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Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase


Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

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Abstract Mindz founder Jose Antonio “Tony” Barrales, 25, wants to give young artists what he didn’t have growing up.

The Omaha Central High School graduate started the artist collaborative in 2013, he said, to give underrepresented youth “an opportunity to showcase their talent.”

“There were tons of people in the South Omaha community whose work wasn’t being seen and who weren’t being offered the opportunities others were. I had this idea to create an arts group that would hopefully become a gallery in the future. No one would be rejected based off their art style, age, ethnicity.

“There’s a ten year build-up of passion behind this group. Growing up in traditional Mexican homes trying to pursue art as a career wasn’t something our parents deemed worth pursuing or spending money on.”

In addition to lack of support at home, he and others found inequity at school, where, he said “certain students got opportunities others didn’t,” such as mentoring. “That’s when my passion to create the group was really sparked because I was one of those overlooked kids. I was like, Hey, I’m doing artwork, too – why am I not getting a shot to show what I’ve got. I saw other people who deserved their shot and didn’t get it, and they gave up.”

Barrales wants to affirm others.

“There’s real talent out there, but people feel like they can’;t make it on their own or there’s no one to help them out. i just want people to have a free wall space where they can express who they are and show people what they do.”

Artist Ari Marquez, 28, helps run the collaborative.

“Art was like my escape for expressing my emotions. A lot of our members are the same,” she said. T”hey don’t like to verbalize what they’re feeling or going through. Instead of saying it, they draw or paint or photograph it.

“Sharing their work can help with the healing process from hardships and darkness they have. It’s hopefully an escape to express themselves in ways that maybe the adults in their lives wouldn’t accept. Some of the kids are expressing a scream for help or attention. We create a safe space for them to express without being judged.”

It’s a catalyst for work to be made and seen.

“We’ve learned there’s a whole bunch of kids who have this secret talent no one knows about,” Barrales said.

“They have that passion to do things, but they might be scared to try or don’t know who to talk to about creating opportunities for themselves.”

 

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Barrales knows from experience “it’s really hard establishing yourself in the art community.” You’re bound to be asked, what have you done? and where have you shown?

“Most of our artists do abstract art, graffiti art – things that are more urban. We want them to know that can be marketable. We have artists who’ve gone to local galleries with their portfolios only to be turned away because the professionals said their art style is not what they show in their spaces.

“That’s something we want to change. This urban art is really popping in other cities and we want it to be seen that same way here.”

He’s working on the organization becoming an LLC.

“We’re looking at getting our own dedicated gallery. We want to be based in South Omaha. Most art galleries around here are collectives, We’re shooting for the same thing. We want this to grow to where we have mentoring programs and can support locations in Fremont and Lincoln, so people can have showcases in their own communities.”

Without a space of its own, Abstract Mindz has thus far relied on partnerships to show work in loaned spaces.

“Luckily we’ve found a welcoming space in the Bancroft Street Market. Our first show in 2015 was there. We had 15 artists. Each sold one piece. That motivated us to continue.”

More shows there followed. A Day of the Dead exhibit included performance by the local band.Mariachi Patria Juvenil. The largest and longest running show displayed 50 pieces for a month at Hotel LR.

Bellevue Social Center hosted another exhibit.

South Omaha entrepreneur Macros Mora donated a booth space for the group at the Cinco de Mayo market.

Local playwright Ellen Struve has worked with the group in different ways..

“She’s been sending us to the right people to talk to. She’s been great in helping with our outreach,” Barrales said. “She also presented us a great opportunity to participate in her new play EPIC for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We were one of the groups she did story circles with. We told our own personal stories to help create the backstory for her play.

“The high school-age kids really loved it. She did an activity to open them up to speak. It’s something they usually don’t do. They felt really comfortable in that circle. They are amazed knowing their story is implemented in this play.”

Abstract Mindz members range from high school and college students to college grads working full-time jobs. Their ranks include Shantee Zamora, Sergio Gomez, Salem Munoz and Gerado “Polo” Diaz.

Abstract Mindz presented a solo show of Diaz’s work.

“He was a little more mature in his craft and body of work,” Barrales said, “so we gave him an individual showcase. He’s one of the main artists we have who wants to make this his career.”

Members pay minimal dues and get help with framing, portfolios and marketing.

The group’s planned next show, Visual Sounds, is in need of a venue. Participating artists were asked to create a large piece based on a song of their choice.

“This collaboration of music and visual arts will be our first interactive gallery. As spectators view each artwork they can put on headphones to listen to the correlating song.”

A place and date is in the works.

Follow Abstract Mindz on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity and roots itself in relationships


Part I:

Maya community asserts indigenous self-identity as a people

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this first installment, he discusses the challenges faced by his indigenous displaced people in asserting their identity and being understood.

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Guatemala’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have come north for decades seeking new lives in the United States, Among them, the Maya comprise an indigenous minority group who escaped persecution by the Guatemalan government. Over time, they’ve made lives for themselves around America. A small community of perhaps 1,500 people of Maya origin live In Nebraska – mostly in South Omaha.

Luis Marcos left Guatemala at 16. After living in California and Iowa he settled here in 2005. Two years later the self-taught Marcos helped form the local Maya community center, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It’s where his people practice their traditional culture and support each other in adjusting to life here and getting others to understand their plight as a displaced people.

Everything about the center, located at 4513 South 32nd Street, is steeped in Mayan ways and informed by the experiences that brought its members to America. Even though Marcos is its executive director, he said, “Our process of decision-making is very collective. We are a community.”

His story echoes that of other Mayans.

“I left Guatemala in 1989 due in part to the war and the genocide happening against my people at the time. The state was recruiting young people my age for forced military service where I would be trained to go back and kill my own people. Lack of educational opportunities was another reason I decided to emigrate.”

Where his story diverges from most is his involvement in Maya governmental affairs. Comunidad Maya’s mission is rooted in social, cultural and political concerns.

“We basically desire to keep our identity,” Marcos said, “and be recognized as a displaced indigenous people and respond to the complex needs and aspirations of the Maya community.”

Macros acknowledged getting a fix on his people’s heritage can be elusive for outsiders since the Maya are dispersed in several Central American nations and yet Spanish is not their first language,

“If we’re sitting face to face you would readily assume I am Hispanic or Latino because I look like one. If I tell you I come from Guatemala, it will seem to confirm I am Hispanic or Latino. The reality is we are not. I am lucky to speak Spanish and English fluently but that does not make me Latino or Hispanic or Caucasian. I just speak the languages. I am not of those cultures. I don’t even understand those cultures, as much as I try.

“That becomes a life and death situation for us when it comes to encounters with the health system. Because of the historical discrimination against indigenous peoples and the desire to avoid pain, most likely a Mayan would indicate they speak Spanish and nod to whatever you’re saying, without really understanding what’s happening when it comes to their health.”

His organization bridges those information gaps.

“Any activity we do is done with the objective of educating the health, educational system, legal systems and religious institutions. Recognition of us as a displaced indigenous people is really important. It has taken a lot of education and explaining.”

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Though he said Omaha and other American cities  are “very welcoming,” there’s still ignorance where Maya are concerned. Many people he meets believe the Maya disappeared hundreds of years ago when the great civilization they built was dismantled by conquerers. Though subjugated, the Maya retained their culture.

“It has not been easy,” he said. “We invite people from the wider community to our festivals so we can introduce our music, our dress, our language. That’s when the recognition, welcoming and support come.”

The Maya still have much to learn about this country.

“It hasn’t been easy for us to understand the values of the wider community. There’s been a lot of lessons for us to learn. Where we have shared our experience, our culture, our language, we also have learned from the dominant culture and from other cultures values that give us hope to be a flourishing community. It’s been a painful experience but also joyful at times.”

The intent, he said, is to help others understand “we are one people as defined in international law.”

“We have our own language, story of creation and spiritual sovereignty. We have clearly defined territories. We have our own philosophical understanding, government and way of organizing socially. We are a people and a people in international law has a right to self-determination.”

He’s participated in conventions with otter Maya leaders from around the U.S. and. he said, “We have chosen to identify not as migrants or refugees but as displaced native people. That’s the path we have chosen.”

That path, he said. is “very similar” to the experience of Native Americans.

“The root cause of our suffering as indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery. This series of papal bulls decreed we can’t govern ourselves and we can’t own land. They declared our land ’empty land.’ European nations used the doctrine as a way to justify their invasion, domination and exploitation of the continent.

“In the process of assimilation you either become Christian or you die. That was the experience of the boarding schools native people’s suffered in, where we were forbidden to speak our language.”

Further binding the Maya with Native Americans, he said, is their spiritual beliefs.

“The spirituality of indigenous peoples is the same. It’s earth-based.”

Formal working relationships exist between the Maya and the Omaha tribal council in Nebraska.

Visit pixanixim.org

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Next week: Part II – Rooted in relationships

___ ___ ___

 

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EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a two-part series, El Perico looks at the local Maya community through the eyes of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos.

In this second and final installment, he describes how the community center he leads and the overall Maya community here rely on relationships to advance their mission of autonomy and integration.

Part II: 

Maya community rooted in relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

If a nonprofit is to thrive, it needs partnerships. That’s especially true for the Omaha nonprofit Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. It represents a minority community of indigenous people, the Maya, who have fled persecution in their Central American homelands.

The center serves Mayans who’ve come here from Guatemala and other troubled nations where they have suffered oppression and violence. The Maya were drawn to Nebraska in the late 1980s-early 1990s by meatpacking and manufacturing jobs. South Omaha is home to most of Nebraska’s Mayan population today.  The Maya community center is located there. Much of its programming centers around celebrating and preserving traditional arts and culture. Some of its key activities are based in and supported by relationships with the larger community.

Those relationships include a pastoral care program with the Archdiocese of Omaha  for Catholics of Maya origin, a Maya Community Health Collaborative through the Creighton (University) Medical Students Association and initiatives with the University of Nebraska Center for Reducing Health Disparities, One World Community Health Centers and the Immigrant Legal Center.

“We educate our community and the legal system on our preexisting rights as indigenous peoples to travel our continent, we provide accompaniment to people seeking political asylum and we provide contributions to attorneys,” Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim executive director Luis Marcos said.

The Maya are an insistent but “loving, peaceful people,” he said. “What we want is a true understanding of historical events and to start over from a common  understanding of where we have come from.”

The community center marcos leads presents cultural events throughout the year that incorporate traditional art, music and dance. The group also promotes a health initiative and a youth mentoring program.

Maya youth are paired with area college students to expose them to post-secondary opportunities.

“Most of our youth will be first-generation college students,” he said, “and  we want to plant the seed that college is the ultimate goal.”

English language classes are offered at the center.

Maya are often mistaken for Latino-Hispanic. While they share similar features with their Spanish-speaking bretheran, most Maya are not fluent in Spanish. Instead, they have their own native language.

 

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The organization weathered a 2014-2015 crisis that saw some key local leaders detained and deported.

“It was a very difficult experience to recover from,” Marcos said. “We didn’t do much for a long time. We had to regroup. We were successful in securing the release of two of our leaders.”

The center has since resumed a nearly full menu of events and programs. Resiliency in the face of hardship is engrained in its people.

“We stay together. We survive. We’ve survived multiple cycles of violence and genocide and all this stuff, so we stick together no matter what,” Marcos said.

Following that episode, the local Maya community has focused on civil and human rights.

“We work to implement the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples. On that we work closely with the Huehuetenango Maya government. Now we have an extension of the Huehuetenango government in the United States. We have a Maya parliament with presence in California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nebraska. We have a council of elders. I am one of them.”

Mayan communities across the U.S. “are connected on many different levels” and well-established by now. “We have come a long way.,” Marcos said. “We have been fortunate to have very harmonious relationships with institutions, faith traditions, nationalities.” This includes a deep relationship with the Catholic Church. Locally, a partnership between the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Huehuetenango, Guatemala sends delegations there.

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim is supported by the Omaha Community foundation and other groups.

“The Latino community has taken us under their wing,” Marcos said by “inviting us to have a presence at the Cinco de Mayo festival.

The local Mexican consulate invited the Maya community to be part of a binational celebration.

A current exhibition of indigenous Mayan textiles at El Museo Latino includes education programs that highlight various aspects of this traditional culture.

All are opportunities to share the Maya story.

“We continue to articulate our presence as a people as opposed to letting ourselves be assimilated into the dominant culture,” Marcos said. “We have been able to tell our stories.”

 

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Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has presented another avenue for sharing the Maya story. Intrigued by the culture and charmed by the people, she became active with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim and then researched a new play based on the lives of Maya and the stories in their ancient sacred text, the Popul Vuh.

“She’s very loved in the community,” Marcos said of Struve. “She’s learned our Maya language. She’s very open-minded to our concerns. We invited her to be a member of our board of directors. We’re really honored to have her in that role.”

EPIC is the name of the play Struve developed with Mayan themes and shorelines. it will be performed May 29-31 at Metropolitan Community College’s south campus.

“This will be a way to empower, highlight the community and the culture,” Marcos said of the production, “and to show that as an indigenous people we can contribute something to the wider society. I think this will be good for others to know us better, which at this time in our history is what we need most.”

For more information on the Maya community center, visit pixanixim.org. For details on the play’s showtimes and venue, visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfes.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Passion, vision, defined mission make nonprofits click


Passion, vision, defined mission make nonprofits click

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Nonprofits thrive when they find a community niche no one else serves. Next comes getting influencers and supporters to catch their vision and invest in the mission.  The entrepreneurs behind the six Omaha nonprofits featured here don’t lead the largest or the most well-known organizations. But each oversees a distinct work borne of passion and vision that serves a specific population. Each entity stands apart from the crowded nonprofit field by filling a need or gap that otherwise wouldn’t be satisfied.

Sweat and soul make these nonprofits click. It all starts and ends with the people who dreamed them up. Each founder is still at the helm, refining the vision, steadying the course, and retelling the story.

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The Bike Union and Coffee

As mentoring efforts go, Bike Union and Coffee follows an unconventional path not unlike that of founder-executive director, Miah Sommer.

For starters, its human services are intentionally scaled-down to serve a handful of young people. Bigger isn’t always better the way Sommer sees it.

“There’s a point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Do we want numbers to feel good about how many we’re serving or do we want results? We’ll only grow if we feel that makes the most sense.”

Union-Coffee mentors mainly young adults who’ve aged out of foster care. Most have a history of trauma. They struggle reentering society as independent young men and women. Devoting attention to a few clients, Sommer said, “hasn’t been real popular with some funders, but I really think that’s the only way to tackle trauma. I want to make relationship-based programming. In some way that’s what I was lacking at their age – meaningful adult mentor relationships.”

Clients learn social-job skills working alongside staff and volunteers and dealing with customers at this combo repair shop and coffeehouse at 1818 Dodge Street. Experts provide GED preparation, reading comprehension, financial literacy and other services.

Mindfulness meditation and cooking-nutrition classes are offered participants.

Bike repair and coffee revenues help fund operations.

Though Sommer was never in the system, he grew up adrift and estranged. He dropped out of high school, only earning his GED at 27. He majored in history and religion at college. He turned a serious cycling passion into a retail career that spawned a recreational trek biking program for inner city youth, BUMP. It’s now part of his social entrepreneurship mentoring endeavor.

“I left my job to start this in 2015 with a month’s salary, a wife, kids and a house, so I had to make it happen. I blinded myself to all the challenges of starting a nonprofit that is also a business.”

Employment program participants are referred by Project Everlast and Bridge to Independence. Originally designed for new cohorts of four mentees to graduate every 12 months, real life dictates a looser timetable.

“Now we understand this is a for-keeps relationship we need to stay involved in. We might have five in the program right now, but ten might come through the door each week needing services. Some don’t go through the 12 months. They just aren’t ready to work on themselves or they exit early when they find another job. Others stay 16 months until they’re ready to move on.”

“Until they’re ready” is the new mantra.

There are breakthroughs and setbacks. The camaraderie and training, including peer-to-peer mentoring, keep drawing participants in.

“Some just come to hang around. Others need help with problems they’re having. Even the kids that have been fired still come back. It’s a safe place for them, It’s a place where they feel accepted. It’s like a big family.”

Illegal or threatening behaviors are not tolerated.

“Generally, those kids are weeded out at about three months,” Sommer said. “They usually end up leaving on their own free will.”

For those who stick it out, there’s no hard and fast goal.

“The programming is designed to achieve what they want to achieve. There’s no, you’ll do this, this, this and this. It’s like, where do you see yourself? It works differently for different people.”

The focus is on getting participants to overcome doubts, face fears and achieve realistic goals.

“They come from a place where they’ve been told they can’t do things or they tell themselves they can’t do things. We’re all about telling them you can do this thing. They end up with all these small victories.”

Rites of passage moments like getting a driver’s license, opening a bank account, graduating high school, getting a GED, starting college and finding steady employment are celebrated, he said, because those “are huge” considering where clients have been.

“Each is a step in the right direction and makes them feel more connected to society,” he said. “Belonging and connecting and doing things that are societal norms is real important. Everybody has a need to belong and the people we serve are no different. They want the same things everybody else does. It’s not a question of ability, it’s a question of opportunity.”

The public can support the effort just by bringing in a bike, buying coffee and interacting with participants.

“It’s great to like us on Facebook” Sommer said, “but this doesn’t work if people don’t come in.”

Just don’t confuse what happens there with charity.

“We don’t do this out of pity. We do this out of solidarity and standing on the margins with young people whose resilience to keep moving forward is pretty pronounced.”

Visit http://www.thebikeunion.org.

 

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Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue

Beth Ostdiek Smith was a 59-year-old former travel industry professional and nonprofit executive when she launched an organization poised at the intersection of food waste, hunger, access and healthy eating.

The core mission of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue (SGPFR) is capturing and redistributing fresh and prepared edibles – 1.6 million pounds and counting since 2013.

“We’re not taking it for us. We don’t warehouse anything,” Smith said.” As fresh as everything we get, our clients get it.”

Four refrigerated trucks wrapped in the logo of an urchin girl holding a spoon un on a tight schedule. Professional drivers-food handlers make all the pickups-deliveries.

“In this perishable food business,” she said, “you have to show up when you say you’ll show up.”

Her service redirects some metro food waste – an estimated 40 percent of food ends up in landfills – to people who need it, including an estimated 20 percent of children who otherwise go to bed hungry.

She started Grace to bridge the excess-want gap.

“I noticed there was always excess food at events. I asked around Omaha and nobody was doing food rescue at scale. I took a leap of faith and put Saving Grace together. It’s a nonprofit business that provides a charitable service to our community.”

She based it on an Arizona food rescue program–  hiring away its operations director, Judy Rydberg.

Smith’s networking has gotten hotels, conventions centers, restaurant chains, grocers and wholesale food suppliers to consistently donate their excess.

“That’s the movement we’re trying to have happen. It takes the community to do that. My expertise is really bringing people together I’m a builder and entrepreneur.”

The organization also has a mission to raise awareness around food waste and hunger. As it’s neither a pantry nor a food bank, Smith said, “it’s a different model than everybody’s used to.” It’s why she spends much time “explaining who we are and what we do.”

She recruits most food donors but more are calling her. Major recipients include pantries.

“We get the right food to them by doing a food match based on client needs. They’re not having to go out and source all this food. We bring it to them.”

Heart Ministry Center Pantry in North Omaha is a primary user. Grace will supply even more food there once the center’s expanded pantry opens.

“For some of our larger nonprofit partners we are just a small portion of the food they give out because they purchase from Food Bank of the Heartland. Others don’t qualify for the Food Bank because they’re too small and so we are their only source for food.”

Education efforts encourage people to make better choices in shopping for food in order to reduce waste.

“We’re trying to deliver those messages through our Food for Thought programs,” Smith said.

A recent program partnered with Hillside Solutions on excess food as composte.

Saving Grace is also identifying “on that whole food chain where excess should go and ways to get it to more people,” Smith said, including those who don’t quality for a panty but need food assistance.

Smith plans visiting perishable food rescues to assess what they do and envisions a national food rescue consortium for sharing best practices.

She doesn’t want o grow just for growth’s sake.

“We’ll always be lean and mean. We get a lot of in-kind donations.”

Grants tend to follow SGPFR’s clear, easy-to-track outcomes. Smith would like more multi-year grants to fund a reserve or endowment. She’s looking to build a revenue stream by partnering with a local brewer who would make beer out of excess bread and retail it.

A September 30 dinner and wine pairing at Dante Pizzeria will celebrate Saving Grace’s sixth anniversary.

Smith acknowledges her efffort is one piece in a collaborative mosaic addressing food insecurity.

“We cant be everything to everyone. We don’t do all of it. But we have a model that works for a lot of it.”

Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org.

 

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Intercultural Senior Center

After years learning how nonprofits work at One World Community Health, Carolina Padilla ran the Latino Resource Center, which assists young women and families. When some women requested services for their aging immigrant mothers isolated by language and transportation barriers, she realized the organization was ill-equipped to do so. Wanting to address this community need going unmet, she left to found the Intercultural Senior Center (ISC) in 2009 with help from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.

“I found what I really wanted to do,” said Padilla. “I thought, I have to do this and I’m going to make this happen whatever it takes. Then I realized I could do it.”

Working with immigrant and migrant elders appealed to Padilla because in her native Guatemala she lost her own mother at age 6 and was raised by aged aunts.

“They made my life. I always felt strongly that one day I will give back in some way.”

She also identified with the challenges newcomers face having moved to the U.S. with her husband and children. Thus, she created “a place where people share what it means coming to a different country and having to adjust to many cultural differences.”

“They come to share their thoughts and their lives.”

The center started exceedingly small – Padilla did everything herself – and operated from leased South Omaha sites always short on space.

Her mentor and former One World boss, Mary Lee Fitzsimmmons, guided the center in obtaining its 501 C3 status and finding donors.

“Great foundations have been behind us helping us grow our membership, programs and services,” Padilla said. “When we started, we focused just on the basics serving maybe five or ten people a day and 20 to 25 in a week. Right now we have 60, 80 even 100 people a day and 400 a week.”

There’s no participation or membership fee. As the numbers have grown, so has diversity, especially since ISC added senior refugees to its service outreach. On any given day, this melting pot accommodates seniors from two dozen or more nations.

Center programs include:

ESL classes

Basic computer skill classes

Health-wellness classes

Yoga

Case managed social work

A monthly pantry

Door to door transportation

Interpreters help breech language divides.

After four sites in nine years Padilla asked her board to lead a $6.3 million capital campaign to give ISC a home of its own.

“They helped me get that dream.”

ISC moved into its new 22,000 square foot home at 5545 Center Street in March after extensive remodeling to the structure. There’s more room than ISC has ever had, including dedicated spaces for classes and

private conference rooms for social services .

“I’m so happy and proud of what we have.”

More meaningful than the facilities, Padilla said, participants “have each other.” “This center gets them out of isolation. It provides opportunities to learn, to stay active. It becomes people’s second home.

“Coming here lets them see they still have so much to do. It helps them not become a burden to their families.

People are really happy here. They feel welcomed. It’s a warm place. Our staff is welcoming. They love our seniors. Sure, we have programming and a structure, but it’s more about the way people feel here.”

ISC partners create intergenerational opportunities between seniors and young people.

“We work very closely with UNO’s Service Learning program. Students come here and get involved in different activities and programs year-round. Elementary, middle and high school students participate in those projects. Youth interact with seniors making art, exercising, playing games, sharing stories.

“College and university nursing students work with seniors in our wellness program. It’s a way for students to put their skills into practice and learn what it is to be around diversity.”

Longtime ISC partner Big Garden is moving raised beds from the center’s previous site to the new location “so our seniors can garden again,” Padilla said. “We’re a grassroots organization. We depend on partnerships. Partnering allows us to better serve the community. That’s the beauty of doing things together.

“What we have built is the base and we’re just trying to get better. There’s still so many things to do to improve serving the aging population.”

She’d like to add physical therapy and additional wellness components.

Padilla is banking on ISC receiving accreditation from the National Council on Aging.

“I think this will help our organization to be seen in a different way, so we can bring more resources to the center

Though she has a staff of 18, she personally keeps close tabs on operations.

“I am hands-on in every single thing that goes on here.”

Padilla said working with seniors sparks “a new appreciation for life.”

“It’s an honor to serve this community. It’s a mission I feel. It’s not a job – it’s part of me.”

Making it all worthwhile is having octogenarians become citizens. learn to write their name, develop English fluency and earn their GED.

“That’s big and we are making that possible.”

If the center’s diversity has taught her anything, she said, it’s that “regardless of educational-cultural backgrounds and financial stability, all of our seniors have amazing stories of happiness, struggles and hard work and they all have the need to be loved and to hold someone’s hand.”

Then there’s the balancing act seniors who are transplants to America must negotiate in terms of assimilation versus holding onto native cultural identities. Padilla said the center helps promote mutual respect and understanding of cultures. It’s all about welcoming the stranger and adjusting to new ways.

“It’s difficult, but they do it.”

ISC’s August 22 World Bash fundraiser is at St Robert Bellarmine Church.

Visit http://www.interculturalseniorcenter.org.

 

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Heartland Workers Center

Guatemala native Sergio Sosa won victories for meatpackers as an Omaha Together One Community labor organizer in the early 2000s. He advised Latinos in the packing and hospitality industries in staging mass demonstrations for immigration reform. Flush with success among this constituency, he launched Heartland Workers Center (HWC)  in 2009.

“The vision was to improve the lives of Latino-Latina immigrants in the Heartland,” said Sosa, “Our strategic mission’s major programs are leadership development, workers rights and civic engagement.”

Sosa and his team of community organizers conduct their work in the streets, in people’s homes, at community centers, churches and schools.

“We do not provide services. If we do, it’s only to affect what we do for people who will be part of the solution of their own problems. Our rule number one is never do for others what they can for themselves.”

With lead organizer Abbie Kretz, Sosa “built the capacity of the center, got the trust of major funders, went from a couple employees to almost 20 and expanded from one site, in South Omaha, to offices across the state.”

The first ever South Omaha Political Convention followed in 2015. The biennial event is expected to draw 1,000 participants when it happens again November 10.

Year-round civic engagement revolves around statewide Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts that mobilize minorities to register, vote and run for elected office.

A major emphasis, Sosa said. is “bringing leaders from rural and urban areas together to think of this as one state.” “Economically,” he said, “the goal is to find investments to improve communities in terms of housing, infrastructure, education.”

Another focus is advocating immigration reform and workers rights issues in the Unicameral.

“We train people how to testify before state legislators and how the Unicameral works,” he said.

Recently, HWC activists supported bills preserving SNAP benefits and increasing worker’s wages from tips and granting protection from employer retaliation.

Before Gabriela Pedroza became a HWC organizer, Sosa said, she never even visited Lincoln. “But now she’s testified, trained others to testify and knows the ins and outs of the Unicameral. Next year she will be in charge of the Unicameral effort.

“That’s how change happens,” said Sosa, adding, “Women are becoming a major voice and catalyst for change. The traditional institutions are not reinventing themselves. That’s why they’re dying. Youth and women-led movements are spawning new institutions with grassroots political power.”

The Center cultivates new leaders. “We teach organizers where they can find leaders,” he said. “It can be through canvassing neighborhoods.” Once captured, HWC “mentors, teaches and activates them.”

On the micro level, he said, “It’s about people investing in their own neighborhoods and communities and being the agents of change themselves rather than waiting for the city to act.” South Omaha’s Brown Park had fallen into disrepair and a coalition of neighbors “are now working with leaders to fix it.”

“People have to learn how to act for themselves,” Abbie Kretz said. “Otherwise, they create dependency on organizers to do those things. It’s learning how processes and power work and building relationships with public officials and nonprofit leaders. You have more capacity and power when you do it collectively.”

In Schuyler, Nebraska, HWC-led efforts increased voter participation by the Latino majority and resulted in

four Latinos in public office, Kretz said. Parents there demanded dual language programs and “a collective of folks from the schools and the community working together got one started.”

“That’s what democracy is all about,” Sosa said. It’s a very patient work, but in the end it pays off.”

HWC has established itself with that steady work.

“By building relationships with people over time they understand who we are and what we do,” Kretz said,

“and that’s helped to build bridges versus burn them.”

“Rural Nebraska doesn’t see us as foreign outsiders coming to their small towns,” Sosa said, “because we hire people from those towns.”

Inroads for inclusive leadership and representation are happening statewide. In Columbus, HWC partners with entrenched organizations on community-wide events. Latinos in Grand Island are now part of the Nebraska State Fair planning committee. Traditional Latino celebrations and memorials are embraced by more towns as part of the fabric of life there.

“So, it’s changing,” said Sosa, who sees it as proof that “if you combine love with power, you get social justice.”

Change starts from within.

“If you don’t change you, nothing around you is going to change. You have to give yourself that permission to dream big,” he said.

Gabriela Pedroza knows from experience.

“That awakening keeps me going,” she said. “Realizing who you are and having that relationship with yourself is hard work and it takes time. But once you start, you want to do it with others. You want others to know you have more power than you think.”

Despite how polarized the U.S. is, Sosa said, “we still have open political spaces that provide an opportunity for compromise and change – and we better be active now in teaching others to do it so we don’t lose it.”

Visit http://www.heartlandworkerscenter.org.

 

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Young Black & Influential/I Be Black Girl

Omaha native Ashlei Spivey has generated two buzz-worthy black-centric empowerment movements that reflect her late mother’s passion.

“My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about, what do you want your life to mean? what does that look like? how do you create impact for folks? So I think I’ve always had that embedded in me,” said Spivey. “Growing up there was a lot of systemic inequity happening around me. There was the richness of the black community but due to racism and oppression also lack of jobs and those things.”

Her father was incarcerated most of her life.

“My mom wanted to protect me from the situation surrounding me and made sure I had every opportunity. I was fortunate to have a parent who really poured into me in a way that added value. She saw all the potential I had.”

Spivey went to college down South, returning to Omaha eight years ago following her mother’s death. “It was very sudden. That was really hard. We were very close. I came back to be the guardian to my sister, who was 12.”

Spivey’s grandmother helps raise her 5-year-old son.

Working at College Possible and Heartland Family Service led to Spivey’s current post at Peter Kiewit Foundation. Wherever she’s worked, she’s been the only or first African-American. “Thinking about empowerment for the people on the receiving end of inequity” led to Young Black & Influential (YBI) in 2015 and I Be Black Girl (iBBG) in 2017.

“YBI was created to say we can affirm black folks doing things for the black community based on our own definition. You don’t have to look, talk, have certain experiences in order to be deemed an influencer. The people we recognize may have a degree or not, may work in a corporate setting or not. may have been incarcerated or not. There’s the whole spectrum

“It’s about supporting, acknowledging and showing leadership in different ways. It’s about creating your own narrative and owning it and affirming this is who I am and no one can take that away or negate that.”

Influencers from the community are recognized at a YBI awards banquet – The next is June 30 at The Living Room in The Mastercraft.

“There are some dynamic folks doing awesome work under the radar. We also do leadership development at the grassroots level. We’ve launched a board training program to get black folks on nonprofit boards. We’re really trying to build power.”

IBBG’s name riffs off the best-selling children’s book Be Boy Buzz celebrating what black boys can be. Spivey sees IBBG as “changing narratives and creating space for black women to have access to different spaces.”

The organization “holds networking events and does programming around things that affect black women and girls,” such as a recent screening of Little.

IBBG’s advisory committee intentionally includes women  workIng in philanthropy, Spivey views it as “disrupting power structures.” “We feel like this might be a place where we are creating philanthropists that don’t look like Omaha’s very old, white, male philanthropists now.”

An IBBG Giving Circle with a goal of $10,000 raised $50,000. In May, IBBG is awarding $35,000 in grants to innovative approaches that advance black girls and women. Grant awards will be made annually. New Giving Circle donations are being accepted.

The funding, Spivey said, “is all about making possible seats at the table and building an institution you have to check in with before you do service delivery or interventions for black women and girls in the community.”

Both IBBG and YBI are tapping into “a restored pride in being black, in how we take care of community and how we make decisions about community,” she said. “This is a way people can engage and add value with whatever their investment in the community is.”

Adding stability to these changemaker efforts is fiscal sponsor Women’s Fund of Omaha. “They have been great partners. Allyship is important.”

Spivey’s exploring the addition of entrepreneurship and youth leadership development programs.

“My energy and effort is really building power that not only addresses racism but other intersecting isms people may encounter based on their identity,”

She feels her movements align well with where Black America’s arrived.

“Our people have always wanted to pursue their own vision of success and to help raise up our community. The issue has been access, resources and opportunity – that’s what it’s about. Now people are reenergized on how to have ownership over their community.

“A lot of young leaders are not concerned with assimilating or wanting to perpetuate patriarchy. They want to do things radically different and I think radical change is key. We were always ready – we just didn’t know we were ready. Now people are focused on that collective agenda on how things can be black-led.”

IBBG hosts a June 23 celebratory event at The Venue.

Visit http://www.ibbgomaha.com and http://www.ybiomaha.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

The Lucky Coin: How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment


The Lucky Coin

How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment

 

photos by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June edition of Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-lucky-coin)

 

 

In the aftermath of the 1969 Tet  Offensive, U.S. Marine Pat Peterson found a Vietnamese coin on the ground while serving a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The date on the coin was 1966—the same year he graduated from Holy Name High School in Omaha. That persuaded Peterson to adopt the memento as a personal good luck charm. He carried it with his dog tags.

As the runt of his infantry squad, Peterson was often lowered by his ankles to inspect openings in underground tunnels. If he saw mounds of steaming hot food below, the tunnel was in active use by Viet Cong. Then they would pull him out and toss grenades inside. One time, after the grenades dropped, screaming women and children fled from the other end of the tunnel. That image—and other horrors—seared into his mind.

He battled post-traumatic stress from Vietnam for the rest of his life. But Peterson was a fighter; he endured, even surviving a bout with cancer.

The coin got Peterson safely home in 1970. He punched a hole in it and wore it on his keychain. He threw himself into veterans affairs. Two decades elapsed before he passed the coin to another serviceman going off to fight in the Gulf War.

So began a tradition that saw him give the coin to deploying servicemen—always on the condition they bring it back. They all did.

Homecoming and a Funeral

The last recipient to return with the coin was National Guardsman Cody Rauch, who carried it to Iraq and Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army.

Now, the coin is in the hands of its latest recipient, Air Force officer Dave Shonegal.

Rauch returned the coin to Peterson in 2017. The coin’s owner passed away the following year. Peterson was 70 when he died from a brain hemorrhage in December. Rauch came to pay his respects. At the reception following the funeral at Holy Name Church, he said, “It got back to its rightful owner in time, and that’s what’s important.”

Rauch also recounted his part in the coin story. He was on leave between tours when, by chance, he and his mates ended up at Nifty Bar on the Radial Highway. The neighborhood watering hole was such a regular hangout for Peterson that a brass plate with his name engraved in it is screwed into the bar at his traditional spot.

The two men met as strangers. By the time the gregarious Peterson swapped war stories with Rauch, and everyone had washed down salutary beers and shots, they were buddies. Peterson offered his coin with the usual stipulation, “Bring it back in one piece.”

“Do you mean bring myself back in one piece, or the coin?” Rauch asked Peterson.

“Hopefully both,” Peterson replied.

Rauch accepted.

Supporting Fellow Soldiers

Peterson’s concern for active duty or retired military extended to serving as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander (VFW Post 2503) and as a volunteer services representative at the VA Hospital.

“He was very active in everything veterans,” says Teresa Burks, Peterson’s longtime partner who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for 32 years. “He cared deeply about veterans. He would come to the hospital for a veterans service meeting and stay there for two hours afterward just going around talking to people. ‘Hey, are they treating you right? Anything I can do?’ It was pretty cool.”

Although Teresa and Peterson never married, her son Jed Burks considered him his stepfather. Jed’s children called Peterson “Papa Pat.”

Peterson’s devotion to loved ones was rivaled only by his commitment to fellow vets.

“He would go to the end of the world to especially help another military member,” Jed says. “If he couldn’t help you, he knew enough people to direct you to whatever you needed. It didn’t matter.”

Peterson proudly wore his patriotism—bedecking himself and car with American flag symbols. His father Bernie Peterson was a wounded World War II veteran.

“You knew from way down the road that Pat was coming your way,” recalls Jed, whose oldest daughter may be entering the military in a year.

Peterson’s goodwill went beyond vets.

“He seemed to hone into people who needed help,” Teresa says. “If he knew of someone having trouble paying their utilities, he would give them some money. If somebody asked him for two dollars, he’d give them two dollars even it was his last two dollars. He was very generous.”

When it came to vets, no request was too much.

“He made sure, if anybody had surplus medical equipment, he’d get it to the VA—wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” she says.

Peterson and a fellow Marine veteran, Nick Sloan (who died in 2015), organized an annual Marine Corps birthday party at Nifty that packed the joint. The Nov. 10 bash celebrated the birth of the Marine Corps.

The Coin’s Journey Continues

The coin tradition was another aspect of Peterson’s giving.

“I thought it was a huge rite of passage to send it off with somebody else and then to get it back,” Teresa says. “I thought it was beautiful. He didn’t brag about it or anything. If he heard about somebody going, he would approach them and ask, ‘Can I give this to you as long as you bring it back?’ He felt like it was a good luck charm. But it wasn’t something he kept to himself—he shared it. It was part of his nature to care and share.”

At his standing-room-only funeral Mass, Teresa shared the tale of handing the coin off to those bound for overseas duty and her desire to continue the tradition in his memory. A nephew, Eric Peterson, knew a friend, Dave Shonegal, who was set to leave for Afghanistan in March on his sixth deployment. The nephew connected Shonegal with Teresa.

Dave Shonegal, who currently has coin

Dave Shonegal, the current keeper of the lucky coin

“She asked me if I wanted to keep on the tradition,” Shonegal says, “and I told her, ‘I’m honored to even be asked to do something like this. I’ll gladly accept this, take it on my trip, and bring it back.’

Shonegal is the coin’s seventh recipient in a tradition now spanning multiple generations, different military branches, and various theaters of war.

Teresa entrusted it to Shonegal on Feb. 16 at a going-away party at American Legion Post 374 in Millard.

The legacy he inherited is not lost on him.

“We’re talking 50 years. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this that longstanding, especially getting passed onto strangers,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, but at the same time really cool. A responsibility comes with it. It’s now my responsibility to carry on this tradition. There’s a  little nervousness about that. I don’t want to be the one that loses it after all these years.”

Shonegal says the legacy will continue after his return from deployment.

“It’s something I hope that, even after I give it back, continues for as long as it can—until we’re done deploying or there’s just nobody left to give it to,” he says. “It’s a really neat story and something I really feel needs to be shared as much as possible.”

Teresa agrees.

“I feel honored, absolutely honored,” she says, “and very, very proud. Pat would be proud.”

She says it was important for her to convey to Shonegal what kind of man Peterson was “because he’s carrying a piece of Pat with him.”

“I told him, ‘I want you to know who you’re carrying,’” she says.

The Legacy of a Lucky Coin

Shonegal is sure he and Peterson would have made fast friends.

“He was for the vets, and I can always stand with a guy like that,” Shonegal says. “That’s really where I feel like I’m heading. When I hang up the uniform, my next purpose is to help veterans in many of their situations.”

Jed learned about the coin in the wake of  Peterson’s death, and it only confirmed what he already knew about his stepfather.

“Learning about the coin was awesome,” he says, “but it didn’t change anything for me because that was him. Not one part of the story of the coin surprised me because he always went above and beyond the call of duty to pay it forward to military members.

“For me, it embodied what Pat was about—taking care of people. That good luck coin got him through Vietnam, and that’s why he passed it on—to take care of others. For me, it showed that even when you’re done [serving], you’re not done. You still take care of your brothers and sisters in the military. It’s a family.”

Inspired by Peterson’s example, Jed began practicing mindfulness.

“I’ve changed a lot of things about myself as far as showing more gratitude, telling people I’m proud of them, thanking them for being part of my life—things that Pat did and that I didn’t tell him enough,” Jed says.

He’s also taken a cue from Peterson’s charity.

“There have been multiple times when I thought, I wish I could help, but I can only do this,’” he says. “Well, why not only just do that? Maybe that’s more than enough. To me, it might be small, but to somebody else it might be huge.”

Meanwhile, Teresa is keeping Peterson’s legacy and wishes alive through the coin. After traveling around the world multiple times, surviving dangerous treks, and escaping so many life-and-death firefights, she says there is still plenty of life left in this memento from the Vietnam War.

“It was very important to him to keep it going, so I’m not going to let it go,” Teresa says.

She suspects many of us carry a protective token.   

“Maybe you don’t know what your good luck charm is,” she says. “If you do, hold that piece dear and share it with others.”

An internment for Pat Peterson is pending at Omaha National Cemetery. The date was not confirmed when this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Vietnamese coin

George Haecker’s Design for Living: “Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”


George Haecker

 

George Haecker’s Design for Living 

“Trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

photos by Bill Sitzmann and provided

story by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Home Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/george-haeckers-design-for-living)

Don’t look for ostentatious displays in the work of award-winning Omaha architect George Haecker. He’s a form-follows-function man, whether designing residential, commercial, or civic projects. Above all, his organic approach tries “to avoid cliches,” he says.

“The architectural world is just inundated with cliches,” he says. “I think architecture is way too important as a physical presence in our world, city, and neighborhoods to be trendy. I think the manifestation of it needs to be mature and careful and, hopefully, timeless. It’s public sculpture, whether you like it or not.”

Haecker strives for subdued, not showy, answers to whatever a project’s needs are.

“The thing I bring is, ultimately, an originality to the solution but not an artificial imposition of a style or a big statement,” he says. “I don’t look for the finished product to show off in any way. It might subtly, but you kind of have to look at it twice to say, ‘Well, that’s something different.’ I don’t like to shout and yell and just grab your attention. I want it to be more comfortable and, of course, livable.”

Haecker communes with the unborn structure by “trying to understand what a building wants to be.”

“Every project has a context, a location, an owner, a program, and a need, and the architect’s thought is to try to meld, digest, and mix that all together,” he says. “All kinds of factors influence the result, including budget.”

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

Brandzel Cottage in Fremont, Nebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, whose brother Foster Woods Haecker and son Alex Haecker are also architects, broadened his own vision working for firms in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and New York.

“I didn’t leave Nebraska to leave Nebraska,” he says. “I like it here very much for many reasons. But, in your youth, you have an itch to look at different things, and that variety of geography and mentors was extremely valuable.”

A job offer from Dana Larson Roubal & Associates (DLR) lured him back to Nebraska in 1968. By the early 1970s, he became a founder of the Omaha office of BVH Architecture. During his nearly half-century run as a principal and part-owner, leading architectural periodicals published his work, he earned numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, and he received The Harry F. Cunningham Gold Medal from AIA Nebraska in 2006 (the highest honor that AIA Nebraska bestows upon an individual).

He took a hand in such signature public projects as the Gene Leahy Mall and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Historic renovation work is a big segment of BVH’s portfolio, and he was part of teams that repurposed Omaha’s Union Station and Union Pacific’s Harriman building.

An activist in the preservation community for many years, he successfully campaigned to save the Omaha Building downtown. He also wrote the preface for the 1977 book Omaha City Architecture.

His enduring residential works include private homes in and out of Nebraska. Perhaps his personal favorite is the Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Interior of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Front of Woods Cottage in Madeline Island, Wisconsin

“It’s a traditional lake-shore cottage with low-pitched shingle roofs, big overhangs, a big screened-in porch,” Haecker says. “All the siding and windows are real wood with real mullions. There’s no drywall in it. It’s all natural materials inside and out, so it has a real warmth to it. It fits into its environment.”

Another out-of-state favorite is the Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado.

“That was a very special challenge,” he says. “That historic town has strict design guidelines for roof pitches, proportions, and windows. My objective was to design a house that fit into that historic environment with the articulation of the floor plan, the pitches of the roofs and the selection of materials. The Keene house is, really, pretty contemporary when you stand back and look at it, but you don’t see it as an intrusion when you drive down the street or you’re inside it.”

Keene Residence, left

Keene Residence

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Keene residence in Crested Butte, Colorado

Back home in the Omaha metro, the Matthews residence in Elkhorn’s Skyline Ranches presented the challenge of a new house in a new development.

“It’s a bigger house—pretty grand really in scale and square footage with a big dining room, great room, and game room,” he says. “The topography there was very much a part of it. It’s on a very steep site, so the house steps down the hill with the living levels. It’s somewhat dramatic but not glaring in its forms and colors and materials.” 

Then there’s the Liakos residence in southwest Omaha. He didn’t touch the street facade of this house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School. But in the back living quarters, he designed a new family kitchen, a new dining room, and a new master bedroom.

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

Liakos residence in southwest Omaha

“The way the old morphs into the new is what’s kind of fun with that house,” he says. “It’s got big clerestory windows with a lot of light shining in. I like a lot of light, so I use clerestory windows to reach up into the sky and bring light inside.”

He also designed a screened-in porch and deck for the property.

Whatever the project, it’s the architect’s intuitive, interpretive expression of the client’s program.

“Sometimes all the pieces come together with the owner and the site and the budget, and it’s just a joyful passage, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all,” Haecker says. “They’re hiring you, in the end, to bring your perspective and talent and aesthetic into a compatible solution that they’re comfortable with. If you just blindly do what the client wants, you’re just going to end up with, probably, a mediocre solution.”

It’s a delicate dance. “Without being overt about it, the architect needs to gently influence the client to do this or that,” he says.

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

Matthews residence, Elkhorn Nebraska

After working most of his career in his own firm, he’s now in independent practice.

Like a lot of architecture shops, he says, BVH “started out loosely organized with unspoken philosophies. Then, as we got bigger, more structure crept in and it morphed from a spiritual camaraderie to a business with a board, policy manuals, schedules, payrolls, insurance. That happens to every firm. I just didn’t fit anymore with the structure of the thing. It was just time to step away from that.”

Today, he enjoys his well-earned autonomy working from a home studio in the 1929 Memorial Park Tudor he shares with wife, Judy. It’s the only home the couple has ever owned. The studio, which he added on, is filled with overhead windows that stream in light. A large drafting table is its centerpiece.

“I still draw by hand,” Haecker says. “A few of us do, but it’s a dying breed.”

He also writes and paints in his sanctuary of a studio space that’s filled with books, maquettes, and artwork.

The three-story home has undergone several other tweaks by his design, including adding bay windows in the living room and a study and sunroom in the back.

Haecker is a collaborating architect with The Architectural Offices in Omaha. He works up conceptual designs for the practice. He also partners on projects with his son, Alex.

In a career spanning six decades, Haecker’s pretty much done it all in terms of architectural types.

“It’s happened that way, and happily so,” he says. “I do like the variety—everything from a bridge to a lake cottage—that I’ve done and been involved with.”   


Visit georgehaecker.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

Spellman dacha, Niobrara, Nebraska

Adrian Martinez primed to take next step in leading Big Red back to respectability

April 16, 2019 Leave a comment

With all the love coming to Adrian Martinez heading into his second year at the helm of a Nebraska football team that year two coach Scott Frost is trying to mold into a contender, anticipation is running high. Martinez showed enough as an 18-year-old true freshman in leading a 4-8 team that came on strong late season that he’s a serious Heisman candidate in 2019 in many people’s eyes. The hype machine is in full gear. Expectations in Big Red Land tend to get out of hand. But this is not your average young man. He appears to have the smarts, the physical tools and the desire to be the best player in Lincoln in a generation. And this marriage between player, system and coaches – head man Scott Frost, QB coach Mark Verduzco and offensive coordinator Troy Walters – truly appears to be a match made in heaven. 

Adrian Martinez primed to take next step in leading Big Red back to respectability
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)
A year ago Husker football fans were on an anticipatory high when Nebraska lured back native son and program legend Scott Frost as head coach after he led Central Florida to an unbeaten season.
Frost then fanned the flames by promptly landing highly sought-after dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez to lead the uptempo spread offense the hot new coach brought. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Martinez beat-out redshirt freshman and fellow Californian Trestan Gebbia for the starting QB job.
Though NU had a past QB (Taylor Martinez) with the same last surname, Adrian Martinez is believed to be the first Husker trigger-man of Hispanic heritage.
“I think it’s something that can make me unique,” Martinez said of his ethnicity. “Also, it’s something I wear with pride. A lot of people that are Hispanic, including my grandparents and other family members, take a lot of pride in me having the Martinez name on my back. I try to carry that and do it justice.”
The only heritage Frost was concerned about was Martinez being the program’s first franchise player since Ndamukong Suh. With Martinez as the foundation and spark-plug, NU sought to recapture glory after only 19 wins in three years under previous coach Mike Riley. NU’s slide from college football elite to also-ran has seen it go two decades without a conference title. The once solid program has shuffled through five head coaches and staffs in this unstable span.
While year one of the Frost-Martinez rebuilding era didn’t go to plan in terms of wins-losses (4-8), the coach, the team and the star showed enough flashes of excellence that hopes are high for 2019. So high that some even peg Martinez, who set school records en route to passing for 2,617 yards and rushing for 629 more in 11 games, as a Heisman Trophy candidate. If he stays healthy, analysts project NU posting a winning mark, contending for the Big 10 West Division title and going bowling for the first time since 2016.
 
Image result for adrian martinez nebraska  Image result for adrian martinez nebraska  Image result for adrian martinez nebraska
 
It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore with but one Division I season under his belt. Yet one thing Martinez has shown is a maturity beyond his years. The calm way he handles himself in interviews, at practices, on the sideline or in the heat of action is a characteristic oft-referred to by coaches and teammates. It goes back to his days at Clovis West High School In Fresno, where he helped coach the team rather than sulk while rehabbing an injury as a senior.
“I owe a lot to my parents and to my family as a whole for the way they brought me up and taught me how to go about things,” Martinez said. “Whether that be in school or talking to the every day person, it didn’t matter. There’s a right and there’s a wrong and there’s a fine line and my parents really taught me all about that.”
Back home, he didn’t think it was anything “special or unique” when his parents’ friends praised his wise-for-his-age demeanor. That changed during the recruiting process and his ballyhooed arrival in Lincoln.
“Then it started being pointed out more by people I didn’t know,” he said. “I take it as a high compliment and I think my parents do as well. I want to continue to be like that. I want to continue to exhibit those type of traits and just continue to make my parents proud.”
In a press conference to open spring football practice  this month, Frost referred to Martinez’s continued progress in the offense under the guidance of QB coach Mark Verduzco. Frost also said that as a former Big Red QB himself, he’s trying to help Martinez navigate everything, good and bad, that comes with holding the signal-calling job in the glare of Husker Nation.
As for Martinez, the confidence he radiates is a function of his preparation.
“I think confidence truly comes from the work you put in day in and day out,” he said, “and if you truly believe you’re putting in enough work and you’re doing things the right way, then you’ll get the outcomes that you think you deserve and obviously earn.”
Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s seemingly never blinked in the face of of expectations or adversity.
“The confidence just came from working with Coach Verduzco and Coach Frost every day during fall camp, during spring ball, really putting in the time to try and learn the playbook and getting as good as I possibly could to be there for my teammates. That just translated into on-the-field confidence and obviously over time as I started to play a little bit more and gained a little bit more experience that confidence just grew.”
Though NU struggled mightily during an 0-6 start, the team remained cohesive and finished a strong 4-2 the second half of the year. That resilience, Martinez said, “really speaks to the character of the coaches and the quality of players we have here at Nebraska.”
“Things could have went differently. Things could have fallen apart there when things weren’t going our way. But we stuck together. The coaches kept believing in us, which I think is the most important thing. They didn’t try to degrade us or break us down. They wanted us to get better, We’re a team, we’re in it together. I think that point is what came across to the players and eventually over time we truly formed that bond and began forming that chemistry and finally put it out there on the field.”
Year two of the Frost regime and of Offensive Coordinator Troy Walters’ breakneck system is expected to start much smoother and reap more success. All eyes will be on Martinez to make things happen from the get-go. He denies feeling any pressure though.
“I would say pressure isn’t anything I’ve ever felt and I don”t feel it right now. I’m just confident we’re going to get the job done. I have faith in the people around me.”
Despite the loss of key offensive players to graduation in receiver Stanley Morgan, running back Devine Ozigbo and lineman Nick Gates, he believes enough returnees and newcomers will step up as new cogs.
After so much hype leading into last year, harsh reality quickly set in when the team opened 0-6. Whatever growing up the already mentally strong Martinez had to do, he did it on the fly, under great scrutiny.
“The toughest thing was going through that losing stretch. I encountered some things I wasn’t anticipating. Often I think you have this dream or image in your mind of how things are supposed to go, and a lot of times it doesn’t happen that way. But that’s nothing new. You have to learn to adjust and keep pushing forward.”
Nobody wants a repeat of last year’s disappointment and that’s why Martinez and his mates are taking lessons from what transpired in 2018.
“I truly believe things do happen for a reason and I think the experiences we went through last year will help us a ton going into this year. We experienced some tough losses and we know why we lost those games. Having that experience for the guys is going to be huge in just learning how to win.”
if anything, he said, the bumps in the road that occurred only fuel what the team wants to get done.
“If having the season we did at a place like Nebraska last year doesn’t motivate you to do better, I don’t know what will. I think this group of guys and me are hungrier than ever and we have some high expectations.”
 Image result for adrian martinez nebraska  Image result for adrian martinez nebraska  
Martinez likes the evolution he’s made in his own performance.
“I really believe I got better with each game. But I would say the Purdue game (a 42-28 loss) was probably a tipping point for me. It was a tough game with lot of penalties. I threw a critical interception there. But I felt confident with my ability to throw the ball and I think from that point there I felt there wasn’t a throw or a read I couldn’t make. It was just a matter of doing it effectively and doing it on time.”
Improvement, he said, needs to come in certain game situations where his decision-making and execution can make the difference between a bust or a big play.
“I think the part that can always use the most improvement is situationally – being better in all situations of the game. Knowing when to throw the ball here, knowing what the time is, being better with my reads, being quicker. I think you can never know too much about the offense. It means really diving into the playbook and spending time in the film room and that’s  something I can improve on a lot from last year.”
After missing his final high school season and then going winless midway through his rookie college campaign, he doesn’t take anything for granted.
“You can’t be complacent. I don’t want this team to be and in no way do I want myself to be. I just have to keep that attitude and fall back on those people around me at the end of the day.”
Leadership is another area he’s looking to improve.
“You have to show up every day. Your effort has to be there. You have to be a leader, not only by example, but you have to have somewhat of a voice and make sure people are pulling their weight and you’re pulling your own.”
Martinez’s belief in himself is second only to his belief in quarterback guru Mark Verduzco, who came with Frost from Central Florida.

“I’m so appreciative of a guy like Coach Verduzco who really pushes me to be great on the football field. But he’s there for academics, for personal life, for everything. I couldn’t ask for a better coach and a better man to help guide me through this pretty critical process in my life.
“There’s always something I can improve on and Coach Verduzco makes sure I’m a aware of that and the fact that I can get better each day. The fact of the matter is we went 4-8 last year. I had some moments that were good, but I also had some moments that were bad. There’s a lot to get better at. There’s a lot of things still out there to accomplish. That’s really what drives me.”
Spring practice concludes with the April 13 Spring Game. Big Red opens the regular season at home August 31 versus South Alabama.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
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