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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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.
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 http://www.unomaha.edu/community-engagement-center.
Sex talk comes with the job for Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks
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 (www.thereader.com).
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 (www.thereader.com)
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.”
Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)
Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.
Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.
He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.
She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.
Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.
Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.
He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.
Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.
For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.
Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.
“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.
He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.
“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,
At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.
“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”
He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.
“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”
Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.
“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”
The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”
Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.
He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.
In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.
“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.
“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. ”
Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.
“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”
She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.
In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.
|Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes|
“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”
Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.
The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.
“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”
“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.
“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”
He despaired at what he found in that arena.
“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.
“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”
He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.
“Some of their stories broke my heart.”
The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.
“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”
Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.
“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”
All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.
He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”
Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.
“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”
This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .
“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”
At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.
After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.
“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”
She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.
“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”
She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.
Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”
Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”
The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”
Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.
“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.
Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.
Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.
“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”
The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.
Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.
“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”
“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.
“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”
She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.
“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”
Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.
“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”
“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.
Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.
“We were ragtag,” she says.
“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”
“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.
As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”
“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.
When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.
“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.
By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”
Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.
“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”
The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.
Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”
Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.
“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”
He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.
Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.
Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.
“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”
When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”
Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.
“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”
She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.
“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.
“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”
When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.
Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”
Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.
Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”
“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”
Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”
Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.
“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”
Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.
Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.
“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.
“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”
The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?
“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal. We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas. In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level. As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.
JOURNEYS: African Safari
JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.
The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.
The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.
The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.
“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”
Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.
OUT ON SAFARI
A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.
Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.
“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.
The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”
Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”
BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER
As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.
Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.
“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.
Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.
It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.
“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.
“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”
Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”
“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”
Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.
“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”
He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”
Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.
“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.
“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”
Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”
“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”
Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”
The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.
“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”
Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”
A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.
Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”
Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.
Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.
“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”
Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.
“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”
Being a well-run venue helps.
“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”
No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”
“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”
Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.
“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO