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Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition to renamed North Omaha center

May 23, 2016 2 comments

Girls Inc. of Omaha has added to the heavy slate of north side inner city redevelopment  with a major addition that’s prompted the renaming of its North O facility to the Katherine Fletcher Center. Though the center’s longtime home, the former Clifton Hill Elementary School building, remains in use by Girls Inc. and is getting a makeover, the connected 55,000 square foot addition is so big and colorful and adds so much space for expanded programs and new services that it is the eye candy of this story. Here is a sneak peek at my story for the June issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) about what the addition will mean to this organization and to the at-risk girls it inspires to be “strong, smart and bold.” The $15 million project is another investment in youth, opportunity and community in North O on top of what has already happened there in recent years (NorthStar Foundation, No More Empty Pots, Nelson Mandela School) and what is happening there right now (Union for Contemporary Art getting set to move into the renovated Blue Lion Center, the North 75 Highlander Village under construction, the three new trades training buildings going up on the Metro Fort Omaha campus). But so much more yet is needed.

 

 

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North Omaha Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition

New Katherine Fletcher Center offers expanded facilities, programs

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the June 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth.

The Girls Inc. center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School but somehow made do in cramped, out-dated quarters. Last month the nonprofit dedicated renovations to the old building as well as the addition of an adjoining 55.000 square foot structure whose extra space and new facilities allow expanded programming and invite more community participation. The changes prompted the complex being renamed the Katherine Fletcher Center in honor of the late Omaha educator who broke barriers and fought for civil rights. The addition is among many recently completed and ongoing North O building projects worth hundreds of millions dollars in new development there.

This local after school affiliate of the national Girls Inc. takes a holistic approach to life skills, mentoring, career readiness, education enrichment and health-wellness opportunities it provides girls ages 5 through 18. Members are largely African-American, many from single parent homes. Others are in foster care. Young girls take pre-STEM Operation SMART through the College of Saint Mary. Older girls take the Eureka STEM program through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There are also healthy cooking classes, aquaponics, arts, crafts, gardening, sports, field trips and an annual excursion outside Nebraska. Girls Inc. also awards secondary and post-secondary scholarships.

The addition emphasizes health and wellness through a gymnasium featuring a regulation size basketball court with overhead track, a fitness room, a health clinic operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a space devoted to yoga, meditation, massage and a media room. Amenities such as the gym and clinic and an outdoor playground are open to the public. The clinic’s goal is to encourage more young women, including expectant and new mothers, to access health care, undergo screenings and get inoculations.

Dedicated teen rooms give older girls their own spaces to hang out or study rather than share space with younger girls as in the older facility. Multi-use spaces there became inadequate to serve the 200 or so girls who daily frequent the center.

“I think we’ll see more teens in our programs because this expansion separates them from the younger girls and provides more opportunities to get drawn into our programs,” says executive director Roberta Wilhelm. “They may start as drop-ins but we foresee them getting involved in the more core programs and becoming consistent members. So, we think we’ll impact more girls and families.”

A big, bright, open indoor commons area, the Girls Hub, is where the brick, circa 1917 historic landmark meets the glass and steel addition.

“The design team showed great respect for how to best join the two buildings and for the importance of this space and for the social aspects of how girls gather and interact,” Wilhelm says.

The impressive, brightly colored, prominently placed new addition – atop a hill with a commanding view – gives the organization a visual equivalent to its “strong, smart and bold” slogan.

“It’s a big statement,” says director of health access Carolyn Green. “It speaks loudly, it brings awareness, it turns heads. People can’t wait to come through and see what is all in here.”

 

Roberta and Mychael

 

Before the open house program director Emily Mwaja referenced the high anticipation. saying, “I’m ready, the girls are ready, we’re ready for everything.”

Girls Inc. member Desyree McGhee, 14, says, “I’m excited for the new building. I feel it’s giving us girls the opportunity for bigger and better things and bringing us together with the community. I just feel like a lot of good things could come from it.” Her grandmother, Cheryl Greer, who lives across the street, appreciates what it does for youth like Desyree and for the neighborhood. “It’s just like home away from home. I have seen her grow. She’s turning into a very mature, respectful young lady. I think Girls Inc. is a wonderful experience for these girls to grow up to be independent, educated adults. The center is a great asset for them and the community.”

McGhee says Girls Inc. empowers her “to not just settle for the bare minimum but to go beyond and follow your dreams. It’s really given me the confidence to thrive in this world. They really want you to go out and leave your mark. I love Girls Inc. That’s my second family.”

Girls Inc. alum Camille Ehlers, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, says caring adults “pour into you” the expectations and rewards youth need. “It was motivating to me to see how working hard would pay off.” She says she felt called to be strong, smart and bold. “That’s what I can make my life – I can create that.” Mentors nudged her to follow her passion for serving at-risk students, which she does at a South Side of Chicago nonprofit. Denai Fraction, a UNL pre-med grad now taking courses at UNO before medical school, says Girls Inc. nurtured her dream of being a doctor. Both benefited from opportunities that stretched them and their horizons. McGhee is inspired by alums like them and Bernie Sanders National Press Secretary Symone Sanders who prove anything is possible.

Wilhelm says, “Girls Inc. removes barriers to help girls find their natural strengths and talents and when you do that over a period of years with groups of girls you’re helping affect positive change. A lot of the girls are strong and resilient and have chops to get through life and school but if we can remove some barriers they will go so much farther and be able to accomplish so much more. We see ourselves in that business.

“If you help a girl delay pregnancy so she’s not a teen mom, it’s a health outcome, an education outcome, a job outcome, it’s all of those things, they’re all tied together. If you are feeding girls who are hungry that impacts academics and also impacts growing bodies. I do think our holistic model has become more intentional, more focused. We use a lot more partners in the community who bring expertise, We are all partners with parents and families in lifting up girls. The Girls Inc. experience is all these things but the secret sauce is the relationships adult mentors, staff and volunteers cultivate with youth.” Alums come back to engage girls in real talk about college, career and relationships. The shared Girls Inc. expereince creates networking bonds.

She says support doesn’t stop when girls age out. “Even after they graduate they call us for help. We encourage that reaching out. They know there’s someone on the other end of the phone they can trust.”Assistance can mean advice, referrals, funds or most anything.

Everyone from alums and members to staff and volunteers feel invested in the bigger, bolder, smarter Girls Inc.

“It’s not just about the million dollar donors,” Wilhelm says. “We all have ownership in this. I always tell the girls, ‘The community invests in you for a reason. They want you to create a better future for yourself, to be a good student, to focus on education, to live healthy, to make good choices. They think you’re worth this investment.'”

She says there’s no better investment than girls.

“Girls make decisions when they grow up for their families for education and health. To the extent you can educate girls to make wise decisions and choices you really do start to see cycle breaking changes. How you educate girls, how you treat girls, how you invest in girls matters over time and we’re a piece of that, so we’re foundational.

The girls graduating college now are maybe going to be living and working in this community and hopefully be a part of the solution to make North O more attractive to retain the best and brightest.”

Visit girlsincomaha.org.

 

NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high; Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces

June 17, 2015 2 comments

NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high

Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males.

The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doen’t put limits on students regardless of socio-economic, family or environmental circumstances. It provides fifth to ninth graders academic and exploratory experiences designed to transition them to high school.

It helps when kids aspire to success and mentors reinforce their aspirations. For director of programming Jannette Taylor that anything’s possible attitude is a welcome change from the despair she encountered as founder-director of Impact One, which among other things does gang intervention work.

“Working with the young people there I knew they had potential but they had to believe it. They’d had so many people telling them they couldn’t do something they started to believe that instead of believing in themselves, and that was a challenge,” she recalls.

After a stint with Weed & Seed under Mayor Mike Fahey, the then-Creighton University law student launched Impact

One as her impassioned response to quell rampant gun violence.

“I was really ambitious and naive. I believed I could do anything.”

In five-years she lost several clients as well as two of her own relatives to violence. Those tragedies brought home the toxic, consequences of limited expectations, negative perceptions and devalued lives. Emotionally wasted, she left, not expecting to return anytime soon.

“You would have a kid fill out an individual development plan and it would be so short-term because they didn’t think into the future what they could do. You’d be working with a kid one day and they’d be dead the next.”

She reached her breaking point.

“It’s hard to lose family members. It’s hard to lose kids you work with and love. I put all this time, energy and effort into trying to help people onto the right path. It was pretty much game over for me. I was pretty much done. I had given all I could give and I didn’t have anything else to give.”

Then NorthStar founder-director Scott Hazelrigg, who’d collaborated with Taylor and used her as a consultant, asked her to join NorthStar. She accepted. Now she’s refocused on helping her community again. Trusting Hazelrigg’s vision helped her decide to return.

“I just believe in what he’s doing – I always have. I think that’s why I jumped on board.”

He saw her as the right fit.

“We recruited Jannette back to Omaha,” he says, “because she really gets it. She cares passionately about these kids and not only wants to see them succeed but passionately believes they will succeed. We just have to give them the structure and the opportunity to do so.”

He says she helped build the NorthStar “climate and culture” that provides many avenues to discover passions and to build skills for future success. The center’s interior features learning labs, homework areas, a rock climbing wall and a basketball court. The exterior includes a sports field and garden. The comprehensive, experiential-based offerings range from art immersion to healthy lifestyles to employment readiness to chess, robotics, computer coding, culinary arts, gardening and lacrosse.

STEM education is stressed.

Youth also make college tours, visit historic cites, attend cultural events, go on wilderness treks and test themselves on the adjacent Outward Bound ropes course.

“Parents are really excited their kids here are able to find what their strengths and talents are,” Taylor says. “We do have research on all of our programs. Everything’s based off of a best practice model.”

At NorthStar every kid’s encouraged to try new things. She says unlike the punitive measures some schools use to deny behaviorally-challenged students participation in things like robotics, NorthStar uses incentives and old-school remedies to motivate kids.

Members are encouraged to seize and own their future rather than have it dictated to them.

“When I talk about our boys, I say these are our new leaders. That’s how I see them. One of the worst things we do is we put limits on kids. At NorthStar we do things and get them to critically think and that’s good because they’re young, they have potential and they believe it. I know they believe in themselves because I see it and hear it every day. In order for that to grow we have to have people that will believe in them and push them forward.

“I want this to be a brotherhood of us believing in the kids and them believing they can do anything.”

 NorthStar

Empowering kids “to think differently about their future and getting them to realize, Hey, we can make opportunities for ourselves, helps prepare them to make smarter choices,” she says.
Molding kids at an impressionable age helps.

“What I love about NorthStar is that the kids are young, they haven’t been jilted by life, they haven’t had people beat them down and tell them you can’t do this. We have them playing lacrosse for God’s sake. They believe they have this potential to go and do great things. When kids have that faith and that belief, you can’t kill that. It really makes me happy to see a kid always in trouble in school or getting kicked out of other programs come and be successful here because we’re not telling him what he can’t do, we’re telling him what he can do.”

She says NorthStar rejects “assumptions kids coming out of North Omaha won’t amount to anything, especially African-American boys.”

“We don’t care what neighborhood you come from or what you’ve been through. We all have a story. What’s more important is where do you think you can go and how can I help you get there. We remove barriers for our kids. It’s why we have seventh graders writing essays for college scholarships.”

With high expectations comes accountability.

“A big component of NorthStar is trying to get kids to stay on course, stay on grade level. The curriculum is based off of Neb. state standards. We have really clear communication with parents, teachers and counselors.”

Hazelrigg says getting kids grade-ready before their sophomore year is critical as that’s when a disproportionate number of African-American students drop out after falling far behind.

He and Taylor say the academically rigorous summer camp is meant to reduce summer learning loss. Then, as during the school year, kids are kept engaged by programming of NorthStar’s own design or of partners’ design.

“Anything we can build up in these kids as far as character and leadership, we do.,” she says “If it’s something that fits with our core areas that will enrich the kids then well do it.”

Thus, NorthStar invites partner organizations in or brings kids out to partners to experience everything from live theater to ballgames.

Hazelrigg says compared to many after school and summer programs “we have more structure,” adding, “When kids walk in the door it’s not three hours of playing basketball – there’s a sequence of things they’re going to do. It’s how we expose them to a broad band of things.”

Taylor says a sure sign the center’s a hit is that despite being only a year-old it’s added feeder schools due to demand by students and parents. “They are our biggest advocates.” She says kids who come there “take ownership over this space and they don’t want to leave.” She notes some school staff want their kids there bad enough that they pay students’ yearly dues.

The center’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood whose troubled Park Crest apartment complex was known as New Jack City for its drug-gang-gun activity. That blighted omplex was razed to make room for NorthStar. Hazelrigg says, “We’re intentionally in the neighborhood as essentially the neighborhood school. We want this to be the safe space for kids living in this area.”

Taylor says the Omaha Police Department’s North Precinct reports reduced crime in the area, which has seen a community garden flourish, a Walmart open and a Heartland Family Services building renovation.

“It just changes the entire community when you have people investing in the communitys.”

For Taylor, the Impact One scars remain, though she says, “There were some good things that happened with that” job,

“Everything you go through is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Now it’s a time for healing and hope.

Visit northstar360.org.

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