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Where Love Resides: Celebrating Ty and Terri Schenzel

February 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Where Love Resides: Celebrating Ty and Terri Schenzel
TY AND TERRI SCHENZEL
Laying a Foundation of Hope
Faith. Hope. Love. A Legacy.

I was privileged to write this Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) piece to commemorate the lives and works of the late Ty and Terri Schenzel as part of the pub’s Journeys series. The new issue is themed Loving Legacies: Love that Lingers, Love that Lasts. Anyone that knew the Schenzels know that they embodied love. The unconditional kind.

Laying a Foundation of Hope

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February-March-April 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

Ty and Terri Schenzel: Laying a Foundation of Hope

January 28, 2016 1 comment

 

I was privileged to write this Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) piece to commemorate the lives and works of the late Ty and Terri Schenzel as part of the pub’s Journeys series.  The new issue is themed Loving Legacies: Love that Lingers, Love that Lasts.  Anyone that knew the Schenzels will tell you that the couple embodied love.  Upon reading this story a friend of the Schenzels, named Ivy Jackson Ginn, posted, “Our best sentiments can never summate how much we loved and adored the Schenzels. Every day brings a new memory filled with laughter and fullness of life. They are irreplaceable and greatly loved by everyone they came in contact with. May each word bring joy and comfort over all who read them.” #carryingthebaton

 

 

 

 

Ty and Terri Schenzel: Laying a Foundation of Hope

Faith, Hope, Love, A Legacy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February-March-April 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

 

Where Love Resides

inspiring • compassionate • caring • loving • unconditional • dedicated • committed

When the shocking news of Ty and Terri Schenzel’s August 20 fatal automobile accident spread, it was as if the thousands whose lives they touched let out a collective gasp. Many questioned how this could occur to an admired couple whose gifts for engagement, invitation, acceptance and frivolity endeared them to many, A sentiment often expressed upon their passing is that they had the ability to make people feel a part of them even upon meeting for the first time.

This was not supposed to be how things ended for this golden, well-yoked pair, both popular pastors whose love affair began in seminary and never wavered in 30 years together. It seemed a cruel, premature exit for a duo who created a youth serving center and a marriage healing ministry founded and named after their core belief – Hope.

“When something like this happens there’s always questions like why and how could this happen,” says friend and fellow pastor Lincoln Murdoch. “They were getting ready to move into probably the sweetest time in their lives in ministry. These are questions that are never answered, especially when you consider how many marriages they would have impacted and saved through their ministry, and that makes it hard. But as I said at their funeral, we’re going to turn our why into thank you for knowing them, for being in our lives, for the influence they had on us and on so many others. We find some comfort when we go there with gratefulness.”

There is gratitude for all the work the Schenzels did at Trinity Church, where Ty was a youth minister, and the house of worship it transitioned into, Waypoint, where he was an associate pastor.

A ministry he and Terri developed out of Trinity led to their founding the Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha. There they leave behind not only a brick and mortar symbol of their community-based work but a thriving organization giving more and more at-risk youth the skills, services and resources needed for success.

At the October 2 annual Hope gala held in the CenturyLink Center Grand Ballroom, nearly 1,200 people attended and more than $600,000 was raised. It was direct confirmation of how far the Schenzels took what began as a vague dream in 1998. A video tribute and remarks by emcees and hosts paid homage to the Schenzels.

An earlier, much larger outpouring of love happened during the August 26 memorial service at Countryside Community Church, where 3,000-plus gathered to mourn their deaths and celebrate their lives. A pageant of people eulogized the Schenzels on that emotional occasion, when the loss was still fresh and raw. Speakers included the couple’s children, Emily, Annie, Tyler and Turner, along with old friends and colleagues.

 

 

 

 

 

Impact

In addition to their four children the Schenzels left behind two young grandchildren, with a third on the way. They left behind, too, scores of people they ministered to, worshiped with, counseled and advised. Their shared passion was helping people improve themselves and lead better lives.

‘They always had groups in their home they were leading, doing Bible studies with, mentoring,” Murdoch says. “You can’t just do that, you’ve got to have a gift to pull that off.”

Their legacy may also live on in the manuscripts each Schenzel was working on at the time of their deaths. The family is exploring their publication. Additionally, Ty left behind dozens of leather-bound journals he kept that could be a primer for faith, family and marriage.

The legacies left in the wake of their passing extend to countless friendships that came easily to the extroverted, fun-loving couple.

“I just miss the joy-filled friendship and the spontaneity of connecting,” Murdoch says, “and it was a real friendship formed over 35 years. They’re kind of rare nowadays and you don’t replace those.”

He referred to the times he and his wife spent with the Schenzels as “laughter therapy.”

“People loved being around them because within two minutes you were laughing. We loved getting together with them because if we were going through a hard time in ministry or in life we’d engage with them and laugh for a couple hours and feel a whole lot better by the end of the evening.”

Despite all the friendships they cultivated and the 24-7 demands of serving others, the three pillars of faith, marriage and family always came first for the Schenzels. That legacy lives on not only in the individuals they led to be born-again Christians, but in the way they raised their children and in the youth, family and marriage building work they did.

Murdoch always knew their wide impact but he was taken aback by the throng that came for their memorial. He was even more impressed by the fact they reached so many but still made family their priority.

“Yeah, really amazing, their influence was so wide. My wife and I were like, ‘Man, how did they have time to do that? How did they touch so many lives in the amount of years they had?’ They had this huge reach and yet amazingly enough they were able to give their family the best of themselves and everybody else got what was left over. But there was a lot left over. They were so engaged with their children, they spoke love and worth into their lives all the time.

“They had their values and priorities straight and they kept them straight. That’s a pretty rare thing nowadays. Even for well-intended people it’s tough to balance, especially in ministry because your job is never over. It can be like this black hole that never ends. But they were able to draw the boundaries they needed in their life. Great role models that way.”

 

 

Hope Center for Kids | Omaha, NE View Gallery »

 

 

 

Shining examples

The hurt of losing a couple that gave so much and had so much left to give runs deep but what consoles those who knew and loved the Schenzels is the assurance that they maximized their time on Earth.

Ivy Jackson was an original Hope staffer but she went back with the Schenzels before that – to when Ty did youth ministry at Trinity. If you knew one Schenzel, you knew the other. You became like family. She says their impact on her reflects how transformational a relationship with them could be.

“Everything Ty and Terri did, they were all in. You didn’t get half of them, you didn’t get a third of them, you got everything they were,” Jackson says. “Their legacy is that when you do find that thing you know you’ve been specifically made for – that’s something Ty was very big on –  you go in completely 100 percent and you do it well. Everything they did, they did well. They loved well, they ministered well, they laughed well. They did everything with all of their heart.

“They were all about what legacy will you leave in everything you do –when you kiss your children at night or talk to your spouse after a long day at work or engage with the checkout clerk at the grocery store.”

Because the Schenzels didn’t skimp on life, it makes their loss easier to accept, Jackson says.

“When you see everything they’d done up to this point you think to       yourself, It’s OK they’re gone because you didn’t see any holes in their lives. You couldn’t look back over their life together with regrets like, Oh, I wish Ty and Terri had a a better relationship with their kids or patched up that thing with so-and-so. They never left anything undone. So even though it’s hard to see them go and not be here…we know they lived life to the fullest. They could look at each other and say, ‘We did well.” I think that’s the legacy they leave to us – do it well, You love your children well, love your spouse well, and that’s what they did.”

The late couple’s eldest child, Emily Lanphier, agrees, saying, “They modeled well what it is to have a good life.”

“My parents were not perfect,” Lanphier adds, “but just authentically committed to their family. There wasn’t any double standard – like what you saw from the pulpit is what we experienced our whole life. There was a total authenticity and congruence. I think that is what made them so beloved because people sensed that when they met them. They were so genuine. Who they were is who they were to any person.”

Lincoln Murdoch says, “They were not pretentious, they were not overly spiritual in a religious kind of way and they were open with their lives, their marriage, their failures. They didn’t try to make you think they were something they weren’t and that’s endearing to anybody.”

Not long after being introduced to Ty Schenzel Level 3 Communication founder Mike Frank helped buy the former Boys and Girls Club building on North 20th Street as the Hope Center home. He only knew the Schenzels socially at first but then he got to experience their caring. That’s when he caught their vision.

“Ty was completely sincere, completely real,” Frank says. “He was guileless. And he was kind of geeky. He wasn’t like this really cool guy.  But his heart was really for the underdog, the disadvantaged and the hopeless. Terri just had a passion for living. She had a deep love for Ty and she was going to do everything she could to add to it. That was very contagious – that enthusiasm, that excitement.

“We became really close friends. Ty buried my youngest daughter and married my eldest daughter. He led my best friend to the Lord. Our lives were intertwined pretty deeply. When I was around Ty he made me be better because he was so in love with his wife and with Jesus. He was so passionate about the disadvantaged and so excited to serve and he called me up to be a better man.”

He says he carries with him the Schenzels’ example of “how to walk the talk.”

Emily Lanphier says her parents exemplified good living to everyone they came in contact with and that extended to her and her siblings.

“Their example of getting life right was such a gift to us because I think most people are trying to figure out how to do that, and we kind of know how that works. Not that life is perfect, we still have life issues, marriage is work and it takes a whole lot of effort. But it feels like we started out 10 steps ahead of everyone else in life just because of the kind of love we received growing up. All four of us are confident, we know who we are, we’re happy individuals.”

Nick Reuting and his wife Andria came under the Schenzels’ influence through the Hope Filled Marriage workshops Ty and Terri were making their ministry focus after stepping away from the Hope Center. Like everyone who came near their orbit, the Reutings got swept up in it.

“The image I’m left with is walking into their home, getting a hug from Ty, getting a hug from Terri, and the first things out of their mouth were, ‘How’s your heart, how’s your marriage?.’They were constant givers. They wanted to make sure you were all right, your marriage was all right. When you had a success there’d be such a joy in their faces,” Reuting says.

“They showed an example of what a healthy marriage looks like and what healthy commitment to work, to marriage and to faith looks like and how to balance that. They both freely admitted their own faults, which made it easier to accept that OK, I can make a mistake and it’s not the end of the world – everything can be worked out.”

Reuting and others have picked up where the Schenzels left off to continue the Hope Filled Marriage series.

He says he will miss the “warm loving feeling” that came with their radical hospitality.

“And I’m going to miss Terri’s cooking as well. She made a lot of lunches for me.”

 

 

 

 

Putting marriage and family first

Nurturing came naturally to the Schenzels, who never left any doubt they loved their kids.

“Even through our growing up we each had different times where we weren’t perfect kids and their loving commitment was so unconditional,” says Emily Lanphier. “They cared more about being connected to us as mom and dad than they did about us making the right choice. Our heart connection with them was really important.”

She says even with her parents’ busy schedules she and her siblings never felt neglected or shortchanged.

“They were incredibly intentional in making time for family. Sundays after church my mom would do lunch. There were different points during the week when we knew we were going to see them. They were really good at that.”

The kids maintained that closeness with them even in adulthood.

“When we had free time we would all want to spend it with our parents.

Like they were our friends, too. They loved being grandparents. My mom was actually present for the birth of both of my children. My dad was there with the second baby. That’s the kind of relationship we had. They were some of the most busy people I knew but my mom spent every Wednesday with me and the kids.

“I’m so grateful I got to know them as adults. When I’d see my mom she’d confide if she was struggling with something. She was so honest.

If she and my dad had a disagreement she’d acknowledge it without bashing him. They let you know life is messy. They would always say how hard they had to work on their marriage because they were so emotional, and my dad’s emotions would affect my mom, and her emotions would affect him, and they had to work through that.”

The vulnerability and transparency that friend and fellow minister Ron Dotzler referred to in an Omaha World-Herald commentary “was refreshing to see,” Lanphier says, “because it gives you a realistic perspective for relationships. It’s not like you’re perfect together and you never have any fights. No, you’re going to have to be so committed and love each other so much that you’re going to be willing to go through anything together.”

Lanphier admired that her parents made a rock solid commitment to staying together.

“When they were dating my dad said he told my mom, ‘Just so you know, if we decide to get married divorce will never be an option.’ And so they settled that even before they were engaged. They were like, We’re all in or we’re not going to do it.”

Ivy Jackson says the Schenzels embodied better than anyone she knows the basic values and principles for right living. She says their lives demonstrated that doing the right thing is both simple and hard.

“In my little circle when we talk about Ty and Terri it’s funny because all of the things we say sound like cliches, although they are hard to follow because they require intention and work. Ty and Terri almost seemed cheesy because they were so cliche but they had the fundamentals down and they did them well. That’s who they were. If they went down a list of morals, fundamentals, codes of how you live your life, they checked the box good. They were an inspiration.”

Jackson draws on that inspiration daily.

“Every day I wake up I am literally a changed person because I knew them. I cannot wait to do well, to love well. and I literally do that. Upon their passing I feel like that’s what I’m doing – I’m entering into what that meant in every sermon Ty said and what he did.”

Nick Reuting says Ty had a way of connecting with others.

“I thought of Ty as the best heart engineer you could think of. He could build a bridge from his heart to your heart quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen. There was immediate connection and give and take.”

Lincoln Murdoch says Terri had her own way of connecting.

“She loved to teach, she loved mentoring younger women. I think the ladies immediately felt this was a woman they could trust to open up their hearts to and that Terri would be a confidante.”

mentors • friends • parents • pastors • good shepherds

Good times and bad times

Not everything was hearts and roses for the Schenzels and the people they served.

Pastor Ed King was at Hope when “Ty didn’t know what he was doing but he knew he was supposed to do it.” They learned an inner city calling will have casualties when gangs rule some streets.

It angered the Schenzels so many lives were lost to gun violence and the metro seemed indifferent to it or tolerant of it.

“They felt the community needed to take more ownership in the inner city and what happens there,” daughter Emily Lanphier says. “They felt like this is our city, we should all be really upset that this is happening and do something to change it.”

Some kids the Schenzels served were lost in the carnage.

Fittingly for a mission called Hope, Schenzel held hope the center  positively changed lives.

“My dad always said he dreamed about a day when it was not just funerals but weddings, graduations, kids going to college and on mission trips all over the world, which did happen before he died. It’s so great to know he saw that in his lifetime – those tangible expressions of the difference the Hope Center made,” Lanphier says.

“The longer the Hope Employment and Learning Academy was around, more and more kids were graduating high school and going to college. That was huge for him.”

Ed King says the good experiences far outweighed the bad.

“Over 20 plus years of friendship we got a chance to experience a lot – from some of our kids who didn’t make it, going to court, going to jail,  presiding over their funerals. Ty always would tell the kids the day was going to come when we’re going to perform your guys weddings and that most definitely came to pass – we had the privilege of co-officiating the wedding of a former Hope youth.”

 

 

 

 

A father’s heart, a mother’s heart

Lincoln Murdoch says the Schenzels’ “huge hearts as parents bled out all over the place, so when they were called to North Omaha they saw and loved these kids as their own and the kids felt it. Something that made their ministry so powerful is they genuinely embraced those kids and had them to their home. Parenting the next generation was very powerful in their hearts. Ty was a great spiritual surrogate father to a lot of guys. Terri was phenomenal from the maternal side. She was a parent to anybody who hung around them at all.”

It wasn’t only adults who sang the Schenzels praises at the gala. In a video kids delivered personal tributes about the difference Hope’s made in their lives. Kids went table to table to testify to their experience. Most powerfully, a group on stage took turns flipping over cards in sync with a singer-guitarist’s performance of “Beautiful Things.” Kid by kid, card by card, the messages transitioned from where they were (“stressed out,” depressed,” “angry and alone,” struggling in school”)  to where they’ve come – “I look forward to my future,” “I make my parents proud,” “I get better grades,” “I have really good friends,” “I am more happy,” “I have less pain and sorrow.” Then all the kids held up cards that read, “Thanks for giving us Hope.”

Lanphier says the fact her parents regarded Hope youth as their own made it even tougher when the streets claimed some of them.

“There were a few kids they had relationships with who got shot in gang activity and that always devastated them. The funerals were always really hard on them.”

She says those tragedies reinforced their commitment to the mission.

“My dad would say, ‘This is why we’re doing what we’re doing, this cannot continue.'”

 

 

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Unthinkable

Lanphier didn’t want to get the kind of news her folks got when people they cared about died. But she was the first of her siblings to learn her parents had lost their lives in a crash that also took the life of a family friend and of the driver of the truck that collided with their vehicle,

Authorities at the scene searched for hours to find identification in the remains of the fire that ignited after the head-on impact.

Emily recalls the horror of hearing the unimaginable:

“At 2:15 in the morning I heard a knock on my door. It freaked me out because my husband was away on a camping trip and I was home alone with my kids. My phone was on silent and I picked up and saw that the pastors at Waypoint. Matthew and Amanda (Anderson), were calling me. Amanda said, ‘Emily, come to the front door, we’re here.’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and she said, ‘You just need to come down.’ So I got dressed knowing something was really wrong.

“I opened the front door and there’s a police officer with Matthew and Amanda standing beside him. I thought, This is like in the movies, this is going to be really bad news.’ They came in and I was told by the officer what happened. A nightmare. And then I had to tell my siblings. It’s the worst, the worst. It’s bad to know but then when you have to tell people that’s like a whole other level of pain. I remember thinking, I cannot believe these words are coming out of my mouth.”

She prolonged sharing the news as long as possible.

“I actually waited to tell them. I decided to let them sleep because our lives were ruined and what difference would a few hours make.”

After the blur of memorial services and condolences, she posted an online remembrance of her parents that read in part:

“it is such a comfort to know their impact as i journey through this tunnel of grief. There are some moments I want to call them so bad and I feel like I might die from sadness but I keep digging and allowing myself to grieve and heal because I want to be the kind of parents they were.”

She says what “they put in me” provided the resiliency needed to work through the tragedy. She confides that in the immediate aftermath of her loss she didn’t feel so resilient until her training and kicked in.

“I remember thinking, Oh, my God, someone’s going to have to take care of my kids, my grief is incapacitating. And then all of a sudden I remembered, Are you kidding? I know exactly how I’m going to get through this – because everything I need to deal with this they’ve already given me. They prepared me my whole life how to be strong and to let my faith be the bedrock of who I am.”

She also learned from her folks it’s OK to feel your feelings and, if needed, to have a professional guide you through them.

“My parents were both highly emotional but they weren’t sufferers. They dealt with life and if they needed to get counseling they got counseling. It’s OK to be sad, it’s’ OK to need help.”

More profoundly yet, she and her siblings are all believers who know to call on their Higher Power for healing,

“Because this is the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life, I  know what to do and I can handle this because I have the Lord inside me.”

 

 

 

The tributes continued Wednesday for Ty and Terri Schenzel with a ceremony to unveil a commemorative street naming in their honor.

 

 

Moving on and carrying the torch

Lincoln Murdoch has a perspective on the tragedy that took Emily’s parents and his good friends just as they were transitioning from the Hope Center to their Hope Filled Marriage ministry and taking time out for themselves, too.

“It was almost like they put in 17 hard years at the Hope Center and the Lord said, Why don’t you take two or three months off, travel around, enjoy each other, and then I’m going to call you home. We just didn’t know what that would be.”

At their funeral he brandished a baton at the altar to symbolize taking on the vision of hope the Schenzels set forth.

“Being a runner I thought, Well, they left a big gap and they carried the baton and now somebody needs to pick it up. I challenged everybody there to take part of the baton Ty and Terri carried and let’s keep this vision going. It was a call for people to get involved.”

That call has resonated with friends and strangers as Murdoch and others have taken to carrying batons in races and other venues to bring awareness to the Hope Center mission.

“I had no idea the baton theme would kind of get a life of its own.”

It’s not so different than when the Schenzels left suburbia for the inner city on faith alone to plant seeds they never imagined would grow into such strong roots. What began with Ty and Terri as Johnny Appleseeds and Pied Pipers now has an army of soldiers following their lead in helping people bloom.

integrity • character • purpose-driven • faith-centered • family-focused • fun-loving

 

Visit http://www.hopecenterforkids.com and http://hopefilledmarriage.org.

 

 

Nelson Mandela School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

January 24, 2016 1 comment

If you know me or follow my work then you know I have a heart for North Omaha.  I grew up there.  Went to school there.  For a complex set of reasons having to do with how my life unfolded the first 42-plus years and North Omaha’s role in that, I found myself drawn to writing about some of the dynamics there – past and present.  I still do. I am for anything that has the potential to do good there and when I heard about the new Nelson Mandela Elementary School going into the former Blessed Sacrament campus on North 30th Street it certainly caught my attention.  Here is a story i recently did for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) that gives a glimpse of the school through the perspective of two key people behind it, Susan Toohey and Dianne Lozier.

 

 

NelsonMandelaSchool1

The Nelson Mandela Way

New School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

Published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school with promise in its name, Nelson Mandela Elementary, is part of this turnaround.

The free, private school in the former Blessed Sacrament church and school on North 30th Street blends old and new. An addition housing the library and cafeteria joins the original structures. The sanctuary is now a gym with stained glass windows. Vintage stone walls and decorative arches create Harry Potteresque features. South African flag-inspired color schemes and Nelson Mandela-themed murals abound.

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The school that started with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade each year is the vision of Dianne Seeman Lozier. Her husband, Allan Lozier, heads the Lozier store fixture manufacturing company that operates major north Omaha facilities. The couple’s Lozier Foundation supports Omaha Public Schools’ programs.

Their support is personal. They raised two grandsons who struggled to read as children. The odyssey to find effective remedies led Dianne Lozier to new approaches, such as the Spalding Method used at Mandela.

Mandela sets itself apart, too, using Singapore math, playing jazz and classical background music, requiring students to study violin, holding recess every 90 minutes, and having parents agree to volunteer. Mandela “scholars” take College for Kids classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

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It’s all in response to the high-poverty area the school serves, where low test scores prevail and families can’t always provide the enrichment kids need.

Most Mandela students are from single-parent homes. Sharon Moore loves sending her son, Garrett, to “a new school with new ideas.” Eric and Stacy Rafferty welcome the research-based innovations their boy, William, enjoys and the opportunity to be as involved as they want at school. Moore and the Raffertys report their sons are thriving there.

“Parents are really getting into this groove of being here,” says Principal Susan Toohey. “It’s building a community here and a sense that we are all in this together.”

Community is also important to the Loziers.

“We’re just really connected here,” Dianne Lozier says. “Allan and I have really strong beliefs that the economic inequality in the country and north Omaha is a microcosm of a huge issue. It’s a fairness issue and a belief that, if we want it badly enough, we can make a difference.”

She and Toohey are banking that the school demonstrates its strategies work as core curriculum, not just intervention.

“I’m hoping by the end of the first school year here we’ll be able to compare students’ literacy against other places and show that children have developed stronger reading skills,” Lozier says. “Our longterm goal is that all kids will be grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.”

For Toohey, launching and leading a school in a high-needs district is appealing.

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“What an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Rarely do you get a chance to start a school from the ground up and pick everything that’s going to happen there and hire every person that’s going to work there. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but my heart has always been in urban education.”

In preparation for opening last August, she says, “I spent a year researching educational practices and curricula and developing relationships with people.” Her outreach forged partnerships with Metro, College of Saint Mary, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, The Big Garden, and others.

“We really want to be a model of what makes a school stronger, and I think having the community involved makes it stronger so it’s not working in isolation.”

Dianne Lozier, whose foundation funds the school with the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, is a frequent visitor.

NelsonMandelaSchool5“I help out with breakfast,” she explains. “I tie a lot of shoes. I get and give a lot of hugs.”

Lozier says her presence is meant to help “faculty and staff feel a little more supported—because this is hard. Every teacher and para-educator here, even the head of school, would say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had.”

Toohey says the difficulty stems from teaching a “very different curriculum” and “starting a culture from scratch. Families are getting to know us, we’re getting to know the families, and this is a really challenging population of kids. Many have not been in preschool programs that helped them moderate their behavior.”

Despite the challenges, Lozier says, “We have incredible families and kids.”

Drawing on the school’s inspirational namesake, each morning everyone recites “the Mandela mantra” of “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world,” and “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace, and wisdom.”

“I hope all those things are what this community sees coming out of this school,” Toohey says, “and that our kids develop those qualities of grit and resilience so critical for success.”

Lozier adds that Mandela is a symbol of hope and opportunity.

“To accomplish the things we’re capable of,” she says, “we have to believe we can do that. It’s an opportunity to make improvements and get past impediments, to use internal strengths and be recognized for what you can bring.”

Visit nelsonmandelaelementary.org to learn more.

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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 (www.thereader.com)

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.”

 NorthStar

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.

Visit northstar360.org.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

September 29, 2014 1 comment

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.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

©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)

 

 

 

 
Two of a Kind

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.

 

 

Vic Gutman

Idealist, Go-getter

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.”

Visionary, Dreamer
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.

Serving Youth
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.”

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

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,”

Transformation
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.

Colleagues
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.

 

 

 

Dreams
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.”

 

 

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs


The Reader July 17-23, 2014

 

After my Aisha Okudi story last week I promised another story of inspiration and transformation and here it is, my new Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story profiling Schaiisha Walker, a young woman whose journey finding normal after foster care led her to a Nebraska program called Project Everlast.  It provides young people leaving or having already left foster care with much needed support.  Schalisha had found herself on her own at 17, sometimes homeless, dropping out of school to support herself, working as many as four jobs at one point, going from couch to couch until she got a place of her own.  It’s only by the grace of God she survived that experience.  She’s now employed as a Project Everlast youth advisor.  I came to do this story about her because I attended a performance by actor-spoken word artist Damiel Beaty last winter at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and before he came on Schalisha appeared on stage to introduce him.  Her heart-felt words as well as her poise and grace struck me to the core.  She shared how deeply Beaty’s work, much of it drawn from his own harsh childhood, resonated with her, especially his message that one can rise above and overcome anything.  She’s a model for that herself.  You go, girl.

 

 

 

 

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs

Project Everlast provides support for young people as they age-out of the system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty.

Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to not only introduce Beaty but to deliver a personal message about the hundreds of foster care youth who age or drop out of the system each year in Nebraska. These young people, she noted, can find themselves adrift without a helping hand. She knows because she was one of them, Walker was at the Holland representing Project Everlast, a statewide, youth-led initiative that assists current and former foster care youth to smooth their transition into adulthood.

This former ward of the state has successfully transitioned from life on the edge to the picture of achievement. Her story of perseverance is not unlike Beaty’s own saga. In his work he often refers to the crazy things his drug addict, in-and-out-of-prison father exposed him to. The performing arts saved Beaty by giving him a vehicle for his angst and a platform for expressing his credo that one can rise above anything.

Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.

She says, “My mother was extremely young (15) when she had me and she was unable to care for me properly. I was about 2 when I went in the (foster care) system and I was 4 when I was adopted.”

Separated from her six siblings, things happened within her adoptive family that prompted her to leave and go off on her own at 17. She finally found a safe haven at Everlast, where she got the support she never had before. She served on the youth council that helps formulate the organization’s programs and policies and she shared her story with the public in speaking appearances.

She now works as a youth advisor with Everlast, a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation program. Introducing Beaty wasn’t the first time she’s been the face and voice of Everlast and the foster care community. She appeared in a documentary about the project and she’s been featured on its website.

“This is truly an organization with people committed to the work,” she says. “Our job doesn’t stop when we leave the office. It’s like a family, I really mean that.”

This fall she’s starting school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she hopes to earn a social work degree.

“I’ve always wanted to help children in need. It’s really natural for me. I was fortunate to get a job here (Everlast). I love what I do and I do it with my heart.”

That night at the Holland she stood tall, black and beautiful invoking Beaty’s poetic testimony to share her own overcoming journey and the role she plays today as a mentor for otherwise forgotten young people.

Reading from Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” she exhorted, “‘We are our fathers’ sons and daughters but we are not their choices. For despite their absences we are still here, still alive, still breathing with the power to change this world one little boy and girl at a time.’ The words struck me to the core. They convey the passion I have for using my experience to help young people with a foster care background struggling and feeling alone as I did…

“For many years I let my past keep me from my future but now I use my past to help others. Let me be the voice for those that have not found theirs yet.”

Having walked in the shoes of the young people she engages, she understands the challenges they face and the needs they express. It’s almost like looking in the mirror and seeing herself five-six years ago.

“It’s a powerful identification. Struggling with unhealthy relationships, a feeling of being alone or having no one to turn to or looking for a job and not knowing what’s the best decision to make – I see that on a regular basis. I see myself in a lot of these young girls, especially when it comes to the unhealthy relationships. I see so many young people who just want to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is they get in the wrong crowd. Looking back, I was in some very scary situations.

“I’m glad I’m at a point now where I can offer advice from having been there and making the wrong decisions and now making better decisions. Now I can use my life experiences to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me, I don’t want this to happen to you, I want to help you.’ I feel I’m like an older sister or a mother to them.”

 

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

 

 

 

Just as she’s a mother to the kids she serves, Everlast associate vice president Jason Feldhaus is a father to her.

“He’s very much like a dad to me,” Walker says of him. “You might as well say he is my dad. I talk to him a lot. That’s a relationship that was built. He was in my position when I was in youth council – he was my youth advisor.”

Feldhaus says there “was just something different about Schalisha from the very beginning.” He explains, “She was very organized, very committed, very mature. Even early on she just always seemed dedicated to something bigger to help make things better for people. The young people she works with bond to her and so no matter where their life is in flux they still keep coming back to Project Everlast and I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to connect to them.”

Walker says the disruptions that can attend life in and out of foster care, such as moving from family to family or being separated from siblings, “can be very traumatic” and adversely affect one’s education and socialization. The more links to stability that are missing or broken, she says, “the more difficult it is to keep your life together.”

Everlast grew out of an Omaha Independent Living Plan initiated by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to address resource needs and service gaps faced by foster youth. Foundation director of strategic relationships, Judy Dierkhising, who oversaw Everlast during a recent transition, estimates that of the 200 youth aging out of foster care in Douglas and Sarpy Counties each year 40 percent don’t have an adequate plan or support system in place. That’s not counting individuals who get lost in the system as Schalisha did. In Neb. youth age-out of the system at 19.

Until Everlast, Dierkhising says, “there were not a lot of services or programs dedicated to that transitional living piece that helped young folks look for housing, job and education opportunities.” The project bridges that gap by connecting young people to partner agencies, such as Youth Emergency Services, that offer needed resources.

We provide young people access to those services they need to live independently, to grow into adulthood, to have engagement with the community, to be successful educationally, to be connected to health care, et cetera. A number of young people we work with don’t have anybody else there for them. We help them to help themselves and hopefully to find some permanence in their life. We’re here to empower them, with whatever it takes, to know they can have an impact on the world and that the world isn’t doing it to them.

“We’re not trying to save them, we’re assisting them to be successful, just like Schalisha. She is a tremendous role model and advocate for how there is a way to survive this and to thrive.”

In the immediate years following the break from her adoptive family Walker had no one to formally guide or mentor her, which meant she had to figure out most things for herself.

“The experience with being adopted was very difficult and I ended up being on my own. It was very difficult, very lonely. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. I had to drop out of school to work to support myself. I was working four jobs at one time. I had no choice because I didn’t have the support of a family like I should have. I didn’t have the support of friends because all my friends were still in high school.

“I ended up staying with some friends until I was able to have an apartment on my own.”

She says unstable housing is a major problem for foster youth once they leave the system.

“Homelessness is not uncommon. It is an ongoing issue. There’s a young man I work with who ever since he aged out was couch surfing. He now has a steady job and a safe place to live in. It’s very scary not having a safety net or a stable place to call home and that is a reality for many of these young people. It was a reality for me as well. In my case, I couldn’t go back to the home I was at. Just having a place to call your own where you feel safe and that you can go to every night can make a huge difference.”

 

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 Young people at at Project Everlast event were recognized for getting new jobs, moving into their own apartments, procuring scholarships and graduating high school. Schalisha served as an emcee for the program.

She says Everlast introduced her to youth and adults she could trust and count on to help her navigate life. Through its Opportunity Passport program she built her financial management skills, The dollars youth save are matched by donors. The program enabled her to retire the beater of a car she drove to buy a newer model vehicle.

“What I found was people that really cared about your success, people who really listened and wanted to be a support for you. It was like a relief finding people who had been through what I’d been through and I could share my story with. That was very powerful.”

Having that safety net is much healthier than going it alone, she says.

“That feeling of being alone and not being wanted can tear you apart. Having to make some of the decisions I did is something no child should have to go through. The experiences I had and some of the difficulties and struggles I dealt with is why I’m so passionate about making sure no other young person feels alone or feels they have no support and no one to turn to.”

She says the young people she works with all have different stories but they’re all trying to improve their life, whether going back to school or landing a job or finding a secure place to live or leaving an abusive relationship or getting treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

“Any step forward is a success and makes my job worthwhile. That’s why it’s really important for me to be here doing this work.”

After dropping out of South High she earned her diploma through independent studies and lattended Metropolitan Community College.

Drawing on her own experience of never having her birthdays celebrated as a kid, which she says is common among foster youth, she created the No Youth Without a Birthday Treat initiative.

“What I like to focus on is giving them normal experiences they might not have had. It’s to make sure they have a cake or a pie or cookies or muffins, whatever they’d like, for their birthday because it’s a special day for them and I want them to feel special. To give that young person their first birthday cake and to see their joy is amazing.

“At Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a big event with a dinner and presents.”

She also makes sure young people experience arts and cultural events they may not otherwise get to enjoy. Until she was asked to introduce Daniel Beaty, Walker herself had never been to the Holland. Judy Dierkhising took her there a few days before the program and Walker was awed by the space. Though Schalisha had spoken to groups before, she’d never addressed an audience the size of the gathering that night for Beaty’s one-man show, Emergency. It was different, too, because this time she was communing with someone she regards as a kindred soul and whom she also considers “amazing.”

“Daniel Beaty is such a talent. His poetry is electrifying – it gives me chills to hear him speak and to watch him perform,” Walker says. “I’d never seen him in person, so to see him live was a whole other experience. I’d never seen anything like that before. It blew my mind. I’ll never forget that performance. It was such an honor to introduce him. It was so exciting and I was really nervous.”

Reiterating what she told the audience that evening, she says Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” deeply resonated with her.

“When I first heard that poem I cried. A lot of my passion comes from my experience. The reason I’m in the field I’m in and do the work I do is because of the experiences I had. His words that we are not our parents’ choices really touched me, really spoke to me. So did his story and the things he overcame and the struggles he went through.

“It made me believe that no matter what you come from you make your future. You don’t have to be a product of what you came from, you don’t have to be what people expect you to be, you can be so much greater. That is what is so amazing to me about him.”

Topping it all off, she says, “He was so nice to me. He’s so cool and laid-back and down-to-earth. He has this presence about him that screams awesomeness without him being cocky.”

One of the things she admires about Beaty – his resilience overcoming steep odds – is what she admires in the young people she serves.

“The resilience they have to overcome is amazing. They didn’t want to be in these difficult situations and they’re motivated to do what they need to in order to get out. So many of these young people are talented and smart. They have dreams and goals and aspirations.”

She recognizes the same drive in herself pushed her to excel.

“I wanted to show that despite the circumstances around me that I still could succeed. I just have a real fire and passion to not fail and to not become a statistic and to show other young people they can make it. It’s been a lot of work.”

When she takes stock of her journey, she says she sees “someone who’s overcome a lot,” adding, “I see someone I’m proud very, very proud of, but even now I still struggle accepting that and saying that because some of the emotional scars are still there.”

She’s motivated to pay forward what was given her, she says. “because young people are counting on me to be there for them.”

Visit http://www.projecteverlast.org.

Collaboration and Diversity Matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit Teaches Tools and Skills for Valuing Human Differences


Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences.  One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time.  It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity.  My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.

Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

 

Diversity Matters to Inclusive Communities

Beth Riley

 

 

Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity. 

The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.

“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.

“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”

Education and advocacy

Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.

The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.

“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”

Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.

“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”

Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.

Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”

A safe place

Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.

“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.

“That’s the real power.”

Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”

Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.

“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.

“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”

 

 

Youth focused

With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”

She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.

“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”

Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.

Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships

“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.

“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”

Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.

Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.

Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.

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“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another.”

 

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