Archive for the ‘Youth’ Category

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.




Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”


NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high; Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces

NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high

Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males.

The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doen’t put limits on students regardless of socio-economic, family or environmental circumstances. It provides fifth to ninth graders academic and exploratory experiences designed to transition them to high school.

It helps when kids aspire to success and mentors reinforce their aspirations. For director of programming Jannette Taylor that anything’s possible attitude is a welcome change from the despair she encountered as founder-director of Impact One, which among other things does gang intervention work.

“Working with the young people there I knew they had potential but they had to believe it. They’d had so many people telling them they couldn’t do something they started to believe that instead of believing in themselves, and that was a challenge,” she recalls.

After a stint with Weed & Seed under Mayor Mike Fahey, the then-Creighton University law student launched Impact

One as her impassioned response to quell rampant gun violence.

“I was really ambitious and naive. I believed I could do anything.”

In five-years she lost several clients as well as two of her own relatives to violence. Those tragedies brought home the toxic, consequences of limited expectations, negative perceptions and devalued lives. Emotionally wasted, she left, not expecting to return anytime soon.

“You would have a kid fill out an individual development plan and it would be so short-term because they didn’t think into the future what they could do. You’d be working with a kid one day and they’d be dead the next.”

She reached her breaking point.

“It’s hard to lose family members. It’s hard to lose kids you work with and love. I put all this time, energy and effort into trying to help people onto the right path. It was pretty much game over for me. I was pretty much done. I had given all I could give and I didn’t have anything else to give.”

Then NorthStar founder-director Scott Hazelrigg, who’d collaborated with Taylor and used her as a consultant, asked her to join NorthStar. She accepted. Now she’s refocused on helping her community again. Trusting Hazelrigg’s vision helped her decide to return.

“I just believe in what he’s doing – I always have. I think that’s why I jumped on board.”

He saw her as the right fit.

“We recruited Jannette back to Omaha,” he says, “because she really gets it. She cares passionately about these kids and not only wants to see them succeed but passionately believes they will succeed. We just have to give them the structure and the opportunity to do so.”

Cover Photo

Scott Hazelrigg, on the right back row

He says she helped build the NorthStar “climate and culture” that provides many avenues to discover passions and to build skills for future success. The center’s interior features learning labs, homework areas, a rock climbing wall and a basketball court. The exterior includes a sports field and garden. The comprehensive, experiential-based offerings range from art immersion to healthy lifestyles to employment readiness to chess, robotics, computer coding, culinary arts, gardening and lacrosse.

STEM education is stressed.

Youth also make college tours, visit historic cites, attend cultural events, go on wilderness treks and test themselves on the adjacent Outward Bound ropes course.

“Parents are really excited their kids here are able to find what their strengths and talents are,” Taylor says. “We do have research on all of our programs. Everything’s based off of a best practice model.”

At NorthStar every kid’s encouraged to try new things. She says unlike the punitive measures some schools use to deny behaviorally-challenged students participation in things like robotics, NorthStar uses incentives and old-school remedies to motivate kids.

Members are encouraged to seize and own their future rather than have it dictated to them.

“When I talk about our boys, I say these are our new leaders. That’s how I see them. One of the worst things we do is we put limits on kids. At NorthStar we do things and get them to critically think and that’s good because they’re young, they have potential and they believe it. I know they believe in themselves because I see it and hear it every day. In order for that to grow we have to have people that will believe in them and push them forward.

“I want this to be a brotherhood of us believing in the kids and them believing they can do anything.”


Empowering kids “to think differently about their future and getting them to realize, Hey, we can make opportunities for ourselves, helps prepare them to make smarter choices,” she says.
Molding kids at an impressionable age helps.

“What I love about NorthStar is that the kids are young, they haven’t been jilted by life, they haven’t had people beat them down and tell them you can’t do this. We have them playing lacrosse for God’s sake. They believe they have this potential to go and do great things. When kids have that faith and that belief, you can’t kill that. It really makes me happy to see a kid always in trouble in school or getting kicked out of other programs come and be successful here because we’re not telling him what he can’t do, we’re telling him what he can do.”

She says NorthStar rejects “assumptions kids coming out of North Omaha won’t amount to anything, especially African-American boys.”

“We don’t care what neighborhood you come from or what you’ve been through. We all have a story. What’s more important is where do you think you can go and how can I help you get there. We remove barriers for our kids. It’s why we have seventh graders writing essays for college scholarships.”

With high expectations comes accountability.

“A big component of NorthStar is trying to get kids to stay on course, stay on grade level. The curriculum is based off of Neb. state standards. We have really clear communication with parents, teachers and counselors.”

Hazelrigg says getting kids grade-ready before their sophomore year is critical as that’s when a disproportionate number of African-American students drop out after falling far behind.

He and Taylor say the academically rigorous summer camp is meant to reduce summer learning loss. Then, as during the school year, kids are kept engaged by programming of NorthStar’s own design or of partners’ design.

“Anything we can build up in these kids as far as character and leadership, we do.,” she says “If it’s something that fits with our core areas that will enrich the kids then well do it.”

Thus, NorthStar invites partner organizations in or brings kids out to partners to experience everything from live theater to ballgames.

Hazelrigg says compared to many after school and summer programs “we have more structure,” adding, “When kids walk in the door it’s not three hours of playing basketball – there’s a sequence of things they’re going to do. It’s how we expose them to a broad band of things.”

Taylor says a sure sign the center’s a hit is that despite being only a year-old it’s added feeder schools due to demand by students and parents. “They are our biggest advocates.” She says kids who come there “take ownership over this space and they don’t want to leave.” She notes some school staff want their kids there bad enough that they pay students’ yearly dues.

The center’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood whose troubled Park Crest apartment complex was known as New Jack City for its drug-gang-gun activity. That blighted omplex was razed to make room for NorthStar. Hazelrigg says, “We’re intentionally in the neighborhood as essentially the neighborhood school. We want this to be the safe space for kids living in this area.”

Taylor says the Omaha Police Department’s North Precinct reports reduced crime in the area, which has seen a community garden flourish, a Walmart open and a Heartland Family Services building renovation.

“It just changes the entire community when you have people investing in the communitys.”

For Taylor, the Impact One scars remain, though she says, “There were some good things that happened with that” job,

“Everything you go through is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Now it’s a time for healing and hope.


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 or call 402-403-9621.

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 ( charts her fast-rise to public figure.  On this blog you can find an earlier story I wrote about Tunette.



Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Somehow I missed it, but for years now my alma mater the University of Nebraska at Omaha has been making itself a national leader in local community engagement efforts and service learning projects.  In doing this story for Metro Magazine ( about the still new UNO Community Engagement Center I was properly schooled on just how deeply interwoven the university is in the community.  Just in the few months since filing this piece I’ve found myself drawn to that center for a variety of events.





Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Collaboration the hallmark of new university facility

Center in line with UNO’s metropolitan university mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February/March/April 2015 edition of Metro Magazine (
Since opening last March the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO has surpassed expectations in its role as a bridge between the university and the community.

“We knew it was going to be a benefit to the community,” CEC director Sara Woods says, “we just didn’t anticipate how much use it was going to get and how many organizations were going to take as much advantage of it as they have.”

In its first eight months alone the two-story, 60,000 square foot building located in the middle of the Dodge Street campus recorded 23,000 visits and hosted 1,100 events. The $24 million structure was paid for entirely by private funds. It’s namesake, Barbara Weitz, is a retired UNO School of Social Work faculty member. She and her husband, Wally Weitz, are longtime supporters of UNO’s service learning programs. The Weitz Family Foundation made the CEC’s lead gift.

As an outreach hub where the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nonprofits meet, the center welcomes users coming for meetings, projects and activities. Interaction unfolds transparently. Conference rooms have windows that allow participants look out and passersby look in. The glass-fronted facade offers scenic views of the campus and lets in ample sunlight. A central atrium creates an open, airy interior whose enclosed and commons areas invite interaction.

“This is a very public place and we want to keep it that way.” Woods says.

She, along with UNO colleagues, students and community stakeholders, worked closely with Holland Basham Architects to envision a collaborative environment that, she says, “feels different than any other campus building and offers incredible flexibility.” Project designer Todd Moeller says, “Spaces were intentionally arranged so that users would be prompted to utilize several parts of the building, thus increasing the opportunity for the spontaneous meeting.”

Artwork by several community artists adorns the walls. UNO junior art major Hugo Zamorano joined community artists in creating a 120-foot mural in the center’s parking garage.

Zamorano is a former tagger who found a positive outlet for his graffiti at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, under whose supervision he worked on several community murals. Now a mentor for the program, he joined two other artist mentors and three high school artists in creating the CEC mural symbolizing community engagement after input from UNO and community leaders.



Cover Photo



Diverse partners and spaces
Woods says the collaboration that went into the mural project mirrors the CECs intended purpose to “be a place where people gather, plan, collaborate to find ways to solve problems.” She says that’s exactly what’s happening, too. “People are holding workshops and meetings and conferences around critical community issues and these things are happening very organically, without any orchestration. We’re excited about the extent of use of it and the range of organizations using it. We’re excited about the debates, the dialogues, the forums.”

Nineteen entities – 11 nonprofits and eight university-based organizations – officed there last fall. Among the nonprofits are the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Inclusive Communities. Signature UNO engagement efforts housed there include the Service Learning Academy and the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility. All have different focuses but each is in line with serving the common good.

“They all work side by side in this great collaborative environment we created,” Woods says. “Those organizations are thriving here with us. They’re great ambassadors. They take advantage of our volunteers, our interns, our graduate assistants, our service learning classes. They have students work on special projects for them.”

Service Learning Academy director Paul Sather and Office of Civic and Social Responsibility director Kathe Oelson Lyons report new partnerships resulting from the ease of collaboration the CEC fosters.

“I mean, you just walk down the hall to have conversations with people,” Sather says and new partnerships get formed.

Building namesake Barbara Weitz, who serves on many community boards, says the sheer variety and number of organizations that office or meet there means connections that might otherwise not happen occur.

“People engage in conversation and find they have common interests. There’s just so many possibilities. The communication just starts to ripple and in a way that’s easy for everybody and in an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity.”

She says many small organizations lack space of their own for meetings and the CEC, whose meeting rooms are free for nonprofits meeting certain criteria, provides a valuable central spot for confabs. Those rooms come in a range of sizes and are state-of-the-art.

Among the CEC’s many engaging spaces, the Union Pacific Atrium, honors the legacy of Jessica Lutton Bedient, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and UNL Foundation employee who devoted her short life to volunteering.

Nine additional organizations were slated to move in over the semester break. In a few years the current roster of community tenants will have moved out and a new group taken their place. Whoever’s there the center will continue being a funnel for community needs and a tangible expression of UNO’s metropolitan mission to respond to those needs.


Fulfilling a larger community mission
“A metropolitan university has an obligation and commitment to serving its urban community and we do that through purposely applying our student, faculty and staff resources through teaching, service and applied research,’ Woods says. “It’s reciprocal in that way. We don’t just treat the city as a laboratory, although we want to learn from it and gain knowledge from it, but we try to do work that benefits the community as opposed to being in an ivory tower where the university exists within a metropolitan area but doesn’t necessarily give back.

“We really see ourselves as a thriving part of the metropolitan community and because of that we have an obligation to contribute to it. That’s our metropolitan mission. Not only is it part of our DNA we believe urban universities like ours are going to become more and more important going forward.”

She says the ever enhanced reputation UNO enjoys in its hometown is a direct result of the university “connecting to our community and showing the value we offer our citizens in so many ways and you see a lot of these things come together in this building.”

Woods says UNO’s engagement legacy is strong and ever growing.

“There’s a sea change taking place in faculty seeing engagement, whether through their research or teaching or service, as a natural part of what they do. This campus allows that to happen. A lot of physical, student and faculty capital is going towards that. It’s wonderful watching it grow. The CEC is one giant mechanism to promote engagement throughout this campus. We hope to support, encourage and promote engagement wherever it takes place at UNO.”

She says the center is “the only stand-alone comprehensive engagement-focused facility of its kind in the United States,” adding, “We’re very unique and we’re getting a lot of national attention.” Because access is everything the center’s easily found just south of the landmark bell tower and has its own designated parking.


Service learning projects and volunteering opportunities connect students to community
Being intentional about engagement means that not only UNO faculty and staff connect with community at the center, so too do students, who use the CEC to find service projects and positions in the metro.

“We know those co-curricular experiences are really helpful in building a student’s professional portfolio,” Woods says. “If we can engage students as volunteers or inservice they are more likely to do well in school, to be retained, to graduate, to get a good job in a profession. When they are successfully employed they are more likely to be engaged in their community. We know that’s even more the case for first generation students and students of color.”

UNO annually offers more than 100 service learning courses across academic disciplines. In service learning projects UNO students gain experiential opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real-life nonprofits and neighborhoods. UNO students work collaboratively with K-12 students on projects. Some projects are long-standing, such as one between UNO gerontology students and seniors at the Adams Park Community Center. Other projects are nationally recognized, such as the aquaponics program at King Science Center, where UNO biology and chemistry students and urban farmer Greg Fripp teach kids to build and maintain sustainable systems for growing food.

A new project recently found UNO political science students partnering with the Northwest High School student council on the No Place to Hate dialogue process taught by the Anti-Defamation League’s Plains States Region. The ADL invited 100-plus students from nine high schools to the CEC for a discussion facilitated by UNO-ADL. In small groups participants shared views on bullying and racial attitudes and strategies to increase understanding and compassion.

“It’s very much integrated learning where you take learning and combine it with the needs of a nonprofit or a neighborhood or a community organization,” Woods says. “Part of students’ academic credit is earned working with a partner organization.”

Students find other service avenues through the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility (CSR), whose the Volunteer Connection and the Collaborative pair students with organizations’ short term and long-term needs, respectively. Woods says these service opportunities are designed to “put more meaning into students’ volunteer experiences” by putting them into leadership positions. In the Collaborative UNO students serve as project managers for a year with the nonprofits they’re matched with, giving students resume-enhancing experiences that assist organizations in completing projects or events.

CSR director Kathe Oelson Lyons says, “Corporations are more and more seeking employees who are willing to engage in the community. We know service enriches students’ educational experience and that stimulates success in academics and in the soft skills of learning how to interact with others and gaining an awareness of the greater community. We know our students will leave with a rich set of skills transferable to any work environment upon graduation.”

“Service is a great open door,” Lyons says. “Anybody can do it and everybody is welcome. It allows for access to all and that’s a wonderful leveler for community and university. When you have students out in a neighborhood rehabbing a home they’re interacting with neighbors, who see that these students aren’t so different from me. It’s a great equalizer. Students learn a great deal from the community, too. They learn more about what the needs are, what’s happening in areas of the community they’d never entered before.”




Lighting the way
As a conduit or liaison for community collaboration, Lyons says the center “isn’t the end point, it’s the connecting point – we still need to be out in the community” (beckoning-reaching out). “That’s the power of the building. It’s kind of a beacon. It always feels like to me it’s the lighthouse and it shines the light both ways. It’s a reflection of who the university is and the university is a reflection of who the community is.

“What a wonderful symbol of a metropolitan university – to be a lighthouse of stewardship and scholarship.”

Donor Barbara Weitz was turned on to the power of service learning as a UNO faculty member. She and her philanthropic family regularly see the benefit of engagement on the social justice causes they support. Weitz sees the UNO Community Engagement Center as the culmination of what UNO’s long been cultivating.

“For me it’s the embodiment of what everyone’s been working towards at UNO, including the chancellor. This idea that we’re a metropolitan university set in the middle of a community with rich resources but also huge needs. The fact that we can a have a place where we come together and through a variety of methods, not just service learning, and meet and talk about what we’re working, compare it with what other people are working on, and find ways to partner.

“It’s all about bringing people together to create the kind of energy it takes to make big change in a metropolitan area. It’s the kind of vital space that’s needed on a college campus.”

Connect with the CEC at

Sex talk comes with the job for Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks

February 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Talking sex is what Sherri Nared-Brooks does for a living.  As the Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist she makes it her business to find out what risky behaviors people are engaging in and to get them tested and informed to help prevent them from becoming new casualties in the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases impacting urban Omaha, particularly the Africa-American community. My profile of her and her work is in the February 2015 issue of The Reader (


Bridge Church

Sherri Nared-Brooks and her mobile sex ed-STD testing clinic, ©Debra S. Kaplan



Sex talk comes with the job for county HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks: Telling it like it is no problem for this veteran on the sexual health frontlines

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (


America’s schizophrenic about sex. Images and hookups abound, yet in this information age many folks don’t know, follow or discuss safe practices. That incongruity explains why sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels and why things never slow down for Sherri Nared-Brooks in her role as Douglas County Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist.

Her main focus is North Omaha, where the epidemic’s acute among African-Americans. Her deep ties there, along with her straight talk and personal mission, give her street cred making the rounds at barber shops and clubs.

“I believe in keeping it real, so I talk in the vernacular they understand,” she says of young men and women she encounters at her office or out and about.

She knows urban sex slang and doesn’t make moral judgments.

“It’s about accepting people where they’re at and reminding them the things they’re doing are putting them at risk, so whether it’s at the jail or at a barbershop or I’m walking down 24th Street, I pass out condoms. They may not know my name, but they know me as the Condom Lady or the STD Lady.”

She addresses the topic, too, at prisons, hospitals, schools, churches, community centers, health fairs. Always looking for nontraditional sites, she has eight public libraries holding screenings.

In her experience young people are cool talkng sex but what kids get at school, home, worship center or doctor’s office is often woefully inadequate. That leaves teens gleaning often wrong or insufficient info where they can. Denial and magical thinking – “it happens to other people, not me” – run rampant. She fills gaps, dispels myths and emphasizes anyone not using protection or practicing abstinence is at risk, period. It’s about education and testing, but it starts with self-worth.

“It’s just about loving them and wanting them to love themselves. It’s getting people to understand they’re important and they need to take responsibility for their own health. I teach women they’re the prize. When you know you’re the prize you’re not going to just give yourself to anybody, because once he gets it from you he wants it from your friend, your cousin. If you keep yourself, he doesn’t have a choice but to respect you because you’re respecting you.

“The things I teach I had to learn over my own lifetime,” she says.

Raising five kids helped prepare her.

Then there’s the fellas.

“I tell guys, if she’s having sex with you that easy, you need to be afraid because she’s giving it to everybody else, too, and if she’s saying she doesn’t want to use a condom you really need to be afraid.”

When you have sex with someone, she stresses, you essentially have sex with everyone they’ve been with. It’s all about exposure. She imparts the same message to folks engaging in same-sex relations.

She enlists business owners as foot soldiers in the fight to reduce STDs. Alesia Lester at Gossip Salon, 5625 Ames Ave., is glad to help the cause. “Sherri comes in and educates us and that allows us to educate the client. She makes people aware. She’s very passionate about it and it’s so needed. I had a child at 15. I didn’t understand myself, so I definitely didn’t understand my body. I wish I’d had someone that could have sat me down and talked to me without me being afraid my mom would know. Sherri makes it plain and people respect her.”

“To me, they’re champions in helping get the word out to educate people,” Nared-Brooks says of community partners like Lester.

Nared-Brooks targets barbers, stylists, bartenders on the theory people open up about their sex lives to them. “You may not tell your doctor, but you’re going to tell your barber. They know who’s doing what.” She schools owners on the basics, leaving condoms, fact packs and kits for on-site testing. Lester welcomes it all. Both women say confidentiality is maintained throughout.

With so many places to hit and so many people at risk, Nared-Brooks ends up doing much work on her own time.
“It needs to be done.”

She calls her personal SUV “the STD truck” for all the supplies it carries. She trains others to do prevention-education work and she’d like to train more.”There’s only one of me,” she says.

She’s encouraged her strategy’s working when proprietors take the lead. Lester and her salon colleagues all tested and customers often ask for kits. Confirmation comes, too, when people seek the STD Lady’s advice about behaviors or symptoms and come in for testing.

“That makes me know I’ve done my job. Until we look at getting tested for STDs as a regular checkup and take away the stigma of it, the numbers are going to stay high. We need to give the message it’s OK to get tested and it’s kind of crazy to not get tested. You need to do it for yourself before you start sharing with someone else. And show each other your test results. Before my husband and I got married we showed each other our paperwork.

“It’s about loving me.”

Her husband, Walter Brooks, joins her on the front-lines of sexual health. They earned the Nebraska AIDS Project’s Shining Star Award for their awareness-prevention efforts. It wasn’t their first recognition. He covered prevention as a University of Nebraska Medical Center public relations specialist and still does for the Omaha Star. They met when he interviewed her.

She accepted his invitation to speak at his church. They’ve been a team ever since.

“My husband is awesome. He’s like my biggest fan, my biggest advocate. We do this community service together. He knows it’s not just something I do as a job. Right now, it seems like for me it’s life.

“When I stand before God and give an account of my life I want to know I used all my talents.”

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide  now appearing in The Reader (

NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate:

Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week:



Josh Dotzler



All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (


Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.

Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.

He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”

“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”

He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”




Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”

Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.

“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”

Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”

Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.

This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
Better Together



“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”

That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”

He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.

Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.

“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”

He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”

Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.




“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.

“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”

Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a  two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.

“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.

“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”

Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.

Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that


Basketball group


Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”

Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”

Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Andrew and Tete


Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.

“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”

Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.

Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.

“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”





Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.

“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.

“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”

Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.

“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”

But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.

“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.

It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”

Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.

“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”





He says a good day on the job can mean many things.

“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”

Making progress in any area satisfies him.

“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.

“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.

“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth.  God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”

Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.

“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”




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