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Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment

April 9, 2012 1 comment

My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult.  The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s.  I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years.  Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects.  I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago.  He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.

 

 

 

 

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version of Jules Verne‘s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment                                       

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn

Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.

The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.

 

 

You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.

With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”

The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”

The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.

 

 

 

 

As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.

Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.

Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.

According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.

 

 

The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”

Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.

That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”

Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?

Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.

“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”

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Tempting fate: Patrick Coyle film “Into Temptation” delivers gritty tale of working girl and idealistic priest in search of redemption

April 9, 2012 2 comments

Yet another Nebraskan in Film doing laudable work is writer-director and sometime actor Patrick Coyle, a Minneapolis-based filmmkaer whose 2009 indie feature Into Temptation avoided all sorts of pitfalls in telling the story of a working girl and an idealistic priest in search of redemption.  I wrote the following short piece in the midst of the film doing gangbusters business at the Dundee Theatre in our shared hometown of Omaha.  According to Coyle the film did well wherever it played in limited release.  I am anxious to see what he does next.

 

Patrick Coyle Picture
Patrick Coyle
Tempting Fate: Patrick Coyle Film “Into Temptation” delivers gritty tale working girl and idealistic priest in search of redemption

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Native Omahan Patrick Coyle’s small indie feature Into Temptation has taken the Dundee Theatre by storm. Packed houses led to an extended run. That followed boffo business in his adopted hometown Minneapolis, where he’s a fixture on the theater/commercial film scene.

Coyle didn’t set out to make a religious film. But his steeped-in Catholicism story of redemption for a world-weary prostitute intent on killing herself and an idealistic priest obsessed with saving her is an old-school message picture. Its depiction of flawed but basically good people caught up in classic moral dilemmas is remindful of the dramatic anthology television series Insight.

It’s a mature, honest film about real, human struggles. Any skepticsm about organized religion is balanced by an affection for people and institutions trying to do the right thing and not always succeeding.

Coyle finds the pic well-received wherever it plays, including both coasts. He said, “I think the film is tapping much more of a cultural vein than a religious or a spiritual vein. It’s really resonating with the Catholic culture. That’s gratifying because just in my own huge extended family there’s practicing Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, members of the clergy, and they all have a unique angle on the film they appreciate.” He concedes the film’s “spiritual hook” either grabs you or doesn’t. The Catholic perspective is inevitable, said Coyle, as that experience “courses through my blood and it’s in my marrow — that’s who I am.”

The project once had a Hollywood producer, who pulled the plug a week from shooting. Just as well, said Coyle, who was pressured to adopt “a more formulaic Hollywood ending…and, boy, just everything I was aspiring to in that story went away for me.” Still, having the deal blow up “was pretty devastating,” he said. “Then after I got over my disappointment I saw an opportunity here to do it myself. I started the whole process over, raising the money one investor at a time. It’s how I did my first film” (the 2000 Sundance entry Detective Fiction).

The best thing about starting from scratch, he said, “was I got to go back to what I thought was pure and truthful about my original script, and so I put my ending back on.” If there’s a recurring theme in his work, Coyle said, it’s “forgiveness. It’s nothing conscious, but that seems to wiggle itself out of my subconscious.” Like Detective, Coyle shot Temptation in Minneapolis, drawing on its strong theater community to complement strong leads Jeremy Sisto (Law & Order) and Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies). Getting A-list actors was a coup.

“I happened to find a couple actors that were looking to do something during a hiatus from television and they wanted something they could chew on and stretch a little, and I guess my script fit the bill.”

 

 

 

 

Though not set here Temptation is replete with Omaha references. “Omaha kind of appears in everything I write,” Coyle said. “I actually have a screenplay called The Public Domain that I’d very much like to shoot in Omaha.”

Unlike fellow Creighton Prep product Alexander Payne, Coyle did not grow up wanting to make films but to play professional baseball. Yet he loved books and films and whiled away his youth at the Dundee Theatre. The University of Nebraska at Omaha grad was an English Lit and theater geek. “I feel like I got a great education at UNO because I was always acting, writing, directing.” He appeared on stage “about everywhere you could work here” before leaving town at 23.

He said having his film play to appreciative crowds at his old neighborhood theater “is very gratifying.”

Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni immerses herself in community affairs

April 9, 2012 3 comments

 

The real difference makers in a society and culture are those who actively engage themselves in the swirl of things that shape lives, such as education, and Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni is a good example of someone plugged into a variety of educational channels to help promote learning among students and teachers, detainees, immigrants, and other groups, all with the goal in mind of personal development and community betterment.   Here’s a shory profile I did on her a year ago or so.

 

 

 

Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni immerses herself in community affairs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

 

Growing up in the Bronx, New York as the eldest of seven children, Omaha educator Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni wanted “to speak the secret code” of her Puerto Rican parents’ native tongue. Only her folks decided they would only converse in English at home to give Gigi and her siblings “all the advantages in the United States.”

Being denied this expressive part of her familia made her “a wannabe Spanish speaker.” When the school she attended offered Latin, not Spanish, she was frustrated. It was only after moving with her family to Calif. she formally studied Spanish.

“It was something I felt in my inner being that was right, and now here was something my dad could help me with. I showed him some of my work and he helped me, so it was a connection back with family, the way it’s supposed to be,” she says. “It was a very powerful experience.”

So powerful that she became a bilingual teacher in the Los Angeles United School District. She says “bilingual education really works.” She became an advocate of Hispanic families keeping Spanish alive at home.

“I told parents they need to maintain their home language, plus learn English, because it just helps so much. And then you’re bicultural, you’re bilingual, and you can step out of two worlds and go back into that world. It’s OK to co-switch.”

She taught multicultural education, English as Second Language methodology and Spanish language courses in the California State University system.

In 2006 she joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Teacher Education Department, where she teaches methodology courses for the new Bilingual Education Supplemental Endorsement. She’s active in the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS), whose 2010 Cumbre conference she helped organize. She facilitated a CUMBRE education workshop. She works with OLLAS on Project Improve, which provides Spanish-speaking Latino detainees creative avenues for self-expression.

Her active community engagement led the Barrientos Scholarship Foundation to name her 2010 Latina of the Year. Among other things: she collaborates with Paco Fuentes on youth empowerment programs at the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club of the Midlands; she’s a mentor at the College’s Saint Mary’s annual Latina Summer Academy; she serves on the Latino Achievement Council (Omaha Public Schools); she leads South Omaha Culture Walks; she’s a Nebraska Humanities Council Prime Team reading program bilingual scholar.

“I enjoy working with the Latino community,” she says, “because I am working with ‘mi gente’ (my people) and sometimes we converse using my parents’ secret code of Spanish.”

She also co-heads the Oxbow Writing Project, a National Writing Project for teachers who teach writing.

 

 

 

 

Her main educational focus is preparing the next generation of teachers.

“I love the notion that exponentially I’m helping so many more people and that my love of literature, my love of language and writing, gets translated into other beings because I am teaching teachers-to-be. We rehearse how it would be like in the classroom, then they go into the classrooms and I see them do what I’m teaching or some application of what I helped them learn, and then they see it transposed into the students.

“I’m still learning, I’m still researching, I’m still finding new activities I can share with my students so they can also teach their students, and that’s paying it forward. I like that. Last year I worked in one of my former student’s classrooms doing writing lessons. We collaborated so well. I got to see how she treated her 3rd graders as thinkers, and it was a joy to work with her. It’s wonderful to see my students teach. I still give them ideas. This is why we’re in the profession.”

She never envisioned living in the Midwest, but she says “what sealed the deal” in coming to UNO “was they took me to schools, and I saw that good teaching was happening.” She says she doesn’t see the disillusionment among educators here she witnessed on the west coast.

Easing her transition here has been OLLAS and its “support system” for new Latino students, faculty and staff: “I needed the grounding. I feel like I’m at home. It’s a great place to be received.” She says she also likes the “unity, patience and acceptance” she finds in Omaha’s Hispanic community, adding, “Even though they celebrate their origins, it’s really about their commonality.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Paco” proves you can come home again

April 9, 2012 4 comments

The real stalwarts of any community are those unsung toilers who do the right thing day in and day out in jobs that most of us take for granted will get done.  Francisco “Paco” Fuentes is a laborer in the youth services field in my hometown of Omaha and in an era when parents entrust more and more of their children’s time to teachers, coaches, and volunteers it’s vital that the people working with our youth are dependable and effective, and as a former master sergeant Paco is someone who runs a tight ship at the South Omaha Boys & Girls Club he leads, ensuring that his staff has the best interests of children at heart just as he does.

 

“Paco” proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

South Omaha Boys & Girls Club unit director Francisco “Paco” Fuentes has won numerous awards for his youth development work, but he never gave a thought to serving kids until he returned home from the U.S. Air Force in 1998.

During a 20-year military career the South High grad moved often. He rose to the rank of master sergeant. His first civilian job after getting out was at the Omaha World-Herald, where he was a quality control technician. He had no complaints about how he was treated or paid there, but he couldn’t imagine making it a career.

“I call it my groundhog job. It was the same thing every day,” he said.

Then one Sunday Paco’s friend Alberto Gonzales mentioned the South O Boys & Girls Club was to undergo an extensive renovation. Fuentes was glad the club he devotedly attended as a boy was getting a serious makeover. Then when his friend told him the club was seeking a Spanish-speaking director with management experience, his interest piqued. He liked the idea of leading a facility that featured lots of programs and activities and involved multitasking.

Gonzales put in a good word for him to Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands head Tom Kunkel that night and the next day Paco found himself interviewing with Kunkel at the club. Being there for the first time since he was a kid released a flood of nostalgia in Fuentes.

“I was just overwhelmed with feeling. It was like, I remember this place. I had so many good memories from this club. Walking through it again it was like, Wow, this is home. By the time we finished I really, really wanted this job.”

He got it of course and 10 years later he’s never once regretted the decision.

“I love this job. I get up and I can’t wait to come to work. I think about this job all the time. It’s just a perfect fit for me because it’s a challenge. Every day is different. I can’t predict the next five minutes in this job and I guess I kind of like that.”

The depth of his feelings for the place and for the organization can best be understood by his own childhood experience. Born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, he came to America with his family as a toddler in 1960. He and his three siblings grew up in “humble” circumstances. He struggled in school with reading and writing, he said, in part because his parents had practically no grasp of English.

He credits the Boys & Girls Club for supplementing the education he didn’t get at home or school and for providing a safe, nurturing haven for him to realize his potential. In classic pay-it-forward style, he and his staff do the same for kids today.

“Starting at age 8 I came every day. That first year I had a routine, I would go to all the different areas, including a small library,” he said. “I would open up one of the big picture books, look through it, then run off. One day I was about to run off and the librarian, Miss Pat, stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me, but is your name Francisco? Boy, you come in every day, you must love to read. Could you read for me?’ I didn’t say anything. ‘Well, how about I read for you?’

“I came in every day after that. She would stop whatever she was doing and read to me, and that grew into us reading together. Of course, she guessed right away I could barely read. She would help me with my words. More and more I started to read to her. Well, after awhile she got me to enter this weekly spelling bee. She gave me encouragement and I finally won. I’ll never forget : she pinned a first place ribbon on my chest and got on the intercom to congratulate me. I could hear kids clapping all through the club. I was just so happy.

“Miss Pat not only literally taught me to read but she gave me a love of words. The lessons I learned here have served me my entire life, so I love this club, I love the mission. I can see myself in a lot of these kids. It just is really gratifying work.”

The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs is “to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, healthy and caring citizens.”

Fuentes said given the dangers that exist now that didn’t when he was young, the need for clubs like this may be greater than ever. In response to that new, harsher reality, he said, his friend Alberto Gonzales teaches the Street Smart program at the South O club. The program addresses things like peer pressure, bullying, tobacco cessation, drug awareness and gang prevention.

“When you look at what’s going on, ” Fuentes said, referring to the rash of youth and young adult homicides in Omaha, “I truly think prevention is always better than intervention and suppression. If we can get to these kids at a young age and help them with moral values, skill sets, education — that can only be a good thing.”

Rather than think of other youth-community facilities or agencies, like the new Kroc Center for example, as competitors, he said, “they are our allies. We want to work with them. We do work with them. Our competitors are the gangs and anybody else that would want our kids to go in a negative direction.”

He said his club saw steady growth between 2000 and 2008 but that membership and attendance has flattened out some since. Blame the economy.

When he took the job a decade ago, he said, “I knew I had my work cut out. Our clientele was predominantly Latino, Spanish-speaking, but that didn’t necessarily reflect in the staff, so through attrition I made sure we had bilingual staff in all of the areas, especially the front office. Very basic stuff. I don’t want our kids to be tolerated, I want them to be celebrated, so I wanted staff that reflects our clientele.”

He said personnel changes, programming innovations (his club won a national award for programming in 2006), the $2.5 million renovation and networking helped make the club a more attractive option for kids and families.

“There was a lot of outreach, a lot of partnership,” he said. “I went to a lot of meetings, I joined a lot of committees and from that a lot of dynamics, give-and- take and working with the community came about.”

He said peak time at the club might find 25 separate activities happening at once, running the gamut from Homework Help lessons to art classes to DJing to board games to career development sessions to basketball, football, soccer and softball. He said the 30,000 square foot center gets lots of use.

Still, his club could serve more. “I wish we were at capacity. I wish there were more facilities,” he said. More kids will likely come through the doors this summer if the indoor pool, which has been closed a year for renovation, reopens as planned.

Fuentes, whose bright, toy-bedecked office is nothing like the spartan quarters he kept in the Air Force, enjoys being a role model to kids and a mentor to staff. Most of his staff are young enough to be his children. A husband and father of one, he never had an “inkling” he’d wind up in youth services, but he’s content to make this his last job if it should work out that way. His open-door policy has kids streaming in and out of his office all day.

As different as the 2000s are from the 1960s, some things have never changed at the club and he intends to keep it that way.

“The main thing I loved growing up here is that all of the kids were the same, whatever happened in this building was accessible to every single kid. It was all free, too. That still holds true. Kids from all walks of life, once they pass through those doors, they’re all the same. This is the great equalizer.”

 

OneWorld Community Health: Caring, affordable services for a multicultural world in need

April 9, 2012 2 comments

As Obama Care gets put through the ringer by the U.S. Supreme Court with no firm result in sight of whether it will survive intact or not, at least some uninsured folks do not fall through the health care safety net thanks to existing initiatives like that of OneWorld Community Health Centers Inc. in Omaha.  Here’s a short story I did awhile back about OneWorld and its approach to caring for the underserved.

 

OneWorld Community Health: Caring, affordable services for a multicultural world in need

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Even as OneWorld Community Health Centers Inc. has become South Omaha‘s largest health care provider and is now poised for expansion, CEO Andrea Skolkin says the not-for-profit tries keeping the spirit of its grassroots start alive.

In every measurable, from staff to providers to patients to services to facilities, OneWorld’s grown since a humble beginning in 1970 as the Indian-Chicano Health Center. This once small, all-volunteer endeavor has evolved into a large enterprise of salaried professionals and extensive medical and dental services.

OneWorld serves some 18,000 patients a year at its Livestock Exchange Building clinics, network provider partner sites, schools and community centers. Yet Skolkin says its founding culturally sensitive, social justice mission still permeates OneWorld. Serving anyone who comes and treating them with dignity, she says, is in the corporate DNA.

“It’s really who we are and we never forget to remind ourselves of where we came,” she says. “That is really important to us.”

At its core are decades-long partnerships with local providers and physicians, many of whom donate their services.

Originally targeting Native Americans and Chicanos, OneWorld sees a diverse patient base today, although predominantly Spanish-speakers. Skolkin says it’s the area’s largest primary care clinic with a majority bilingual and bicultural staff.

She says one way the federally qualified health center stays true to its community-based mission is a government mandate that 51 percent of the board be patients of the center, thus giving patients a voice in holding OneWorld accountable.

“We’re about providing the best health care we can to the most people we can,” says Skolkin, “especially people who are underserved. Trying to make sure everybody has access to health care is what it’s really about. Our board keeps that paramount and reminds itself of that mission every time we meet.”

A sliding fee scale is applied to the uninsured, who make up the majority of patients.

She says OneWorld has stayed responsive to the working poor even as the organization’s grown. After outstripping the original location at 24th and Vinton, the center moved to 36th and Q in 1999, when it launched a Women, Infant and Children program. A more recent growth spurt began in 2001, when OneWorld was designated a federally qualified health center and received its first operating grant from the Bureau of Primary Health Care.

In 2003 the board adopted the current name to better reflect the clientele. In 2005 OneWorld moved to its present digs, in the lower three floors of the historic Livestock Exchange Building, thereby radically enlarging its clinical space. The move was necessitated, says Skolkin, by rising demand.

“We were turning away people right and left because we just had no space in those smaller clinics,” she says.

The new site appeared to resolve the space shortage, but the need has once again exceeded resources.

“We’ve started to turn patients away here because we’re full up and there’s no room,” says Skolkin. “Looking at the demographics of South Omaha and the surrounding area it became clear we either have to open up some more clinic locations throughout the city and/or expand what we have here, and our strategy is really both of those.”

President George W. Bush shares a moment with Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, Andrea Skolkin and Kristine McVea, in lab coat, before his tour Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007, of the OneWorld Community Health Centers Inc. in Omaha. ©White House photo by Chris Greenberg

 

 

In November she announced plans for the construction of two new buildings adjacent to the Livestock Exchange Building at 30th and L. The additions, adding 64,000 square feet of clinical space or roughly double current capacity, will give OneWorld more of a campus feel. The brick structures will contain a combination of health services and affordable housing units. A women’s health center will be housed in one building.

Skolkin expects the extra space will allow OneWorld to double the number of patients it serves. The expansion will also allow some satellite services to be consolidated on campus, creating more of a one-stop-shop experience. She says having an array of services together is important for patients who lack transportation or whose hourly jobs make multiple visits difficult.

The expansion is being financed by a $9 million federal grant and a combination of low income housing tax credits, city money and private philanthropy. Construction is expected to start in the summer, with a 2012 move-in. She’s also eying new satellite sites in southeast and southwest Omaha.

Skolkin says while some other community health care providers have come and gone, “we’re still standing and very strong now.” With the economic outlook still shaky and health care reform straggling, she says OneWorld’s role remains vital.

“Poverty is the main issue. Even the middle class are really stretched. People need support. They just can’t make it. We can’t rest until everyone has access to health care. It’s just unconscionable in a community as affluent as Omaha people should be not be able to take care of themselves when sick.”

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