.” Referring to the gifts we handed out here and there, Nollette said, “Are we doing anything good by giving suckers and jerseys? No.”
“Well, it makes them happy for a second,” Julia Brown noted.
Nollette said feel-good, bandaid fixes won’t solve a person’s or a nation’s systemic problems. Change must begin with a better educated populace and committed new leadership,
“When people have access to good education they learn what’s possible,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to partner with developing leaders.”
Given the instability of the Ugandan civil war and Rwandan genocide of only a decade and a generation ago, respectively, she said people who lived through those times are apt to have lower expectations.
“Knowing there may be some corruption and there’s no innovation and infrastructure, they’re okay because they don’t want the alternative.”
Younger people are more demanding.
“They’re looking for leadership, they want education, they want to develop the country.”
Apollo said, “The biggest challenge we have is leadership and stewardship. We must raise a generation that grows up with integrity, that is corrupt free and that will be true stewards of the resources of this nation and this continent.”
From left to right, our Ugandan guide Apollo Karaguba, Terence Crawford and Joseph Sutter
Coming and going
Nollette doesn’t ever want to assume she has things figured out. It’s a sensitive point brought home by none other than Terence Crawford, a product of a ghetto she only has glancing knowledge of, much like Africa’s slums.
“It’s the same thing I talk to Bud about all the time. He’ll say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re right, I don’t know, you have to tell me what can I do.'”
Just like our visit to the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda couldn’t possibly help us understand the scope of carnage and despair that resulted when madness befell the nation.
“I think it’s really sad,” Julia Brown said. “It makes me feel every one here must have been affected but it doesn’t seem like it, everyone’s going about their day normally. It’s hard to picture anything that happened even though I just saw pictures.”
“Sobering. I can’t imagine what those people went through when there were just dead bodies everywhere,” said Scott Katskee, who had a friend die in his arms on a Nepal mountain trek. “It was hard for me to reconcile one dead body. But this…”
It’s a grim recent past but Nollette’s focused on helping Rwandans and Ugandans move forward.
“Every time I go on a trip it reminds me of how important the work we’re doing is and to keep faithful and dedicated. It can be draining and frustrating at times but when I see our partners and projects, it makes me forget everything else. Their sacrifice and dedication inspires me.”
Nollette said her husband supports her work and the travel it entails. It’s become a family affair, too. He went in February. Their son Sam in 2012. “Sam raised money for three wells hosting a baseball tournament. It was a huge personal highlight for me. He wants to go back,” she said. “I’m bringing my youngest, Shea, with me in November. I plan on taking my oldest, Morgan, next June when she graduates from high school. They have to raise their own money to go.”
Several in our party expressed a desire to return. As for myself, I recall what someone we met said about his first coming to Africa: “What an eye-opener. The biggest life lesson I’ve learned. America is not like the rest of the world.” Or as someone in our travel group put it: “There’s so much more to the world than just Nebraska.” Ah, there you have it. Now that I’ve expanded my horizons I want to see more because I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s so much more to see and do.
I’m reminded, too, of what a priest friend of mine who’s done missionary work in far-flung places refers to as crossing bridges. He says every time we venture into a new culture we cross a bridge of insight and understanding. Having finally taken such a big leap of my own, my appetite has been whetted for more. Therefore, I fully expect to make new crossings that further open my eyes and stretch my boundaries.
As I discovered, making connections with people in places as distant as Africa is only limited by our means and imagination. Not everyone can go there for themselves, but they can support projects and programs that make a difference.
Catholic Mass in Atiak said in Latin, English and Swahili
My impetus for going to Africa – Terence Crawford – and what you should know about him and his heart for people
©by Leo Adam Biga
Terence chilling at one of our many stops
Two-time world champion follows his ex-teacher to Africa
The Champ goes to Uganda and Rwanda twice in a year
Setting the stage
I have followed hometown hero prizefighter Terence “Bud” Crawford for two years. In that short span he’s become a transcendent figure whose personal story of rising to the top transfixes anyone who hears it, regardless of whether they follow boxing or not.
His notoriety cuts across race and class rivals if not surpasses that of Neb.’s most decorated homegrown athletes. Among in-state natives, he just may be the most dominant in his sport since Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was in his prime with the St. Louis Cardinals nearly a half-century ago.
It never occurred to me I would go to Africa to cover Crawford. I mean, I could see myself going to another state to report on one of his fights or visiting his training camp in Colorado Springs. But Africa? Not a chance.
Only I did go – to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa of all places.
My Global Awareness – Journeys chronicle in Metro Magazine is a compendium of that June 1-12 trip. The fighter is not particularly featured in that piece because the trip wasn’t about him. But as I would never have gone there were it not for him, I find it necessary to share here more about the young man who has so captivated us. I also share why making that journey at this juncture of his career is such a compelling part of his story.
So much of Crawford’s tale reads like a novel or screenplay. During his hard-knock growing up in the inner city, street fights and pickup games were a rite-of-passage and proving ground. His formal training began at the CW Boxing Club, where right from the start he showed great promise and dreamed of winning titles. An outstanding if frustrating amateur career saw him lose a controversial bout in the National Golden Gloves finals in Omaha.
He nearly lost his professional fight career and life when he suffered a gunshot wound to the head. His rise up the pro ladder happened in relative obscurity and outside the view of his homes until his amazing 2014 run. He won the WBO lightweight title in Scotland and defended it twice before huge crowds in his hometown. He began 2015 by winning a second world title in Texas. Now he’s in line to fight the sport’s biggest names for mega bucks.
Lots of honors have come his way:
•Named WBO Fighter of the Year
•Named Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year •Inducted into the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame
•Inducted into the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
•Likeness added to Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor
•Made the cover of Ring Magazine
•Immortalized in a mobile mural by artist Aaryon Lau Rance Williams
All by age 27
He also his own gym, B & B Boxing Academy, where his Team Crawford works with promising amateur and pro fighters. It’s right in the neighborhood he came up in. He’s a family man, too, who shares a home with his girlfriend and their four children.
Then there’s the whole story behind why he went to Africa and who
he went with. It involves his fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School in North Omaha, Jamie Fox Nollette, whose Pipeline Worldwide supports sustainability and self-sufficiency projects and programs in those nations. Pipeline also works in Ghana, Africa and in India.
The trip to Africa I joined Crawford and Nollette on was actually their second together there. When I learned that first trip had nothing to do with boxing. it peaked my interest, as it suggested a depth to the man I hadn’t considered before. His relationship with Nollette added a whole new dimension to his story.
Tellingly, another elementary school teacher who made an impression upon him, Sheila Tapscott, is also still in his life.
Upon finding out The Champ was going again with Nollette, I found the opportunity and means to tag along.
I flew out of Omaha with Crawford and his girlfriend Alindra “Esha” Person, who’s the mother of his children. Jospeh Sutter joined us as well. In Detroit we caught up with Julia Brown of Phoenix. Next onto Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where we met Scott Katskee, an Omaha native now living in L.A. From there we flew to our final destination, Entebbe, Uganda, where Nollette. who’d left the States a day earlier, met us.
After witnessing the want, the hope, the beauty, the despair of Uganda and Rwanda, I found there’s much more to Crawford than meets the eye. I found a man of contradiction and conflict, whose language and behavior can be inappropriate one minute and sensitive the next. He’s a big kid with a lot of growing up to do in some ways and wise beyond his years in other ways. His nonchalance masks a reservoir of deep feelings he doesn’t like showing.
No matter where he is, even Africa, The Hood is never far from him. But he’s not too tough or cool to admit Africa touched him.
“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and help people,” he told me. “It just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t in my life experienced anything of the nature they’re experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don’t have clean water. That’s one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it.
“They appreciate everything, even if it’s just a hug or a handshake.”
On his first visit he gave away all his clothes except for those on his back and on this last trip he gave away many T-shirts and other items. Last fall he paid for Pipeline’s Ugandan guide, Apollo Karaguba, to fly to America to see him fight and to celebrate Thanksgiving with Nollette’s family.
On the trip I made I saw Crawford interact with locals every chance he got. In Uganda he kidded with Apollo and our driver George, he haggled with vendors, he traded quips with noted Catholic nun Sister Rosemary, he played with children and he coaxed young women to dance to music he played. It was much the same in Rwanda, where he joked with our guide Christophe, danced with pygmies and entertained kids by throwing frisbees, doing backflips and handing out gifts.
He also enjoyed the hike, the safari and the gorilla trek that put our group on intimate terms with the wild.
Though clearly a public figure, Crawford rarely made himself the center of attention or acted the celebrity. He was just another member of our group. The few times he was recognized he obliged people with autographs or photo ops. The one special event set aside for him, a Uganda press conference, found sports ministry officials rolling out the red carpet for him. You see, boxing is big in Uganda and his visit constituted a big moment for Ugandans.
As usual, he took it all in stride. Nothing seems to rattle him.
Terence posing with boxers at the University of Pain gym after the Kampala press conference
Boxing as change agent
He touts his sport as a vehicle for steering inner city kids away from the mess many face. He even shared that message with sports ministry folks, boxers and reporters at the press conference.
“Boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity,” he said. “I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.”
He emphasized the “hard work” it took to get where he is. The boxers hung on his every word.
“Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”
He emphasized how much motivation and work it takes to be great.
“There’s going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you’ve got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”
Crawford handled himself well in that setting, He answered all their questions, posed for pictures, signed things and made everyone feel special.
In an interview with me, he spoke about his gym and his wanting to make it a sanctuary to get kids off the streets..
Show me that you care
“It’s not just all about boxing. We’re trying to teach the kids how to be young women and young men. We’re teaching them to have respect and dignity. We’re teaching life skills. You’ve got to be able to control yourself in the ring as well as outside the ring and boxing is a great way for kids to learn discipline.
“If they feel like nobody cares than they’re not gong to care, but if they feel one person cares than they tend to listen to that person.”
Crawford knows from personal experience what a difference one person can make. Nollette was among those who connected with him when he was a hard-headed kid who bristled at authority.
“She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me,” he said.
He needed someone to listen, he said, because “I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder.” Nollette took the time to find out why he acted out.
He knows, too, the difference a gym can make for a young person working out anger issues.
“It’s a good place to come and get away, release some stress, release some steam if you’re having problems at home or school and you just need to let it out. What better way to let it out than on a bag, rather than going somewhere else and letting it out the wrong way. I look at it as an outlet for the kids that are just hardcore and mad at the world because of their circumstances. They come to this gym and they feel loved and they feel a part of something. For some kids, feeling a part of something changes them around.”
“This is my community, B & B is my gym, so I am in it for the long haul. I’m not in it for the fame or anything like that. I could be anywhere but my heart is with Omaha. We just want to help as many kids as we can. Everything is for the kids.”
Carl Washington got him started in the sport at the CW, where Midge Minor became his coach. Minor’s still in his camp 20 years later.
Crawford hopes that some young people training at the B & B will one day take it over. Then they, too, will pay forward what they received to help a new generation of young people.
Each one, to teach one…
The gym is in a neighborhood plagued by violence. His own childhood mirrored that of kids living there today. It’s survival of the fittest. He got suspended and expelled from school. The lure and threat of gangs loomed large. Boxing became his way out.
Terence with Sister Rosemary
Staying true to his roots
His is a classic American success story of someone coming from the bottom up and making it to the top.
He’s fast become an icon and inspiration. He’s singlehandedly put Omaha on the boxing map and revived what was a dead sport here. HBO and TopRank are grooming him as pro boxing’s hot new face. Warren Buffett’s sported a Team Crawford T-shirt at one of his Omaha bouts. The fighter shows his hometown love by wearing trunks and caps with Husker and Omaha insignias. He’s thrown out the first pitch at an Omaha Storm Chasers’ game. He makes personal appearances delivering positive messages to students and athletes.
Amidst all the fame and hoopla, he’s remained rooted in his community. Yet he’s also found time to expand his world view by twice going to Third World countries when he could have chosen some resort. He considers Africa his second home.
“It IS home. I’m AFRICAN-American. It’s where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place.”
Just like his first visit there, he said, “I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”
As someone who prides himself in being a man of his word, he was pleased when Africans expressed appreciation for his not only saying he’d be back after his last trip, but actually returning.
The fact that he’s retained the same coaches and trainers who have been with him for years and that he supports his ex-teacher’s work in Africa speaks to his loyalty. What he gives, he gets back, too, thus making him a beloved star athlete and role model to the people and community he calls his own.
He hasn’t forgotten where he comes from and I doubt he’ll ever forget Africa. We don’t have much in common other than the same North Omaha roots, but the shared experience of seeing Uganda and Rwanda is something we’ll always have between us. That, and having the privilege of writing about the experience, is enough for me.
I never expected to be in Africa, let alone with him, but I’m glad it worked out that way.