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Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up helping thousands of at-risk kids through early intervention educational program


I read somewhere about a wealthy white couple devoting their lives to help inner city schools. These schools are predominantly made up of African American students, many of whom under achieve.  The couple, Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, started an academic support program in one school, where students’ test scores dramatically increased, and its success has been replicated in several more schools.  What most intrigued me, however, was the couple’s own transformation from racially, socially insensitive to enlightened, and how their philanthropy to improve education among some of America‘s poorest children is not some idle exercise about assuaging white guilt but a genuine community response to a chronic problem they were awakened to and that they have awakened others to.

My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press, an Omaha weekly I contribute to.

Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up elping thousands of at-risk kids through early entervention educational program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

The awakening of Jerry and Cookie Hoberman began in the early 1990s. Until then the hard-driving Omaha entrepreneurs went after what they wanted without much regard for people’s feelings. As Jews they knew about anti-Semitism from both personal experience and history, yet in a recent interview at their home they acknowledged they were intolerant when it came to other minorities.

Soul-searching led the Hobermans to take a long hard look at themselves. Their journey of self-discovery has propelled them to help thousands of impoverished, mostly African-American public school children and their families in north Omaha.

Winners Circle, an academic and citizenship program the couple began in one inner city school 12 years ago, has grown to 10 schools, with two more slated to join within a year. WC is viewed as a model for motivating students to achieve and getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

The Hobermans, once viewed with skepticism, even hostility, as white exploiters, are now seen as sincere community leaders making a difference. None of it would have happened without them being willing to face some unpleasant truths.

Jerry built his own Tires Inc. business from scratch, applying lessons learned from his days as a wagon peddler, selling goods from the back of a ‘54 Ford, and as a partner in his father’s small family tire center downtown. Cookie worked for Holland-Dreves-Reilly Advertising before starting her own agency. Amid their own careers each sought advice from the other. Cookie gave Tires Inc. its name.

Tires Inc. grew to several locations before business faltered. Drawn by lower overhead, Jerry opted to move the headquarters from the 72nd Street strip to 60th and Ames, a poor, predominantly African-American area of northeast Omaha the Hobermans didn’t really know, except by reputation. “I ended up in the inner city against the cautions of all my friends,” Jerry said. “And family,” Cookie interjected.

White employees resisted the move. “I had some employees who said they wouldn’t go to north Omaha — that they would rather leave than stay with us,” he said.
Cookie said preconceived notions spelled trouble. “Well, we came to north Omaha with as much stereotypic bias and ignorance as most people that never go to the inner city,” she said. “I think we were naive.”

No sooner did Tires Inc. open its North O digs than tensions surfaced.

“We had a lot of racial issues, a lot of problems,” Jerry said. “We had arguments. Sometimes a small fight would break out between my associates and the African-American population. It was not a very smooth transition.”

Threats were made. Hoberman didn’t give an inch. Rather than reaching out to mend fences, he closed ranks, making his business a fortress.

“I bought special insurance — kidnap and ransom. I had special alarm systems put in that when you push a button it goes right to the police. We did a lot of these things and all we did was separate ourselves,” he said. “It’s amazing what fear does,” Cookie added.

Things came to a head when a member of a prominent local black family took issue with the unequal way her credit was handled compared to white customers.

“One of my employees referred to her in a very disparaging manner,” Jerry said. “He called her ‘Aunt Jemima.’ She was really irate. A lovely lady, she came in and visited with me and told me what had taken place and I told her I’d had all sorts of problems. I asked what I should do. She said, ‘I suggest you get some sensitivity training for yourself and your associates.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”

On her advice Hoberman contacted Frank Hayes, the black owner of his own accounting firm, Hayes and Associates.

“My immediate response was, ‘Man, I’m a CPA, I’m not a social worker.’” Hayes recalled saying when Hoberman called.

But after the two met Hayes saw Hoberman wanted to do the right thing. Hoberman assembled all his workers for diversity training at which Hayes spoke about “some of the experiences I had had and how they affected or impacted me,” including, Hayes said, “the sense of frustration and anger I had as a black man trying to establish a business.” He related incidents that any black person could identify with, like the time a food service worker ignored him even though it was his turn in line. He had to demand service before he got waited on. It’s the same as when blacks are unfairly profiled by clerks in stores or by police in traffic. He let Hoberman and Co. know such treatment was insensitive at best and racist at worst.

“I just wanted to impress upon them the idea that when you serve someone you have to respect them as individuals, because these are the people who are going to buy your product. If you’re in a service business you have to serve the customer regardless of where you’re coming from.”

What Hayes also impressed upon his audience is that a black person enters any transaction with whites carrying a history of insults and slights, making it imperative whites check their words and actions.

“You may not even realize what you’re saying may be interpreted differently by a minority,” Jerry said. “Because of their past experiences,” Cookie explained.

The sobering talk had its intended effect. “It was just really eye-opening,” Jerry said. “I mean, we didn’t have clues about this,” Cookie said.

The talk was the first in a series Hoberman required his employees attend. Others addressed issues on the elderly, women, the disabled and HIV/AIDS patients.

“I’ll tell you, sometimes we had tears in our eyes when you just realized what people go through,” Hoberman said.

Each talk was followed by discussion.

“We’d have meetings and just talk about relationships with people,” Hoberman said, “and it really built some sensitivity in us as we came face to face with some of our own biases. Prior to that, when we were having all these problems, I built a wall between our company and the community. After we awakened ourselves it was the other way around. We embraced, we understood the individuals that came through our door. We saw we could become a part of the community.”

“Awareness,” Cookie said, made all the difference.

Race relations dramatically improved.

“In the community itself we went from being interlopers and separate to becoming part of the fabric of the community. We never had any more problems,” he said.

Hayes became a close friend of the Hobermans. They’ve had him over for seder. They’ve vacationed together.

In line with this new awareness Hoberman realized the way he treated his own employees left much to be desired. Problems arose as the business grew and Hoberman grew more distant from his rank-and-file associates That’s when, Cookie said, her husband vowed, “‘I want to get to know my people again.’”

The personnel problems were articulated by a mechanic who “came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, all you treat me like is a tool…You don’t care about myself, my family. What I do is I turn a wrench for you and make you a living.’ Hoberman recalled. “I thought about that and he was right. He was just someone to make money for me and that’s not the way to think about individuals. When I recognized that I had a real desire to change and I did. I really did.”

Hoberman devised an incentive program at the struggling Tires Inc. to boost employee performance-morale. He called it the Winners Circle. At its core was goal-setting and recognition. When a division would meet its goals a celebration dinner or picnic would be held at which every team member was recognized “for a job well done.” The program turned things around at the business.

“I was looking to do something to bring us together because we were in disarray and the Winners Circle created a great deal of camaraderie and excitement within the company,” Hoberman said. “It was a team-building kind of thing where everybody worked for their goals. We formed personal relationships.”

“People felt valued,” said Cookie, who added the model for the program was as much the Jewish Passover seder as anything. The company came together as a family and everyone felt a part of the whole. “It broke a barrier,” she said. “They got to meet the president of the company and his wife. They called us by our first names. We knew their children’s names and what was going on in their families. It elevated the sense of value and respect they felt.”

Hoberman also made it company policy to hire more qualified blacks.

The next step in the couple’s evolution came when the late Cornelius Jackson, then-principal at the former Belvedere Elementary School, paid Hoberman a call and “said something that started us down this road” of helping public school children. “He said, ‘You know Mr. Hoberman, you take money from this community — what are you giving back to it? I have a lot of problems with my school. Will you help me?’ So I talked to Cookie about it and it was so true. We were making our living in the black community and we were giving absolutely nothing back to it.”

The couple visited the school at 3775 Curtis Avenue, where they were “appalled” by the conditions. A total of three Apple computers to serve hundreds of students. No usable playground equipment. A racial divide between teachers. Undisciplined students. Classroom disruptions. Little parental involvement. Academically, Belvedere ranked next to last among OPS elementary schools.

“They had all kinds of problems,” Hoberman said. “It was just a real challenge.”

Despite the daunting needs, Cookie said she and Jerry found “inspiring the dedication and commitment” of teachers and staff who “must fill a lot more roles” than their counterparts in suburbia. The rampant north Omaha poverty now making news is a reality the Hobermans began learning about years ago. How, for example, most inner city students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, how many are from single-parent homes and how many lead highly mobile, unstable lives.

The couple agreed to make Tires Inc. an Adopt-A-School Partner of Belvedere.

A basic need was filling the resource gap. The Hobermans found donors to underwrite the cost of dozens of new computers. The couple organized, with help from Tires Inc. employees, a carnival held on the grounds of the company. Proceeds from the event raised money for more equipment and improvements.

“Everybody got on board,” Hoberman said.

The Hobermans also found in Carol Ellis, who replaced the retiring Jackson as principal, an administrator open to new approaches, such as Hoberman’s idea to adapt the successful Winners Circle program at Tires Inc. to Belvedere.

“Based on what I had in my business I felt the same idea would work within the schools,” he said.

Hoberman and Ellis worked out the details, setting goals in reading, math and citizenship. Other changes were made, with input from staff and parents, including changing the school’s name to Belvedere Academy and introducing uniforms with the school name on them.

“We wanted the children to feel they were special,” he said. “It was all part of building…” “Self-esteem,” said Cookie. That’s why then, and now, the program is based on affirmation. Public ceremonies award gold medals to children who meet goals. Goal busters are eligible for prizes, from bikes to boom boxes. Classrooms that make goals receive $50 checks that the class can use how they want.

“Really, all it is, is having a child have an individual goal and rewarding that child for meeting that goal,” he said. “That’s the essence — just giving recognition the same as we did in my business.”

“Celebrating their success,” Cookie said. “The prerequisite for that is to reinforce with the child that they are smart and they can achieve. The first time I walked into the classroom I asked the children, ‘If you think you’re smart, raise your hand,’ and maybe two or three kids did. Today, all the kids raise their hand.”

To add accountability and encouragement Cookie visited every classroom four times a year. She had each student proclaim his/her quarterly goals in front of the whole class. She was the original Goal Buddy. More than 200 Goal Buddies serve today.

Hoberman admires what his wife did and the connections she made.

“Cookie’s great with kids,” he said. “She’d visit with every one of those 550 kids, asking, ‘What is your goal? Are you going to make your goal?’ and saying, ‘I’m going to be back to check on you.’ She would encourage each child and build great rapport. The kids just loved her.”

She and Jerry discussed their Jewishness with children. Their three daughters got involved, too. Cookie even introduced her passion for bridge to kids.

“The Goal Buddy component became a much more important aspect then I ever thought it was going to be,” she said, “because of the personal contact with a real person outside the educational system taking interest in them. It had a lot influence. Kids perceived it as really important support.”

Tierre Tucker, 19, is a Creighton University student, but 12 years ago he was at Belvedere when Winners Circle began. He can attest to what “a great impact it makes just to know that somebody cares. With Winners Circle we actually had to work toward achieving goals. It gave us something to look forward to. It gave you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I felt when I met my goals. It let me know I can do anything as long as I put forth great effort.” The Hobermans have mentored Tierre all these years. “They’re like another set of parents,” he said. He’s come far and aimed high under their guidance. “I owe that to the Hobermans,” he said. “I don’t think I would have known exactly how to get there. That’s what makes them such lovable people — their optimism for the future.”

Social skills are also part of the Winners Circle and thus kids are taught to make eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up when meeting people.

“It’s teaching them about life,” Cookie said.

Goal Buddies, recruited from local corporations, now visit classrooms eight times a year. Captains, also recruited from the community, host quarterly celebrations recognizing individual and classroom achievements. Students and their families attend along with teachers, staff and special guests — from Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

OPS fully endorses Winners Circle. Mackiel recommends what schools make a good fit for the program. The district provides office space for WC staff. District researchers also provide data that helps WC staff track school performance/trends.

The program uses mantras, repeated by teachers, aides, Goal Buddies and Captains, to motivate and inspire. “Do you know that you’re winners?” “Yes,” children respond. “We know that you are winners, too.” “Are you smart?” “Yes.” “I know you are.” In unison, kids and adults say, “Going for my goal, going for the gold.”

The concept, Cookie said, is that “if you think you’re smart, you’ll be smart.”

Mottoes or platitudes aside, Hoberman said,“I am a businessman and I measure things. I’m not going to put all this work and effort into something that doesn’t show results.” “This isn’t just a feel-good program,” Cookie said.

They’ve got the numbers to show Winners Circle works. Three years after its inception Belvedere’s academic ranking went from 56th to 15th out of 57 schools. That improvement has been maintained and replicated in other schools. In the process of changing a school’s culture students feel better about themselves and when that occurs greater cooperation, motivation and achievement follow.

“Can you imagine the kind of joy and excitement Cookie and I receive to know we’re making a difference in people’s lives?” Hoberman said. The couple see it and hear it all the time — from parents who “put their arms around us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’” to Winners Circle grads “who tell us, ‘I want you to know I’m still making my goals.’ That’s the greatest reward. What’s that worth?”

Besides improved test scores at Winners Circle schools, staff spend less time disciplining students, school spirit and pride soar and parents turn out in force for school activities. Ten schools serving 5,000 students have been transformed in this way. Two south Omaha schools will soon join the program. Ellis said the Hobermans made it all possible.

“I couldn’t imagine doing it without the support we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given by their involvement,” Ellis said. “It allowed us to go to heights we had hoped for but didn’t have the means to accomplish. It wasn’t just the money, it was the caring. It gave us hope we could make things different.”

Success at Belvedere both mirrored and fed the turnaround at Tires Inc.. As the business began treating people right, customers and employees felt valued and profits rose. As students and teachers felt empowered, attitudes changed and test scores shot up. The good neighbor policy reaped dividends all around.

“The 60th and Ames store started making more money than the other stores when it had been at the bottom,” Cookie said. “Not only was Jerry feeling good about himself, his people were feeling good about themselves. There’s no substitute for giving and that’s what was happening at Tires Inc.. Similarly at Belvedere problems started to dissolve because people were getting on board with something positive.”

That first school year the program was in effect, attendance at the quarterly Winners Circle celebrations surged from 100 the first quarter to more than 1,000 the last quarter. The celebrations still attract big crowds today. It’s not uncommon for a child’s immediate and extended family to be there. Ellis said it may be the first time someone in the family has been honored at school.

Hoberman said that surge of support gives lie to the perception that parents in the inner city don’t take an active interest in their children’s education.

“These parents do care about their kids,” he said.

During a celebration each child is called on stage to receive a gold medal as the crowd applauds. There are hand shakes. Parents form a victory tunnel to greet and take pictures as their honored sons or daughters come off stage, beaming.

Holding a mike, Hoberman, his booming bass voice in fine form and his trademark pony tail flying, emceed the event himself in dynamic fashion those early years, “yelling and screaming” as he exhorted the crowd to give it up for the kids.

“He was a rock star leading this parade,” said the now retired Carol Ellis.

“He was powerful, he was wonderful,” said Winners Circle director Beth Smith. She heads a staff of five that do what Jerry and Cookie once did all by themselves.

Now captains do the emceeing, following Hoberman’s cheerleading example.

Ellis said the Hobermans personally saw to every detail at the start. Now that there’s a professional staff in place, the couple take a less hands-on role, but still keep a close tab on things. The fact they took Winners Circle on together, first at Tires Inc. and then in the schools, is typical of the way they tackle things.

 

 

 

Jerry and Cookie Hoberman

 

“Cookie and I have been married 41 years and we’ve always been a team,” Jerry said, “so when I had problems in my business I would go home and we would talk about it. Cookie was always an integral part of what I did.” “And vice versa,” Cookie said, adding, “We work well together separately. Jerry does his thing, I do my thing, then we have meetings and we report back.”

It’s how they ran the United Jewish Appeal campaign one year. They’ve assumed many local leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years.

The Hobermans long ago earned what a Captain, Paul Bryant, calls “street cred” by proving they were genuine about making good on their promises and staying in it for the long haul. But they had to earn that trust.

“When we first went to Belvedere there were a lot of families that wanted to know what were these white Jewish people doing in our school. What do they want with our kids? And rightfully so,” Cookie said. “A few years later we received a wonderful letter from one of the parents that said, ‘I really didn’t believe you. I didn’t trust you. I was wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done in our school.’ And we’ve heard that more and more now.”

“When we started this program,” Jerry said, “we were told by educators and by members of the African American community ‘Don’t start this if you’re not going to keep doing it, because we’ve seen too many people make promises they don’t keep.’” As Cookie said, “You don’t go into the inner city and give them a taste of honey and then take it away from them.”

Bryant said the Hobermans live their values: “That’s what makes them so special. It’s easy to throw some money at it. But they invested themselves into it. Their commitment — that’s what makes them different.”

Longevity for the program is what the Hobermans want. It’s why, Cookie said, “we had to make provisions for it to go on past us.” When Jerry sold Tires Inc. in ‘98, finding more support became paramount as Winners Circle operates entirely on private donations. He directs the fund raising apparatus himself, sending out thousands of appeal letters. It costs some $45,000 to maintain Winners Circle in a school on an annual basis. With there about to be 12 participating schools, it takes half-a-million dollars to cover expenses.

With the help of major funders such as Dick and Mary Holland and Wally Weitz, the program has thrived and expanded.

When the Hobermans recruit new donors they let the children sell Winners Circle.

“When you’re with the kids they capture your heart,” he said. “We picked Dick (Holland) up one night and took him down to the Winners Circle celebration and that was it. The kids touched his and Mary’s heart and the Hollands just embraced the program. Dick said, ‘What do you need to expand it?’”

Holland is struck by what the Hobermans have accomplished.

“They’re highly compassionate people and also what they’ve done is an exercise in wisdom,” Holland said. “A lot of times disadvantaged children don’t have any belief in the future and Winners Circle overcomes a lot of that despair.”

Holland’s late wife put in motion the latest chapter in Winners Circle, a merger with the All Our Kids mentoring program. For all its success, Winners Circle stopped at the 6th grade, leaving students without the support of the program from middle school on. To address that interruption, a pilot program called Bright Futures Partnership continues the Winners Circle from 7th grade through high school, with mentoring offered in a seamless stream.

“We’ve accomplished our dream,” Hoberman said.

Those who know the Hobermans, like Frank Hayes, say they “are genuinely good people.” Beth Smith left corporate America five years ago looking to make a difference and she said, “I feel blessed to have come upon them (the Hobermans). Their heart and their passion is for the children.”

Hayes said the couple “are an extremely good example of the good that can come when people take a risk and step out of their comfort zone. They made a significant shift in the way they saw things and as a result of that they’ve lived a better, richer life. The return on their investment has been significant. Teachers, students, parents have benefited by it from interacting with them and Jerry and Cookie have benefited from interacting with them.”

Jerry Hoberman said his motivation for Winners Circle is in part “payback for all those years I made judgments of other people and I was insensitive toward individuals and their needs.” His awakening revealed “the inequality and struggles these kids have. I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I understand the challenges they have. Education is the road for them to move up and anything we can do to try and even the playing field makes us feel really good.”

“It’s changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve built friends and relationships that are just…” “Invaluable,” added Cookie, who said moving “beyond our own circles” has promoted personal growth. “It’s enhanced our lives,” Jerry said. “I like myself a lot better now…there were times when I really didn’t.”

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