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Change is gonna come: GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

June 14, 2011 15 comments

Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale

 

One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story.  Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) will have to do.

 

A change is gonna come

 GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.

The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.

Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”

The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”

Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”

Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center

 

 

The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others  predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).

Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.

For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.

She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”

Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.

Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.

She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.

A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”

Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.

What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

June 14, 2011 17 comments

It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com). When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs.  The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.

 

 

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play

 

 

What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry‘s “A Raisin in the Sun”   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.

The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”

Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.

When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.

With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.

“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”

For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”

Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”

Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.

Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”

The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.

For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.

Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 10 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics — Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

June 11, 2011 74 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.

 

Vera Johnson,a Native Omahans Club founder, (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

 

 

 

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

 

 

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Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

 

 

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

 

 

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

The Ties that Bind: One family’s celebration of Native Omaha Days

June 11, 2011 41 comments

One of  my favorite events to write about is something called Native Omaha Days, which is really a bunch of events over the course of a week or two in mid to late summer, held every two years and in essence serving as a great big celebration of Omaha‘s African American culture and heritage. There’s a public parade and picnic and a whole string of concerts, dances, and other activities, but at the root of it all is the dozens, perhaps hundreds of family and school reunions and various get togethers, large and small, that happen all over the city, but most especially in the traditional heart of the black community here – North Omaha. I’ve done a number of stories over the years about the Native Omaha Days itself or riffing off it to explore different aspects of Omaha’s black community.   The story below for The Reader (www.thereader.comI is from a few years ago and focuses on one extended family’s celebration of The Days. as I like to refer to the event, via a reunion party they throw.

As the 2011 Native Omaha Days approaches (July 27-August 1) I am posting my stories about The Days over the past decade or so.  You’ll also find on this blog a great array of other stories related to African American life in Omaha, past and present. Hope you enjoy.

 

Native Omaha Days
The Ties that Bind: One family’s celebration of Native Omaha Days

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The warm, communal homecoming known as Native Omaha Days expresses the deep ties that bind the city’s African-American community. It’s a time when natives long moved away return to roll with family and friends.

Beyond the cultural activities marking the festival, which officially concluded this week with the traditional “Blue Monday” farewells at northside watering holes, it’s an occasion when many families and high schools hold reunions. Whether visiting or residing here, it’s not unusual for someone to attend multiple public and private gatherings in the space of a week. The reunions embody the theme of reconnecting folks, separated by miles and years, that permeates The Days, whose activities began well before the prescribed Aug. 3 start and end well past the Aug. 8 close.

No singular experience can fully capture the flavor of this biennial love-in, but the Evergreen Family Reunion — a rendezvous of many families in one — comes close. Evergreen’s not the name of a people, but of the rural Alabama hamlet where families sharing a common origin/lineage, including the Nareds, Likelys, Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, can trace their roots.

For older kin reared there, Evergreen holds bitter memories as an inhospitable place for blacks. Those who got out, said Evergreen-born and Omaha-raised Richard Nared, were forced to leave. “Most of us came here because we had to,” he said. “A lot of my relatives had to leave the South in the middle of the night. I was little, but I did see some of the things we were confronted with, like the Ku Klux Klan.” The Nareds migrated north, as countless others did, to escape oppression and to find, as New York-raised Clinton Nared said, “a new freedom” and “a better life.”

Celebrating a fresh start and keeping track of an ever-expanding legacy is what compelled the family to start the reunion in the first place, said Rev. Robert Holt, who came in for the affair from California. The reunion can be traced to Moses Union and Georgia Ewing, who, in around 1928, “decided they would bring the family together so there would be no intermarriage. It started out with about 10 people and it grew. We’ve had as many as 2,000 attend. I don’t care where it is, I go.”

As Rev. Frank Likely of Gethsemane Church of God in Christ said in his invocation before the family fish fry on Friday, the reunion is, in part, a forum for discovering “family members we didn’t even know we had.” Then there’s “the chance to meet people I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years,” said Rev. E.C. Oliver, pastor of Eden Baptist Church. “That’s what it means to me. A lot of them, I’ve wondered, ‘Were they still alive? What were they doing?’ It’s a good time for catching up and for fellowship,” said Oliver, who arrived from Evergreen without “a dime in my pocket.”

Clinton Nared‘s taken it upon himself to chart the family tree. Reunions, he said, reveal much. “Each year I come, I get more information and I meet people I never met before,” he said. “There’s so much history here.” Niece and fellow New Yorker Heather Nared said, “Every year I find out something different about the family.”

Of Richard Nared’s three daughters — Debra, Dina and Dawn — Dina’s been inspired to delve into the family’s past. “I needed to meet my people and to know our history,” she said. “I’ve been to more reunions than the rest of them. I even went to Evergreen. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the South. Before my oldest relatives died off, I got to sit and talk to them. It was fun. We had a good time.”

Over generations the family line spread, and offshoots can be found today across the U.S. and the world. But in the South, where some relatives remain, the multi-branched tree first sprouted in America. “We live all over. Now and then we come back together,” Richard Nared said. “But Evegreen’s where it all began. They used to call it Big Meeting.”

Gabrielle Union Is Teaching Dwyane Wade Basic Life Skills

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Held variously in Detroit, Nashville, Evergreen and other locales, the reunion enjoys a run nearly rivaling that of the Bryant-Fisher clan, an old, noted area black family related by marriage to an Evergreen branch, the Unions, whose profile has increased due to the fame of one of its own, film/TV actress Gabrielle Union. A native Omahan hot off The Honeymooners remake and an Ebony cover and co-star of the upcoming ABC drama Night Stalker, she made the rounds at The Days and reunion, causing a stir wherever she went — “You seen Gabrielle? Is she here yet? We’re so proud of her.”

A display of how interconnected Omaha’s black community remains were the hundreds that greeted the star at Adams Park on Friday afternoon, when a public ceremony naming the park pond after her turned into — what else? — a reunion. Her mother, Theresa Union, said of the appreciative throng, “Most of these people, believe it or not, are her relatives, either on my side or on her father’s side. We are a very big part of North Omaha’s population.” Gabrielle’s father, Sylvester Union, said his famous daughter comes to the family galas for the same reason everyone does: “It’s a legacy we’re trying to keep going,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate and share and stay in touch. To me, that’s what it’s about — bonding and rebonding.”

The actress wasn’t the only celebrity around, either. Pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and Radio One founder Catherine Liggins Hughes were out and about, meeting and greeting, giving props to their hometown, family and fellow natives. This tight black community is small enough that Sayers and Hughes grew up with the Unions, the Nareds and many other families taking part. They were among a mix of current and former Omahans who gave it up for the good vibes and careers of 40 musicians inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame at an Aug. 4 banquet. The Days is all about paying homage to Omaha’s great black heritage. As Sayers said, “People in Chicago and different places I go ask me where I’m from and when I say, ‘Omaha, Neb.,’ they look at me like I’m crazy. ‘You mean there’s blacks in Omaha?’ I explain how there’s a very rich tradition of African-Americans here, how we helped develop the city, how there’s a lot of talent that’s come out of here, and how proud of the fact I am to be from Omaha, Neb.”

 

 

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This outpouring of pride and affection links not only individual families, but an entire community. “Family ties is one of the most powerful things in black history. It runs deep with us,” Richard Nared said. During The Days, everyone is a brother and a sister. “We’re all one big family,” Omahan John Butler said.

Helping host the 2005 Evergreen affair were the Nareds, whose sprawling Pee Wee’s Palace daycare at 3650 Crown Point Avenue served as the reunion registration center and fish-fry/social-mixer site. Born in Evergreen with his two brothers, William and John, Richard Nared is patriarch of a family that’s a pillar in the local black community. The Nareds were instrumental in starting the Bryant Center, once Omaha’s premier outdoor basketball facility now enjoying a revival. Richard helped form and run the Midwest Striders track club. William was a cop. John, a rec center director. Richard’s sister-in-law, Bernice Nared, is Northwest High’s principal. Daughter-in-law Sherrie Nared is Douglas County’s HIV Prevention Specialist.

The Friday fry event broke the ice with help from the jamming funk band R-Style. Some 300 souls boogied the night away. “More than we expected,” Debra Nared said. About 50 folks were still living it up on the edge of dawn. As adults conversed, danced and played cards, kids tumbled on the playground.

The family made its presence known in the Native O parade the next morning with a mini-caravan consisting of a bus and two caddies, adorned with banners flying the family colors. T-shirts proclaimed the family’s Evergreen roots. A soul-food picnic that afternoon at Fontenelle Park offered more chances for fellowship. Gabrielle and her entourage showed up to press the flesh and partake in ribs, beans, potato salad and peach cobbler. She posed for pictures with aunties, uncles, cousins. A weekend limo tour showed out-of-towners the sights. A coterie of relatives strutted their stuff at the big dance at Omaha’s Qwest Center that night. A Sunday church service and dinner at Pilgrim’s Baptist, whose founders were family members from Evergreen, brought the story full circle.

Heard repeatedly during the reunion: “Hey, cuz, how ya’ doin’?” and “You my cuz, too?” and “Is that my cuz over there?”

Annette Nared said, “There’s a lot of people here I don’t know, but by the time the night’s over, I’ll meet a whole lot of new relatives.” Looking around at all the family surrounding her, wide-eyed Dawn Nared said, “I didn’t know I had this many cousins. It’s interesting.” Omahan Sharon Turner, who married into the family, summed up the weekend by saying, it’s “lots of camaraderie. It’s a real good time to reconnect and find out what other folks are doing.”

For Richard Nared, it’s all about continuity. “Young people don’t know the family tree. They don’t know their family history unless someone old enlightens them,” he said. “Kids need to know about their history. If they don’t know their history, they’re lost anyway.”

It’s why he called out a challenge to the young bloods to keep it going. “This is a family affair,” he said. “I want the young people here to carry things on. Let’s come together. Let’s make this something special from now on.”

Pot Liquor Love: Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha

June 11, 2011 4 comments

Thanks to the Tyler Perry franchise of popular movies and plays and the character Madea he plays and to the Martin Lawrence series of films, the term Big Mama has come into the mainstream lexicon. This is no doubt part of the appeal behind a soul food eatery and catering operation in Omaha, Big Mama’s, that has enjoyed breakout success since I profiled its namesake owner, Patricia Barron, soon after her place opened. The breakfast and lunch crowds there are steady, the catering orders high, and in the past few years she’s seen her business featured in a slew of newspapers and magazines, then by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and more recently by another national cable food show. But I think what people really respond to is the story of her preserving her family’s heritage and recipes through her cooking. The deep current of passion that she and her daughters, who help run the place, have for family and community and tradition is expressed in all the framed pictures hanging there, so many that it’s practically a retrospective of African-American Omaha history. Those pictures, combined with the homey arts and crafts touches adorning the former cafeteria she converted into Big Mama’s, create a warm atmosphere that complements the down home meals she serves. All that, plus the fact that she pined to open her own restaurant for decades while raising her family and working in the corporate world, makes hers one of those magnificent obsession stories fulfilled that I love telling.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

In some African American families tradition demands the matriarch be called Big Mama. That’s true with Patricia Barron’s family. The 60-something Omahan never cared for the “countrified” term, which her late maternal grandmother Lillie Johnson earned. But when Barron’s grandkids began calling her that sobriquet it became, she said, “the name that was stuck on me.”

Barron proudly carries on the name in her soul food place, Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering. Located on the Turning Point youth services campus at 45th and Bedford, former site of the Nebraska School for the Deaf, Big Mama’s opened Dec. 10 serving breakfast and lunch. Barron, along with daughters Delena and Gladys and friend, “adopted daughter and chief cook” Valerie, are prepping for a Jan. 15 grand opening, when dinner service should be up and running, too.

For some 30 years Barron operated a catering business from her home. Last August she began a popular soul food dinner at her church, North Side Christian Center. An eatery was a long-held dream. More than once she put her dream on hold to climb the corporate ladder and raise her kids. Stymied in her search for a small business loan and a facility, she stayed the course. That’s typical of Barron and her husband, Earnest Wallace. When the couple and their five daughters moved into their Benson home they endured eggings and racial slurs. They didn’t budge. Now, with the help of volunteers whose work, she said, “has warmed my heart,” she’s converted a kitchen/cafeteria into Big Mama’s. Leopard-pattern oil cloths and flower-filled vases adorn the tables. Earth tone decor warms what could otherwise be a cold space. A display case features her signature desserts.

Barron’s right where she’s supposed to be. “I think I was born to do this. I love to cook. I can be ever so tired but once I get in the kitchen it’s like a rush of energy and I’m ready to go,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to do my second career — what I really wanted to do.”

Aptly, she’s found a home for Big Mama’s on a campus filled with ministries that inspire hope. “We like it here,” she said, “and we’re just pleased to be a part of all that’s going on.” In its own way she sees Big Mama’s as a ministry that rekindles a time when North O was one big clique and families came together over dinner.

“I want to bring people back to the table,” she said.

Anymore, authentic soul food’s hard to find here. She reconnects some folks to their roots and introduces others to the cuisine for the first time. As she likes to explain, soul food’s been handed down through the generations. It’s tradition.

“In our neighborhood we used to hear the term ‘eating high off the hog,’ and that derived,” she said, “from when the master got the best cuts and the slaves were left with scraps. We took those scraps and made delicacies out of them. Made entire meals out of them. That’s really what it is.”

Soul food’s slow-cooked goodness is also a byproduct of slave times. “You worked in the fields 10-12 hours and you had to come home to something to eat, and so your food had to be slow-cooked all day long,” she said. Fresh, savory ingredients cooked for hours at low temps make for succulent eats.

More than the Big Mama name, Barron carries on “Miss Lillie’s” way with soul food. Sundays Lillie put out a spread fit for a wedding banquet. After church the whole family gathered to indulge at her 34th and Bedford home in an area called Plum Nelly. With your chicken, ribs, catfish or gumbo — on holidays there was a choice of entrees — you got greens, chitlins, rice, beans, mac and cheese, cornbread, biscuits and desserts like sweet potato cheesecake and fried pies filled with prune or apricot. All made from scratch, memory and love on a wood-burning stove.

As a girl Barron spent summers with Big Mama, under whose apron a young Patricia learned to cook, propped up on a wooden soda pop case. Later, Barron took it upon herself to preserve grandma’s best dishes. Derived in part from oral history and observation, these dishes form the core of Barron’s menu at Big Mama’s.

 

 

(Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

 

With your breakfast staples — omelets, casseroles, french toast, pancakes, bacon and eggs — you can get grits or biscuits. Lunch is skimpy on soul food for now with its catfish sandwich, fried shrimp, trio of burgers — including an Afro burger — pizza bread and taco salad. Sides range from greens to cornbread to sweet potato pudding. For dessert there’s pound cake, sweet potato cheesecake, tea cakes and fried pies. Try the sweet raspberry ice tea. Prices are a bit high but not bad.

Big Mama’s enormous, varied catering menu offers hundreds of dishes, half of which are traditional soul food, the other half home-cooked favorites, with some gourmet thrown in. There’s ribs, roasts, chops, oven fried chicken and greens made every which way. A shopping cart is soon coming to her web site — bigmamaskitchen.com.

But will enough folks wend their way to her digs on the institutional, fenced-in grounds? Situated in an old, red-brick structure, Big Mama’s is in Building A at 3223 No. 45th Street. Banners and signs direct you there. Nothing fancy or chic — just real. Clean, too. Barron and crew make you feel welcome with their warm smiles and greetings. Don’t be surprised if Big Mama herself sidles right up beside you.

Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Call 455-6262.

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

June 4, 2011 13 comments

My blog features a number of stories that deal with good works by faith-based organizations, and this is another one. Northeast Omaha’s largely African-American community suffers disproportionately in terms of poverty, low educational achievement, underemployment and unemployment, health problems, crime, et cetera. These challenges and disparities by no means characterize the entire community there, but the distress affects many and is persistent across generations in many households. All manner of social services operate in that community trying to address the issues, and the subject of the following story, Hope Center for Kids, is among those.  I filed the story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) and I came away impressed that the people behind this effort are genuinely knowledgable about the needs there and are committed to doing what they can to reach out to youth in the neighborhoods surrounding the center.

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Northeast Omaha’s largely poor, African-American community is a mosaic where despair coexists with hope. A stretch of North 20th Street is an example. Rows of nice, newly built homes line both sides of the one-way road — from Binney to Grace Streets. Working class families with upwardly mobile aspirations live there.

Yet, vacant lots and homes in disrepair are within view. God-fearing working stiffs may live next door to gang bangers. To be sure, the good citizens far outnumber the thugs but a few bad apples can spoil things for the rest.

Endemic inner city problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, gun violence, unemployment, school dropouts and broken homes put a drag on the district. Church, school and social service institutions do what they can to stabilize an unstable area. Meanwhile, the booming downtown cityscape to the south offers a vista of larger, brighter possibilities.

One anchor addressing the needs is the faith-based nonprofit Hope Center for Kids. Housed in the former Gene Eppley Boys Club at 2209 Binney, the center just celebrated its 10th anniversary. An $800,000 renovation replaced the roof and filled in the pool to create more programming space. Four years ago the organization opened Hope Skate, an attached multi-use roller rink/gymnasium that gives a community short on recreational amenities a fun, safe haven.

In the last year Hope’s received grants from the Kellogg Foundation, the Millard Foundation and Mutual of Omaha to expand its life skills and educational support services. Additional staff and more structured programs have “taken us to a whole new level,” said founder/executive director Rev. Ty Schenzel.

Clearly, the 50,000 square foot, $1.2 million-budgeted center is there for the long haul. Hope serves 400 members, ages 7 to 19. Most come from single parent homes. Eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced price lunch at school. Hope collaborates with such community partners as nearby Conestoga Magnet Center and Jesuit Middle Schools, whose ranks include Hope members. University of Nebraska at Omaha students are engaged in a service learning project to build an employability curriculum. Creighton med students conduct health screenings. Volunteers tutor and mentor. Bible studies and worship services are available.

Some Hope members work paid part-time jobs at the center. Members who keep up their grades earn points they can spend at an on-site store.

Per its name, Hope tries raising expectations amid limited horizons. It all began a decade ago when two Omaha businessmen bought the abandoned boys club and handed it over to Schenzel, a white Fremont, Neb. native and suburbanite called to do urban ministry. He was then-youth pastor at Trinity Interdenominational Church., a major supporter of Hope.

Ty Schenzel

He first came down to The Hood doing outreach for Trinity in the mid-’90s. He and volunteers held vacation bible studies and other activities for children at an infamous apartment complex, Strehlow, nicknamed New Jack City for all its crime. He met gang members. One by the street name of Rock asked what would happen to the kids once the do-gooders left. That convinced Pastor Ty, as Schenzel’s called, to have a permanent presence there. In a sea of hopelessness he and his workers try to stem the tide.

“What we believe is at the root of the shootings, the gang activity, the 15-year-old moms, the generation after generation economic and educational despair is hopelessness,” he said. “If you don’t think anything is going to change and you don’t care about the consequences then you lose all motivation. You have nothing to lose because you’ve lost everything.

“Our vision is we want to bring tangible hope with the belief that when the kids experience hope they’ll be motivated to make right choices. They’ll start to believe.”

Schenzel said what “differentiates Hope is that the at-risk kids that come to us probably wouldn’t fit in other programs. The faith component makes us different. The economic development-jobs creation aspect. The roller rink.”

He said former Hope member Jimmie Ventry is a measure of the challenge kids present. Older brother Robert Ventry went on a drug-filled rampage that ended in him being shot and killed. Jimmie, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law, had a run in with cops and ended up doing jail time. Schenzel said, “One day I asked Jimmie, ‘How do I reach you? What do I do to break through?’ And the spirit of what Jimmie said was, Don’t give up on me. Don’t stop trying.” Hope hasn’t.

Schenzel said results take time. “I tell people we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, which I think is what Jimmie was saying. We’re now in our 10th year and in many ways it feels like we’re still starting.” Hope Youth Development Director Pastor Edward King said kids can only be pointed in the right direction. Where they go is their own decision.

“It’s one thing when they come here and we’re throwing them the love and it’s another thing when they go back to their environment and the drug dealers are telling them not to go to work,” he said. “We’re here telling them: You do have options; you can make honest money without the guilt and having to look over your shoulder; you don’t have to go to prison, you can graduate from school — you can go to college.

“We provide hope but the battle is theirs really. When you don’t believe you can, when everything around you is hopelessness, it takes a strong person to want to make the right choices.”

Chris Morris was given up as a lost cause by the public schools system. Hope rallied behind him. It meant long hours of counseling, prodding, praying. The efforts paid off when he graduated high school.

“The Hope Center helped me in a positive way. Just having them around gave me hope,” said Morris.

King said several kids who’ve thought of dropping out or been tagged as failures have gone on to get their diploma with the help of Hope’s intervention.

“It took a lot of hard work for people to stay on them and to push them through,” said King. “We’re so proud of them.”

The kids that make it invariably invite Hope teachers and administrators to attend their graduation. That’s affirmation enough for King. “It’s the thing that keeps me coming back,” he said. “When I hear a guy talk about how coming here keeps him out of trouble or makes him feel safe or that he enjoys hanging out with my family at our house, that lets me know we’re doing the right thing.”

For many kids the first time they see a traditional nuclear family is at a Hope staffer’s home. It’s a revelation. Staff become like Big Brothers-Big Sisters or surrogate parents. They go out of their way to provide support.

“Our staff go to kids’ games, they connect with them on the weekend, they’re involved in the lives of the kids. Pastor King’s house should probably be reclassified a dormitory,” Schenzel said.
King comes from the very hard streets he ministers to now. Like many of these kids he grew up fatherless. He relates to the anger and chaos they feel.

“It breaks my heart to see the killings going on. I couldn’t sit back on the sidelines and not do anything. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be here. I know what it’s like to have resentment for not having a dad around. A lot of the young men don’t have a positive male role model at home to be there for them, to discipline them.”

Hope educators work a lot on discipline with kids. Positive behavior is emphasized –from accepting criticism to following instructions. Hope slogans are printed on banners and posters throughout the center.

There, kids can channel their energies in art, education, recreation activities that, at least temporarily, remove them from bad influences. A Kids Cafe serves hot meals. King supervises Hope’s sports programs. “If we can get them involved in our rec leagues, then it’s less time they can be doing the negative things,” he said. “There’s nothing like the discipline of sports to keep a guy in line. We get a chance to teach life skills to the guys. “

Ken and Rachelle Johnson coordinate Hope’s early ed programs. An expression of the couple’s commitment is the home they bought and live in across the street.

“For me personally it’s not a job, it’s a ministry it’s a lifestyle, it’s our life.” Rachelle said. “We love being around the kids in the neighborhood. The kids deal with a lot of abandonment-neglect issues. They all have their own story. We wanted to say, Here, we’re committed, we’re not going anywhere, because it takes a long time to build relationships.”

Relationship building is key for Hope. Staff work with families and schools to try and keep kids on track academically. Programs help kids identify their strengths and dreams. To encourage big dreams teens meeting certain goals go on college tours.

“Increasingly we want to create this culture of connecting our kids to higher education,” Schenzel said.

Optional worship services are offered but all members get exposed to faith lessons through interactions with staff, who model and communicate scripture.

“Here’s our mantra,” Schenzel said: “You can only educate and recreate so long but unless there’s a heart change through a relationship with the Lord it’s putting a Band Aid on wet skin.”

Hope strives to have about 100 kids in the building at any given time. “Much more than that feels a little bit like a daycare. We don’t want to be a daycare. We want to do some transformation,” he said.

Schenzel sees “little buds of tangible hope going on” in what he terms Omaha’s Ninth Ward. He and residents wonder why “there’s seemingly an unholy bubble over north Omaha” preventing it from “getting in on the growth” happening downtown and midtown.” Those frustrations don’t stop him from dreaming.

“We would love to do mini-Hope satellites in the community, maybe in collaboration with churches, as well as Hope Centers in other cities. We envision an internship program for college students who want something to give their hearts to. We could then exponentially impact more kids. We want to create cottage industries that generate jobs and revenue streams. Some day we want to do Hope High School.”

Keep hope alive, Pastor Ty, keep hope alive.

Dick Holland responds to far-reaching needs in Omaha

June 4, 2011 6 comments

Dick Holland is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha philanthropist has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

Holland Performing Arts Center

 

 

Dick Holland responds to far-reaching needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

 

 

Dick Holland

 

 

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ’em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes, but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be.

“I guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

 

 

Dick and Mary Holland portrait by Debra Joy Groesser

 

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

 

Image result for dick holland omaha

 

 

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha’s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

June 4, 2011 4 comments

Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make.

 

The new, redesigned Child Saving Institute

 

 

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.

The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.

The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.

Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.

The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.

 

 

The drab, old Child Saving Institute

 

 

There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.

Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.

“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”

Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.

Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.

He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.

“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.

 

 

Mary and Dick Holland, ©By Debra Joy Groesser

 

 

The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.

CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.

The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.

“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”

She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.

“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”

“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”

The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.

“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.

Such links can pay big dividends.

“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”

CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.

“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”

One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.

“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.

“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.

When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.

“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.

“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”

The playground became his sweet challenge.

“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.

 

Playground

Nature Explore Classroom at CSI

 

 

He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.

Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.

That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.

She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”

For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”

Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.

“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”

It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.

“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”

Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.

“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”

The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.

“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”

For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.

Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”

Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.

Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

He said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”


Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

June 4, 2011 8 comments

It’s fun to do stories that try to place an establishment, in this case a cafe, with a neighborhood, in this case a near downtown urban swath on the edge of of rebirth and oblivion. The Perk Avenue Cafe in Omaha opened as a humanitarian mission and community building experiment for activist owners John and Jennifer Cleveland and it was my pleasure to try and convey that within the context of the couple’s own personal experiences and beliefs as born-again Christians. They minister to the neighborhood through the food and coffee they serve, the cozy gathering spot they create, and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who comes in.  The story appeared in the Omaha City Weekly, a newspaper that is no more.  To be honest, I’m not sure the cafe is still open.

Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha City Weekly

 

Perk Avenue Cafe fits the road-less-traveled crowd coursing Park Avenue, an off-the-beaten-track artery linking immigrant south Omaha with transitional midtown with mainstream downtown. From its modest 1107 Park Avenue digs in a mixed use district ranging from stately old homes to shoddy rentals and open air drug-sex deals to revitalization efforts, the cafe’s that rare spot where urban families, adventurers and fringe dwellers all feel welcome. Beyond its free-trade coffee, made-from-scratch pies and home-style breakfast-lunch menu, Perk’s real mission is as a community center — an extension of proprietors John and Jennifer Cleveland’s well-practiced beliefs.

Neighborhood activists residing in the area, the married couple opened Perk Avenue in the fall of 2003. The brick building was home to a vending business before sitting vacant. The property, like other nearby lots, was plagued by addicts and prostitutes. Veterans of missionary work abroad and social service work in Omaha, the couple bought the site and then surveyed neighbors about what should be done with it. When the consensus said it should be made-over into a community gathering spot, the husband and wife team renovated it for that purpose.

By day, Perk Avenue is the prototypical laidback coffeehouse/diner whose counter-hugging patrons warm up over coffee and conversation. The Clevelands, a mellow combo whether dishing out their low-priced food or their well-articulated social advocacy, are a main attraction along with their four chatty children. “Our children are a big part of this,” Jennifer said.

Tim Siragusa, an actor and waiter who walks to Perk Avenue for his “pre-yoga double-shot of espresso” said, “I’ve just been charmed by the owners. John and Jennifer brought a nice communal space into this part of town that wasn’t here before. And I think one of the things that keeps neighborhoods vital is a coffee shop. A place where everybody can come in the morning and get their coffee and chat over the paper. And their delightful children have no problem speaking with the customers.” Or joining in with artists who variously perform music and give readings there. For an Omaha Public Library Program, Siragusa read Farenhite 451 at the Perk.

With time, the couple’s vision for Perk Avenue has broadened. For example, on some nights the Clevelands, in concert with Mosaic Community Development, hold Spanish and English classes as “a bridge builder” to bring together the neighborhood’s disparate peoples.

On Friday nights, the joint jumps to live music by folk musicians or grunge bands. Other nights, it becomes a venue for parties and receptions. The commercial kitchen is an incubator for food entrepreneurs like Bob and Mary Brown, who use the premises to sling up half the cafe’s menu in addition to their own catering business dishes. Whether hosting meetings of the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association, which John Cleveland has headed, or reaching out to street denizens, the couple use the Perk Avenue as a base for their “holistic approach” in addressing the social, economic, political and spiritual concerns of an area Cleveland said is “on the edge — it could go either way.”

Being change agents is an intensely personal thing for the couple, born-again Christians whose own lives bear witness to the transforming power of faith and love. The product of a broken home, John was “a self-styled Satanist” and “chief sinner” waging a one-man war against God before his conversion in 1986 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Omaha. He describes being taken into the fold as an “adoption,” adding, “It was a family, it was a place of purpose and belonging.”

“I hated God, and that He could somehow reach into my heart and make that kind of life change in me,” said Cleveland, “it made me believe there was nobody on this planet beyond His reach or His help. I felt a real deep conviction and compulsion, and a real called mission, to do something.”

He met Jennifer there. After attending bible college together they made an early 1990s Christ in the City International missionary tour — first, to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then to Medellin, Colombia to work. Arriving in drug warlord Pablo Escobar’s last year in power, the couple started their family in the poor, violent land, where John ran a program training Colombian youth to help orphans, drug addicts and AIDS victims. It was a fulfilling but trying experience.

“It was hard on our family. There were bombings and kidnappings. Like a war zone. My second day there, a 10-year old prostitute approached me. She didn’t want my help. Nothing they taught in bible school prepared me for that. It was like hell on earth for some. We were in constant danger. It was terrifying at times,” he said.

John recalled one hairy confrontation with armed guerrillas. “We were coming back from the coast with a team of Colombians. We had a ton of people in the Toyota car I was driving. We pulled into this military checkpoint and we knew something was wrong because there was nobody there. It was a ghost town. So, we kept going and at the crest of the next hill we were stopped by two guerrillas. Apparently they’d come down out of the hills and done an operation and were now retreating. This one came up to my window and started asking questions. What had we seen? Where were we going? Who were we with? Where were we from? His questions started getting more specific to my being an American.”

This was in a time and place, Cleveland said, when if it was assumed “you had any value, they would kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Well, we’re at that point when, all of a sudden, the guy can’t talk. He’s choking on his words. The other guy is freaking out because it’s taking too long. They’re exposed. And the guy who can’t talk finally gets so mad he just waves us off, like, Get out of here. So, we tear off and everybody in the car is like, Oh, my God, it’s a miracle. On the other hand, I’m hyperventilating, going, I just about died — God, what were you thinking?”

Of their time in Colombia, he said, “We were so young. Freshly married. A new family. There were a lot of things we should have done differently, but that’s OK. We made it through and learned a lot from it.” Once back in Omaha, John tried working in the for-profit arena, but was “miserable.” He said, “I love people and I felt we could apply some of the principles of community development we learned in a foreign land to what we do here locally.” He joined the local office of Christ for the City, heading a program for Lutheran Family Services called Strong Urban Neighborhoods. He now works at Turning Point, a youth-centered organization.

The Clevelands were drawn to the area bounded by Park Avenue, the Ford Birthsite and Field Club for “its cultural diversity.” Immigrants from Latin America and Africa settle there for its affordable housing.

 

 

 

 

Plus, John said, “We wanted to use our Spanish. We felt a real affection for the Hispanic community. And we wanted to live in a community we felt we could contribute to, and this neighborhood was perfect. My big emphasis in ministry has always been community development. Getting community ownership, finding community solutions to problems and sustainable solutions locally.” And “breaking down barriers,” like in the language classes offered at Perk Avenue that help diffuse differences. Participants range from immigrants trying to master English to city inspectors and landlords needing to communicate with Spanish-speaking business owners and tenants to teachers from nearby Liberty Elementary School, where three of the couple’s kids attend, looking to breach the divide with newcomer pupils. In the process, he said, “perceptions  change and dialogues start, and I don’t know where else that would happen.”

With so much diversity intersecting the area, Cleveland wants Perk Avenue viewed as a safe haven for everyone, even the late night street walkers he shoos away but also assists when they appear battered or cold or disoriented. “We want a place where people from Field Club can rub shoulders with people from down here and where everybody thinks it’s theirs. We’ve tried to make this a melting pot.”

On a recent morning, customers included a middle-aged contractor, a thirtysomething Hispanic laborer, a senior couple, actor Tim Siragusa and young artist Leslie Iwai, who discussed bible passages with companion Jonathan Starkey. Iwai welcomes what the Clevelands are doing. “I think it’s a light in a dark place. It brings order to a location that’s had a lot of oppression. It’s establishing something here — like grass growing through a crack in the sidewalk. We didn’t need another bar.” Starkey agreed, adding, “It’s good to see a healthy establishment.”

Cleveland said the neighborhood seems to be turning the corner. He’s helped lead efforts to combat dealers, addicts, pimps and hookers. “It’s frustrating, because you want to extend help and you want to see life change, but in the meantime I’ll settle for relocation. There’s a sense of righteous indignation of — you know what? — this has got to stop. There’s enough people in this neighborhood who are to that point that it’s starting to make a difference.” He’s also encouraged by a new development that’s renovating a former illicit drug-sex den into Boston row houses.

The couple hope Perk remains a community resource long after they’re gone. “It’s not ours. It’s not about us. It’s about the destiny of this neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time, I believe, before people start owning it. There’s great potential here,” Jennifer said.

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