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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 2 comments

The Reader July 10 - 16, 2014

 

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

A Restored Hope residence

 

Aisha and her wares at a store

 

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

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Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me: Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless

August 1, 2010 2 comments

Our Father's House Soup Kitchen serving the la...

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Before I did the following story on Mike Saklar, I only knew him from media reports about the Siena/Francis House homeless facility he ran then and continues running today.  Even in sound bites he comes off as a thoughtful, highly competent man deeply committed to his work.  When I finally met him a couple years ago to interview him and spend some time around the shelter and residential treatment program there, I found he was all those things and more.  This is quite an extensive profile of him and his work, and yet this was one of those occasions when I never heard word one back from him or anyone else for that matter at the Siena/Francis House about my story. That lack of feedback is in itself not that unusual per se, but for a story of this length it definitely is. So, if you happen upon this Mr. Saklar or perhaps one of your colleagues or supporters do, shoot me a comment or two, just so I have the satisfaction of knowing that at least somebody there read it.

 

 

Mike Saklar

 

 

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me:                                                                        Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The plight of the homeless tends to make news seasonally, during winter and summer, and then fades away the rest of the year. Out of sight, out of mind. Trouble is, even when the homeless stand in plain view you likely don’t see them. That’s because society makes them invisible, untouchable.

If you take a good look, though, the homeless are easy to spot downtown. They’re fixtures in the Gene Leahy Mall, hanging out, panhandling, lining up for free lunches. They camp out at the W. Dale Clark Library, reading, dozing, drying out, coming down. These discarded, dispossessed figures occupy a limbo, killing time between some indeterminate goal or destination — perhaps a ride, a meal, a roof over their head or their next fix.

They’re an inconvenient reminder the fabric of America is torn, its safety net not catching everyone who suffers a fall.

The homeless often habituate Omaha’s east corridor, where several nonprofits serve the population. The state’s largest homeless shelter, the Siena/Francis House, is situated on the fringes of NoDo or North Downtown. This multiplex at 17th and Nicholas St. is an oasis for the lost and the misbegotten.

Siena/Francis executive director Mike Saklar has never been homeless himself but he’s seen the lives of street people wrecked by neglect and transformed by support. After 28 years in the Omaha City Planning Department, where he began working with area homeless programs, he now focuses on breaking the cycle of homelessness. That’s the mission of Siena/Francis, which he’s directed since 2002.

It wasn’t like the job was a long-held dream. But being there doing this work makes sense given his background and the choices he’s made. Siena/Francis men’s shelter manager James Hayes said he believes Saklar “has been in training for this job since day one. All of his experiences in life up to the day he took this job prepared him in some way or another to be one of the most sincere, compassionate, hard working, help-anyone-in-any-way-he-can individuals I have ever met.”

Saklar confirmed he’s “experienced different things during my life” that have helped him connect with the poor and to value them as human beings. Giving to the less fortunate is a practice his elders modeled. His father was a traveling salesman, his mom a stay-at-home matriarch.

“My extended family’s always been big in helping others,” he said. “My grandfather was director of one of Omaha’s early homeless shelters in the 1930s. My parents and grandparents helped and befriended many people, often opening their homes to them. I open my home to a select few who I know well. I do bring some homeless to dinner on Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

He came into contact with more homeless working at Peony Park, near where he grew up. The amusement park’s owners, the Malecs, used to hire what were called ‘bums” then. They worked the grounds and the gardens.

Though a teen at the time, Saklar did a man’s job at the amusement park, sometimes working alongside the transients.

“I put in 10-12 hour days. It was a lot of hard work. I did everything from operating rides to putting out a couple thousand pounds of charcoal in these great big pits, preparing barbecue sauce from scratch in these giant vats, to cutting up chickens, washing them, cooking them, making potato salad for 2,500 people, to working as a bus boy for the bartenders at night. I’d bring up the ice and the beer from the basement, pop the popcorn, clean up afterwards. I did all that.

“It was really a life experience…meeting lots of people.”

Doing manual labor, being around diverse people set the tone for his adult life. “I love different cultures and I know a lot of people from a lot of different cultures,” he said. A person he got “particularly close to” at Peony Park was a homeless man who worked there. Saklar said, “When I was about 13-years-old I had my first homeless friend, Joel Craig. I liked him. We got to be talking friends. We talked a lot. I don’t remember how he got to be homeless.”

Saklar lost touch with Craig. Years passed before they were reunited. By then it was the ‘70s and Saklar was an Omaha Community Development trainee with the City. His job — relocating east Omaha residents to make way for progress. Eppley Airfield expansion meant displacing hundreds of families. In the process of notifying  homeowners he came upon Craig living in a tiny but tidy bungalow that had to go.

“He had somehow put his life together a little bit, still at a very low level, but he’d married and he and his wife lived together in this house,” Saklar recalled. “I thought it was so cool to run into him again later and to be able to help them get another house. I helped them move.”

Living conditions in east Omaha then, he said, were akin to Appalachia with its crushing poverty, only minus the coal dust and hills. The small shotgun houses were substandard. Being exposed to such hardships opened Saklar’s eyes.

“This was two minutes from downtown and they didn’t have sewers. Some of them still had outhouses, dirt floors. I was in houses where there were five kids sleeping on a dirt floor in the basement. With the jet liners rumbling over your head every 15 or 20 minutes you couldn’t talk or hear. It would just vibrate like heck. Some homes were heated just by wood space heaters. Residents chopped the lumber.

“It was really a backwards community, and it was very very poor. I was amazed. It would have been the most blighted, poorest census tract in Douglas County by far, maybe one of the poorest in the state per capita.”

Despite the disruption to people’s lives and the rupture to communities that went with razing people’s homes to make way for public works projects, Saklar believes dislocated residents came out ahead in the long run.

“It was a great experience because you’re not just kicking people off this land — you’re working with them and helping them to better themselves, and with all the federal laws you’re providing relocation assistance in order to help them buy a decent home,” he said.

Before he ever got into city planning Saklar embarked on a path that made him empathetic to people living on the margins. After graduating Westside High School in the late ‘60s he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He paid his own way and when his funds ran dry he dropped out. No sooner did he leave school then Uncle Sam drafted him into the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was escalating. Seeing action was a real possibility.

He ended up in airborne training and made the cut as a paratrooper in the famed 82nd Airborne division. In ‘69 he shipped overseas to Korea, via Japan. He couldn’t wait for his chance at combat duty in ‘Nam. As fate had it, he never got the call.

“I was very disappointed. If you go through airborne training and then to the 82nd Airborne you’re ready to go anywhere and to do whatever you have to do.”

Instead, he tested into an operations intelligence specialist post with the 7th infantry division’s command in Seoul. He rated top secret clearance. The work was interesting but what most fascinated him was the Korean culture. “I liked to walk around and peruse through the markets, see the action, right.”

Everything the naive 21-year-old saw made an impression. He came across situations that would inform his later work with Omaha’s homeless. South Korea was still reeling from the war that ended 16 years before and, thus, unchecked diseases, shortages of basic goods and other hardships were rampant.

“When I was overseas I ran into leper camps, really terrible situations, lots of homeless people, and I think maybe that helped create something inside me, right.”

The resiliency and ingenuity of the Korean people struck Saklar. After meeting his wife there and visiting several times over the years he remains impressed today.

“I admire the work ethic of the Korean culture. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person’s job is street sweeper, teacher, businessman or doctor, they will do their very best and do it in a very professional way. I don’t know how to explain this. Koreans are very respectful of others, and if you walk around, say, in Seoul, the capital city, you will be hard-pressed to find trash blowing around. It is a very clean city. Korea offers a lot to admire. The culture goes back some 5,500 years. I love Korean history, architecture, anthropology, geography, sociology, et cetera.”

He said Koreans well-deserve their reputation for being driven to achieve, especially in the classroom. “They are way too smart.”

During his overseas tour Saklar met a bright Korean national attached to his unit, Han Chil Song, who let the curious American know his sister, Chong, worked in a Seoul tailor shop. “She measured me up for a number of suits,” said Saklar. “For some reason, I kept going back to purchase some very nice and very inexpensive suits.” Love bloomed. The pair married. Her brother died tragically.

 

 

 

 

Saklar learned the harrowing story of how Chong’s family escaped North Korea after the Communists came to power and implemented a purge that targeted figures like Chong’s banker father. Chong was not yet born. The family made it to Seoul, South Korea, where they survived the war.

“I think it was rough going,” said Saklar. “I mean, that whole country was devastated and destroyed. I was just there, and the mountains surrounding Seoul  still don’t have any trees on them yet. They’re just bare. The trees were blasted out or people cut them down to survive. It’s unbelievable.”

Saklar became a father shortly before his Army release. In the States his small family settled in Omaha, where his Greek-American clan embraced his Korean wife and Amerasian son. “I think it was pretty exciting for all of them, especially since we had a child.” His Korean wife and biracial kids — he and Chong have three grown children — have been subject to some prejudice, he said, but mostly welcomed.

Back home, Saklar returned to school on the G.I. Bill but with a family to support he needed a job. He tried driving a taxi, working construction — “whatever I could do just to make ends meet,” he said. He began his own roofing business. “I was struggling. I went to Nebraska Job Service and I saw an opening for this new city department (Omaha Community Development), and I was the last person they hired, at the lowest ranking of all the staff.”

Acquisition/relocation work transitioned to developing affordable housing in largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhoods. All of it was an education.

“There’s lots of things I was exposed to — a myriad of housing programs. I was active working to get housing built for first-time home buyers all the way down to the homeless shelters. I just learned on the way.”

His professional interest in the homeless began in the mid-’80s, when laws emptied mental health institutions, dumping countless people into the streets without a system to assist them or the communities they inhabited. He became Omaha’s point person for developing plans and capturing funds to deal with homelessness. He assembled the land the Siena/Francis, the Open Door Mission and the Campus of Hope occupy today. He secured a building and funds for the Stephen Center.

“Omaha City Planning became a leader in the nation,” he said. “I developed almost every homeless strategic plan since the very first one starting in 1987. And so I just got really interested in it. I got really good at bringing in money. I brought in like tens of millions of dollars worth of (community block) grants. In about 1995 some homeless agencies came and asked me to take the leadership in trying to create community partnerships with all the programs. Up until then it was all turf wars — fighting over the money and philosophical differences on strategy. It was terrible.”

The resulting Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, a collaborative network of 100 homeless providers that coordinates and maximizes resources to prevent and eliminate homelessness, has been recognized nationally.

“It was all just creative juices flowing, without any knowledge of really how to do it. Just learn as you go and do it with openness and honesty,” Saklar said of the process that launched MACCH in ‘96. “It just evolved, as everything does. I got to meet the directors of probably a hundred programs or more, becoming their friend and colleague and guiding them — they sought my advice and I sought theirs. We were just finding ways to do this. Programs flourished. Collaborative efforts formed.

“It’s become so good we’ve became a model for other communities. I find myself in Washington, D.C. or Charlotte (N.C.) at seminars showing them our strategy — this is how we did it. I get calls from all over the country for advice.”

Overcoming old turf battles in Omaha, he said, “involved bringing all the agencies and programs together. We tried to create some values within this system, to get the agencies to recognize they’re all just a piece of the puzzle and they have to respect each other’s philosophies on how to deal with homeless people. I could use the money as the carrot or as the stick of no funding if you don’t hop on board and get on this program. I did that quite effectively I believe. I made people that wouldn’t even talk to each other become partners, and jointly funded them.”

While the homeless problem in big cities overwhelmed those communities, Omaha’s situation was more manageable. Still, many service gaps existed. Saklar’s seen much improvement. “Omaha’s made huge strides,” he said. “Omaha’s been very, very good in dealing with the homeless.” He’s one reason why. The plaques on his office wall honoring his service attest to it. In 2001 MACCH was singled out among hundreds of programs nationwide by Innovations in American Government. “It said Omaha was doing the right thing and on its way,” he said of the award.

Omaha city planner James Thele, a colleague of Saklar’s, said “what makes Mike effective is he’s a very caring person. He’s also a very practical person. He understands budgets and money. He understands that things take time. He’s also adept at building concensus to move forward with new projects.” Thele said Saklar “has the ability to create a vision of how to address homelessness from a continuum standpoint based on the needs of the individual.”

Saklar was drawn to the work of Siena/Francis before ever working there. The shelter was begun by two nuns in ‘75. It was on Cuming Street then. From the start he liked that it accepted whomever came to its doors. No discrimination. Saklar’s own life is all about embracing diversity and making multiculturalism a way of life.

“The thing about Siena/Francis House was it had unconditional acceptance,” said Saklar. “It’s the only program that’s not a religion, that’s not a church itself or that doesn’t have restrictions. The other shelters at that time wouldn’t let you in if you had even alcohol on your breath. And so for the active addict, the active alcoholic, the Siena/Francis House was the only place they could stay.”

“So there’s this huge unattended need,” he said of active users unmet at other agencies. “When I was a city official,” he said, “there’d be huge arguments almost always against Siena/Francis House — that they were just enabling this lifestyle.”

The way Saklar and Siena/Francis staff see it, however, an addict can’t get sober until basic human needs for food, clothing, shelter and security are met. Then the process of recovery can begin. Siena/Francis operates the state’s largest residential chemical addiction program in its Miracles Recovery Treatment Center. He said his agency serves the vast majority of this area’s chronic homeless.

Everything about Siena/Francis appealed to him and so when the opportunity to head it up came he accepted. “This place is a hidden jewel and I knew that when I was at city hall,” he said. “I loved city hall, l loved my colleagues, what I was doing. I was at age 55 and I could retire but I thought, I would love to do something else, I could have another career. This job opened up and I took it.”

Administrative duties aside, Saklar goes out of his way to engage homeless “guests.” Some wind up staffers like James Hayes.

“I’ve found that not only does he handle the very important decisions and planning that goes into keeping the Siena Francis House above water but also he is always concerned with each individual homeless person he comes in contact with,” said Hayes. “And, believe me, there are many of our guests he knows personally and has helped in a number of ways.”

Women’s shelter guest manager Patricia Cunningham was once a resident there. “Mike was and is a very big part of my recovery,” she said. “He showed me how honesty and integrity could and did change my life.” Saklar leads a large weekly AA meeting on campus, where he’s warmly greeted by staff and guests. “I like being a mentor,” said Saklar. “That’s one of the best things I have going here. I’m able to mentor people who are very dysfunctional, have lots of issues and problems, and maybe offer some advice. Every day I talk to people.”

Spend any time with Saklar making the rounds and you’ll witness this. Usually he greets guests with, “How we doing?” One March morning he came across a client in the treatment program and stopped to speak with him.

“Are you doing good?” asked Saklar. “Yeah, I just got back from Metro,” the man reported. “You going to college?” Saklar inquired. “Yeah,” the man said, “I just have to follow those same (12) steps here…” “Right, exactly, good,” Saklar said. “OK, well, just keep moving forward — you’re just doing a remarkable job here. I’m glad to have you as a friend.” “I’m glad to be your friend,” the man replied.

Later, Saklar told a visitor, “I’m so glad to see this guy succeeding in the program. You wouldn’t even have recognized him a few months ago — he was a hardcore street person.” It’s miracles like these and the sobriety anniversaries and treatment center graduations celebrated there that keep Saklar motivated. “It just shows that treament, especially in this facility, works. It works very well and we can all accomplish the goals if we just put our minds to it,” he said.

That same March day Saklar got a report from Miracles program director Bill Keck that three ex-homeless addicts are still making it on the outside.

“They live in the Gold Manor Apartments up by Immanuel Hospital — they were all hardcore street people and they all graduated (from treatment) about the same time and they’re all doing well. All employed. Haven’t abused or used drugs or alcohol for a number of years,” said Saklar, “and I’m talking about some long-term addicts that if you saw them on the street and you saw them today you wouldn’t even think they’re the same person. Those are the good things.

“My greatest pleasure is when I run into a formerly homeless person who is housed, employed, reunited with family and, basically, doing very well. Or them sending me pictures of their children that were born here, showing me they’re doing OK. I’ve had a lot of parents hug me and tell me I saved their son’s life. This whole issue of homelessness — it is often a matter of life or death.”

Positive feedback is vital in an arena that has more casualties than victories.

“Otherwise, you do get totally burned out. You still do to some degree,” he said. “The discouraging times come when homeless guests with whom I am working give up or leave, or something or someone interferes with progress. This happens a lot. Maybe someone who was dealing with an addiction was doing real well and then a brother comes and messes up his life. Things like that.

“The heartbreaking situations come in many forms. Obviously, a lot of homeless people whom I befriended have died — in the neighborhood of 100 in the seven years I’ve been at Siena/Francis House. I watched a lot of them waste away due to their alcoholism or cancer or other illness. We always hold memorial services for the homeless who die. I didn’t know when I took this job I would be doing that.”

Saklar is someone the homeless go to when they lose a loved one.

“Not too long ago I had to write a eulogy for a father whose two young sons and ex-wife had been murdered. He didn’t know what to say and came to me for help. I knew the children and mother had been homeless at times. I sat in the back of the funeral home and watched. He did a very good job under trying circumstances.”

Then there are the unsettling reminders of how homelessness can touch people who look just like us. Call these there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moments.

 

 

 

 

“I had two recent experiences that were very depressing to me,” said Saklar. “First, my 16-month-old granddaughter was visiting. I spent a Sunday bouncing her on my lap, looking into her big blue eyes. Then, when I arrived at work the next day I immediately ran into a 16-month-old girl whose mother had just checked into the Siena House. She had big, beautiful, blue eyes. She was unkempt, her clothes dirty and torn. I held her and tried to be happy but it tore me up inside.

“The same thing happened with my other granddaughter, who’s 11. We baby-sit every Wednesday. One Thursday morning I arrived at work to be introduced to an 11-year-old homeless girl and her mother. That bothered the heck out of me.”

Stereotypes abound about the homeless. We’re taught to avert our eyes from THEM or to avoid THEM because they’re unclean, dangerous, crazy derelicts. The truth is, something’s happened to bring them to this point. Every single one has a story of how they got there. Saklar said the chronic homeless account for most of Omaha’s down-and-outs. Others are pushed into desperate straits by a job loss, an illness, an addiction, an abusive relationship, before getting back on their feet.

“Most homeless do have an addiction or a mental illness, or both. Most have criminal histories. Most are not job-ready or housing-ready,” said Saklar. “Most have had disasterous lives since childhood. Too many are illiterate. Never got beyond fifth grade. It’s very unbelievable the number of people who never learned to read and write. Beyond that, they are all very unique individuals.”

Pass through downtown and you’ll glimpse some of these vagabonds and nomads. Some lug their possessions in bags, others in grocery carts. Weather allowing, men mill about the Siena/Francis compound. Most stay inside, protected from the elements, under the supervision of professionals who care. Were it not for safe environments like this the homeless would resort to dumpster diving, begging, stealing, loitering on corners, in alleys, in stairwells, in parks, living in shanties. Street life is no life at all. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest grind.

The current economic crisis with its high unemployment is spiking pantry and homeless shelter usage. Human service directors like Saklar worry the slump will impact the donations they depend on.

“Our budget this year is going to be $1.8 million but that’s counting a lot of grants for things, like a $200,000 (matching) grant from Kiewit for the new day services program. When I first came here the previous year’s budget was $600,000. I’d never run a business in my life. This is a business — you’ve got cash flow, you’ve got bills, you’ve got salaries, you’ve got employment laws just like every place you work.”

What he found when he arrived, he said, were “a lot of cash flow problems. I’m here a little over a year and I borrowed $60,000 to keep the doors open. We had a little line of credit and I used it.” He acknowledges that first year or two “was a challenge personally trying to learn all this and figure out what I got myself into.”

With time, it’s all worked out. “We turned all that around nicely as far as the fundraising,” he said. Siena holds an annual walk/run that raises money for the agency’s programs. And where before Siena rarely sent out solicitation letters asking for help it sends out several a year now. “I changed that. I had to — we would never have survived. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

Even though the agency’s financially stable today he said it never fails that “by October we’re always in the red.” He said, “Last year we were like $300,000 in the hole but amazingly in this business 50 percent of all our donations come in that fourth quarter. Every year it happens. You have to have faith.”

 

 

 

 

“In 2008, he said, “probably 83 to 85 percent of all our funding support just came from people in the community responding to our fundraising letters, probably six percent came from government” and the rest from foundations, corporations, etc.

Siena/Francis does much with little. Last year it provided 126,000 nights of shelter and 330,000 meals. “We probably average 350 (guests) a night,” said Saklar. “In addition to the mental health and addictions treatment one of the major efforts we have is the employment training program. We’ve got about 105 men and women in employment training. They help us run the programs and operate the facilities. We only have 26 salaried employees — everybody else is in employment training. It enables us to operate 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.”

Saklar said the needs are great and more services required. He pulled out blueprints to reveal the expanded campus and services he has in mind. “This is going to be the centerpiece,” he said, indicating a rendering of a bright, airy building. “This is a human resource center or empowerment center — everybody has a different name for it — but it’s going to be a multipurpose facility with a healthcare center, strictly for the homeless, a dental clinic, respite care. It will provide every service a homeless person would need right out of this facility.”

This master collaborator envisions a one-stop campus where every appropriate service provider will have a presence. “One agency can’t do everything. I want Salvation Army involved, Heartland Family Services, all the mental health programs, Douglas County, Social Security, everybody. They can just do it right here.” Currently, homeless often must shuttle to off-site provider offices around town.

His vision doesn’t end there. “We’re going to build permanant supportive housing units,” he said, giving qualifying homeless a place to call their own. What would it mean to a homeless individual to have his/her own home? “When I walk over to our men’s shelter at night I see people sandwiched on the mats we spread out all over the floor. These people lying around, their self-esteem is so low — they think this is all they deserve. Then I think of the pride of knowing you have your own little apartment. What a huge lift up it’d be for these people.”

The plans also include “an employment-based center, where guests will do day labor. Perhaps an on-site manufacturer will put homeless people to work.

The price tag for the proposed 21-acre social service campus: $36 million. That includes an estimated $10 million in on-site improvements already completed.

He feels urgency to get it done but is pragmatic enough to be patient. “It needs to happen today,” he said. “This has been on the books for a long time. I think this is going to become a very worthwhile campus. It’s all part of the big picture.” Realistically, he thinks the campus could be completed in four years. He’s looking at funding avenues to realize the dream.

One nagging worry is potential opposition to a homeless campus in trendy NoDo, especially once the ballpark’s built. NoDo’s once hard streets are undergoing urban renewal, as warehouses, junk yards, manufacturing plants, bars and flop houses give way to gentrified new digs by Creighton University, the City and commercial developers. Fancy brick and mortar facades don’t change the fact homelessness exists. It’s a reality not going away anytime soon. Turning a blind eye won’t solve it. Moving shelters elsewhere only isolates the homeless from helping agencies.

Saklar’s advocated to keep services downtown, where, historically, the homeless congregate. “Somebody might want to come and take this place out. I know it could happen, and so I’m doing everything I can to solidify this agency-this campus,” he said. He’s weighed in on the NoDo development plan and he’s active in the Jefferson Square Business Association, assuring stakeholders a homeless campus can be a good neighbor. The more entrenched his homeless oasis, he figures, “the more impractical, more expensive” it is to remove.

“But you always have that danger,” he said. “So I’ve taken steps to ensure this is the appropriate place. One of those steps is working with Mayor (Mike) Fahey. He sees value in what we’re trying to do here. He’s been supportive from day one.”

City hall and Saklar work well together. He has strong allies there. It’s how the new day shelter Siena/Francis runs got built. Lameduck Fahey sings Saklar’s praises. “Mike has served Omaha’s homeless population with great distinction,” he said. “Under Mike’s leadership, the Siena/Francis House and the City of Omaha have developed an outstanding partnership through the establishment of a permanent homeless day shelter. Mike has gone the extra mile to help those in need.”

Is Saklar concerned what stance the next mayor may take? “No, because I think I’ve got relationships with everybody that’s running,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.” He noted that the designs call for “a beautiful campus with green boundaries, landscaping, elevations that isolate it without having to erect fences.”

Once hired, Saklar gave himself 10 years on the job. Seven years in, he’s intent on  reaching certain goals before he’s ready to call it quits. It may be three years, it may be more, “nothing’s set in stone.”

“Siena/Francis House needs to concentrate on getting better. We’ll get everything in place and then this agency needs to prove it can effectively deal with homelessness. I want to complete the vision I have,” he said. “I want everything operating at full capacity, doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” Then, and only then, he said, might he feel comfortable to “slowly maybe slip away…”

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