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A Mentoring We Will Go

June 18, 2010 5 comments

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Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

 

Maurtice Ivy

Maurtice Ivy

 

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

 

 

Mike Yanney

Michael Yanney

 

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor    to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up helping thousands of at-risk kids through early intervention educational program

May 31, 2010 2 comments

I read somewhere about a wealthy white couple devoting their lives to help inner city schools. These schools are predominantly made up of African American students, many of whom under achieve.  The couple, Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, started an academic support program in one school, where students’ test scores dramatically increased, and its success has been replicated in several more schools.  What most intrigued me, however, was the couple’s own transformation from racially, socially insensitive to enlightened, and how their philanthropy to improve education among some of America‘s poorest children is not some idle exercise about assuaging white guilt but a genuine community response to a chronic problem they were awakened to and that they have awakened others to.

My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press, an Omaha weekly I contribute to.

Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up elping thousands of at-risk kids through early entervention educational program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

The awakening of Jerry and Cookie Hoberman began in the early 1990s. Until then the hard-driving Omaha entrepreneurs went after what they wanted without much regard for people’s feelings. As Jews they knew about anti-Semitism from both personal experience and history, yet in a recent interview at their home they acknowledged they were intolerant when it came to other minorities.

Soul-searching led the Hobermans to take a long hard look at themselves. Their journey of self-discovery has propelled them to help thousands of impoverished, mostly African-American public school children and their families in north Omaha.

Winners Circle, an academic and citizenship program the couple began in one inner city school 12 years ago, has grown to 10 schools, with two more slated to join within a year. WC is viewed as a model for motivating students to achieve and getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

The Hobermans, once viewed with skepticism, even hostility, as white exploiters, are now seen as sincere community leaders making a difference. None of it would have happened without them being willing to face some unpleasant truths.

Jerry built his own Tires Inc. business from scratch, applying lessons learned from his days as a wagon peddler, selling goods from the back of a ‘54 Ford, and as a partner in his father’s small family tire center downtown. Cookie worked for Holland-Dreves-Reilly Advertising before starting her own agency. Amid their own careers each sought advice from the other. Cookie gave Tires Inc. its name.

Tires Inc. grew to several locations before business faltered. Drawn by lower overhead, Jerry opted to move the headquarters from the 72nd Street strip to 60th and Ames, a poor, predominantly African-American area of northeast Omaha the Hobermans didn’t really know, except by reputation. “I ended up in the inner city against the cautions of all my friends,” Jerry said. “And family,” Cookie interjected.

White employees resisted the move. “I had some employees who said they wouldn’t go to north Omaha — that they would rather leave than stay with us,” he said.
Cookie said preconceived notions spelled trouble. “Well, we came to north Omaha with as much stereotypic bias and ignorance as most people that never go to the inner city,” she said. “I think we were naive.”

No sooner did Tires Inc. open its North O digs than tensions surfaced.

“We had a lot of racial issues, a lot of problems,” Jerry said. “We had arguments. Sometimes a small fight would break out between my associates and the African-American population. It was not a very smooth transition.”

Threats were made. Hoberman didn’t give an inch. Rather than reaching out to mend fences, he closed ranks, making his business a fortress.

“I bought special insurance — kidnap and ransom. I had special alarm systems put in that when you push a button it goes right to the police. We did a lot of these things and all we did was separate ourselves,” he said. “It’s amazing what fear does,” Cookie added.

Things came to a head when a member of a prominent local black family took issue with the unequal way her credit was handled compared to white customers.

“One of my employees referred to her in a very disparaging manner,” Jerry said. “He called her ‘Aunt Jemima.’ She was really irate. A lovely lady, she came in and visited with me and told me what had taken place and I told her I’d had all sorts of problems. I asked what I should do. She said, ‘I suggest you get some sensitivity training for yourself and your associates.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”

On her advice Hoberman contacted Frank Hayes, the black owner of his own accounting firm, Hayes and Associates.

“My immediate response was, ‘Man, I’m a CPA, I’m not a social worker.’” Hayes recalled saying when Hoberman called.

But after the two met Hayes saw Hoberman wanted to do the right thing. Hoberman assembled all his workers for diversity training at which Hayes spoke about “some of the experiences I had had and how they affected or impacted me,” including, Hayes said, “the sense of frustration and anger I had as a black man trying to establish a business.” He related incidents that any black person could identify with, like the time a food service worker ignored him even though it was his turn in line. He had to demand service before he got waited on. It’s the same as when blacks are unfairly profiled by clerks in stores or by police in traffic. He let Hoberman and Co. know such treatment was insensitive at best and racist at worst.

“I just wanted to impress upon them the idea that when you serve someone you have to respect them as individuals, because these are the people who are going to buy your product. If you’re in a service business you have to serve the customer regardless of where you’re coming from.”

What Hayes also impressed upon his audience is that a black person enters any transaction with whites carrying a history of insults and slights, making it imperative whites check their words and actions.

“You may not even realize what you’re saying may be interpreted differently by a minority,” Jerry said. “Because of their past experiences,” Cookie explained.

The sobering talk had its intended effect. “It was just really eye-opening,” Jerry said. “I mean, we didn’t have clues about this,” Cookie said.

The talk was the first in a series Hoberman required his employees attend. Others addressed issues on the elderly, women, the disabled and HIV/AIDS patients.

“I’ll tell you, sometimes we had tears in our eyes when you just realized what people go through,” Hoberman said.

Each talk was followed by discussion.

“We’d have meetings and just talk about relationships with people,” Hoberman said, “and it really built some sensitivity in us as we came face to face with some of our own biases. Prior to that, when we were having all these problems, I built a wall between our company and the community. After we awakened ourselves it was the other way around. We embraced, we understood the individuals that came through our door. We saw we could become a part of the community.”

“Awareness,” Cookie said, made all the difference.

Race relations dramatically improved.

“In the community itself we went from being interlopers and separate to becoming part of the fabric of the community. We never had any more problems,” he said.

Hayes became a close friend of the Hobermans. They’ve had him over for seder. They’ve vacationed together.

In line with this new awareness Hoberman realized the way he treated his own employees left much to be desired. Problems arose as the business grew and Hoberman grew more distant from his rank-and-file associates That’s when, Cookie said, her husband vowed, “‘I want to get to know my people again.’”

The personnel problems were articulated by a mechanic who “came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, all you treat me like is a tool…You don’t care about myself, my family. What I do is I turn a wrench for you and make you a living.’ Hoberman recalled. “I thought about that and he was right. He was just someone to make money for me and that’s not the way to think about individuals. When I recognized that I had a real desire to change and I did. I really did.”

Hoberman devised an incentive program at the struggling Tires Inc. to boost employee performance-morale. He called it the Winners Circle. At its core was goal-setting and recognition. When a division would meet its goals a celebration dinner or picnic would be held at which every team member was recognized “for a job well done.” The program turned things around at the business.

“I was looking to do something to bring us together because we were in disarray and the Winners Circle created a great deal of camaraderie and excitement within the company,” Hoberman said. “It was a team-building kind of thing where everybody worked for their goals. We formed personal relationships.”

“People felt valued,” said Cookie, who added the model for the program was as much the Jewish Passover seder as anything. The company came together as a family and everyone felt a part of the whole. “It broke a barrier,” she said. “They got to meet the president of the company and his wife. They called us by our first names. We knew their children’s names and what was going on in their families. It elevated the sense of value and respect they felt.”

Hoberman also made it company policy to hire more qualified blacks.

The next step in the couple’s evolution came when the late Cornelius Jackson, then-principal at the former Belvedere Elementary School, paid Hoberman a call and “said something that started us down this road” of helping public school children. “He said, ‘You know Mr. Hoberman, you take money from this community — what are you giving back to it? I have a lot of problems with my school. Will you help me?’ So I talked to Cookie about it and it was so true. We were making our living in the black community and we were giving absolutely nothing back to it.”

The couple visited the school at 3775 Curtis Avenue, where they were “appalled” by the conditions. A total of three Apple computers to serve hundreds of students. No usable playground equipment. A racial divide between teachers. Undisciplined students. Classroom disruptions. Little parental involvement. Academically, Belvedere ranked next to last among OPS elementary schools.

“They had all kinds of problems,” Hoberman said. “It was just a real challenge.”

Despite the daunting needs, Cookie said she and Jerry found “inspiring the dedication and commitment” of teachers and staff who “must fill a lot more roles” than their counterparts in suburbia. The rampant north Omaha poverty now making news is a reality the Hobermans began learning about years ago. How, for example, most inner city students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, how many are from single-parent homes and how many lead highly mobile, unstable lives.

The couple agreed to make Tires Inc. an Adopt-A-School Partner of Belvedere.

A basic need was filling the resource gap. The Hobermans found donors to underwrite the cost of dozens of new computers. The couple organized, with help from Tires Inc. employees, a carnival held on the grounds of the company. Proceeds from the event raised money for more equipment and improvements.

“Everybody got on board,” Hoberman said.

The Hobermans also found in Carol Ellis, who replaced the retiring Jackson as principal, an administrator open to new approaches, such as Hoberman’s idea to adapt the successful Winners Circle program at Tires Inc. to Belvedere.

“Based on what I had in my business I felt the same idea would work within the schools,” he said.

Hoberman and Ellis worked out the details, setting goals in reading, math and citizenship. Other changes were made, with input from staff and parents, including changing the school’s name to Belvedere Academy and introducing uniforms with the school name on them.

“We wanted the children to feel they were special,” he said. “It was all part of building…” “Self-esteem,” said Cookie. That’s why then, and now, the program is based on affirmation. Public ceremonies award gold medals to children who meet goals. Goal busters are eligible for prizes, from bikes to boom boxes. Classrooms that make goals receive $50 checks that the class can use how they want.

“Really, all it is, is having a child have an individual goal and rewarding that child for meeting that goal,” he said. “That’s the essence — just giving recognition the same as we did in my business.”

“Celebrating their success,” Cookie said. “The prerequisite for that is to reinforce with the child that they are smart and they can achieve. The first time I walked into the classroom I asked the children, ‘If you think you’re smart, raise your hand,’ and maybe two or three kids did. Today, all the kids raise their hand.”

To add accountability and encouragement Cookie visited every classroom four times a year. She had each student proclaim his/her quarterly goals in front of the whole class. She was the original Goal Buddy. More than 200 Goal Buddies serve today.

Hoberman admires what his wife did and the connections she made.

“Cookie’s great with kids,” he said. “She’d visit with every one of those 550 kids, asking, ‘What is your goal? Are you going to make your goal?’ and saying, ‘I’m going to be back to check on you.’ She would encourage each child and build great rapport. The kids just loved her.”

She and Jerry discussed their Jewishness with children. Their three daughters got involved, too. Cookie even introduced her passion for bridge to kids.

“The Goal Buddy component became a much more important aspect then I ever thought it was going to be,” she said, “because of the personal contact with a real person outside the educational system taking interest in them. It had a lot influence. Kids perceived it as really important support.”

Tierre Tucker, 19, is a Creighton University student, but 12 years ago he was at Belvedere when Winners Circle began. He can attest to what “a great impact it makes just to know that somebody cares. With Winners Circle we actually had to work toward achieving goals. It gave us something to look forward to. It gave you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I felt when I met my goals. It let me know I can do anything as long as I put forth great effort.” The Hobermans have mentored Tierre all these years. “They’re like another set of parents,” he said. He’s come far and aimed high under their guidance. “I owe that to the Hobermans,” he said. “I don’t think I would have known exactly how to get there. That’s what makes them such lovable people — their optimism for the future.”

Social skills are also part of the Winners Circle and thus kids are taught to make eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up when meeting people.

“It’s teaching them about life,” Cookie said.

Goal Buddies, recruited from local corporations, now visit classrooms eight times a year. Captains, also recruited from the community, host quarterly celebrations recognizing individual and classroom achievements. Students and their families attend along with teachers, staff and special guests — from Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

OPS fully endorses Winners Circle. Mackiel recommends what schools make a good fit for the program. The district provides office space for WC staff. District researchers also provide data that helps WC staff track school performance/trends.

The program uses mantras, repeated by teachers, aides, Goal Buddies and Captains, to motivate and inspire. “Do you know that you’re winners?” “Yes,” children respond. “We know that you are winners, too.” “Are you smart?” “Yes.” “I know you are.” In unison, kids and adults say, “Going for my goal, going for the gold.”

The concept, Cookie said, is that “if you think you’re smart, you’ll be smart.”

Mottoes or platitudes aside, Hoberman said,“I am a businessman and I measure things. I’m not going to put all this work and effort into something that doesn’t show results.” “This isn’t just a feel-good program,” Cookie said.

They’ve got the numbers to show Winners Circle works. Three years after its inception Belvedere’s academic ranking went from 56th to 15th out of 57 schools. That improvement has been maintained and replicated in other schools. In the process of changing a school’s culture students feel better about themselves and when that occurs greater cooperation, motivation and achievement follow.

“Can you imagine the kind of joy and excitement Cookie and I receive to know we’re making a difference in people’s lives?” Hoberman said. The couple see it and hear it all the time — from parents who “put their arms around us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’” to Winners Circle grads “who tell us, ‘I want you to know I’m still making my goals.’ That’s the greatest reward. What’s that worth?”

Besides improved test scores at Winners Circle schools, staff spend less time disciplining students, school spirit and pride soar and parents turn out in force for school activities. Ten schools serving 5,000 students have been transformed in this way. Two south Omaha schools will soon join the program. Ellis said the Hobermans made it all possible.

“I couldn’t imagine doing it without the support we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given by their involvement,” Ellis said. “It allowed us to go to heights we had hoped for but didn’t have the means to accomplish. It wasn’t just the money, it was the caring. It gave us hope we could make things different.”

Success at Belvedere both mirrored and fed the turnaround at Tires Inc.. As the business began treating people right, customers and employees felt valued and profits rose. As students and teachers felt empowered, attitudes changed and test scores shot up. The good neighbor policy reaped dividends all around.

“The 60th and Ames store started making more money than the other stores when it had been at the bottom,” Cookie said. “Not only was Jerry feeling good about himself, his people were feeling good about themselves. There’s no substitute for giving and that’s what was happening at Tires Inc.. Similarly at Belvedere problems started to dissolve because people were getting on board with something positive.”

That first school year the program was in effect, attendance at the quarterly Winners Circle celebrations surged from 100 the first quarter to more than 1,000 the last quarter. The celebrations still attract big crowds today. It’s not uncommon for a child’s immediate and extended family to be there. Ellis said it may be the first time someone in the family has been honored at school.

Hoberman said that surge of support gives lie to the perception that parents in the inner city don’t take an active interest in their children’s education.

“These parents do care about their kids,” he said.

During a celebration each child is called on stage to receive a gold medal as the crowd applauds. There are hand shakes. Parents form a victory tunnel to greet and take pictures as their honored sons or daughters come off stage, beaming.

Holding a mike, Hoberman, his booming bass voice in fine form and his trademark pony tail flying, emceed the event himself in dynamic fashion those early years, “yelling and screaming” as he exhorted the crowd to give it up for the kids.

“He was a rock star leading this parade,” said the now retired Carol Ellis.

“He was powerful, he was wonderful,” said Winners Circle director Beth Smith. She heads a staff of five that do what Jerry and Cookie once did all by themselves.

Now captains do the emceeing, following Hoberman’s cheerleading example.

Ellis said the Hobermans personally saw to every detail at the start. Now that there’s a professional staff in place, the couple take a less hands-on role, but still keep a close tab on things. The fact they took Winners Circle on together, first at Tires Inc. and then in the schools, is typical of the way they tackle things.

“Cookie and I have been married 41 years and we’ve always been a team,” Jerry said, “so when I had problems in my business I would go home and we would talk about it. Cookie was always an integral part of what I did.” “And vice versa,” Cookie said, adding, “We work well together separately. Jerry does his thing, I do my thing, then we have meetings and we report back.”

It’s how they ran the United Jewish Appeal campaign one year. They’ve assumed many local leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years.

The Hobermans long ago earned what a Captain, Paul Bryant, calls “street cred” by proving they were genuine about making good on their promises and staying in it for the long haul. But they had to earn that trust.

“When we first went to Belvedere there were a lot of families that wanted to know what were these white Jewish people doing in our school. What do they want with our kids? And rightfully so,” Cookie said. “A few years later we received a wonderful letter from one of the parents that said, ‘I really didn’t believe you. I didn’t trust you. I was wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done in our school.’ And we’ve heard that more and more now.”

“When we started this program,” Jerry said, “we were told by educators and by members of the African American community ‘Don’t start this if you’re not going to keep doing it, because we’ve seen too many people make promises they don’t keep.’” As Cookie said, “You don’t go into the inner city and give them a taste of honey and then take it away from them.”

Bryant said the Hobermans live their values: “That’s what makes them so special. It’s easy to throw some money at it. But they invested themselves into it. Their commitment — that’s what makes them different.”

Longevity for the program is what the Hobermans want. It’s why, Cookie said, “we had to make provisions for it to go on past us.” When Jerry sold Tires Inc. in ‘98, finding more support became paramount as Winners Circle operates entirely on private donations. He directs the fund raising apparatus himself, sending out thousands of appeal letters. It costs some $45,000 to maintain Winners Circle in a school on an annual basis. With there about to be 12 participating schools, it takes half-a-million dollars to cover expenses.

With the help of major funders such as Dick and Mary Holland and Wally Weitz, the program has thrived and expanded.

When the Hobermans recruit new donors they let the children sell Winners Circle.

“When you’re with the kids they capture your heart,” he said. “We picked Dick (Holland) up one night and took him down to the Winners Circle celebration and that was it. The kids touched his and Mary’s heart and the Hollands just embraced the program. Dick said, ‘What do you need to expand it?’”

Holland is struck by what the Hobermans have accomplished.

“They’re highly compassionate people and also what they’ve done is an exercise in wisdom,” Holland said. “A lot of times disadvantaged children don’t have any belief in the future and Winners Circle overcomes a lot of that despair.”

Holland’s late wife put in motion the latest chapter in Winners Circle, a merger with the All Our Kids mentoring program. For all its success, Winners Circle stopped at the 6th grade, leaving students without the support of the program from middle school on. To address that interruption, a pilot program called Bright Futures Partnership continues the Winners Circle from 7th grade through high school, with mentoring offered in a seamless stream.

“We’ve accomplished our dream,” Hoberman said.

Those who know the Hobermans, like Frank Hayes, say they “are genuinely good people.” Beth Smith left corporate America five years ago looking to make a difference and she said, “I feel blessed to have come upon them (the Hobermans). Their heart and their passion is for the children.”

Hayes said the couple “are an extremely good example of the good that can come when people take a risk and step out of their comfort zone. They made a significant shift in the way they saw things and as a result of that they’ve lived a better, richer life. The return on their investment has been significant. Teachers, students, parents have benefited by it from interacting with them and Jerry and Cookie have benefited from interacting with them.”

Jerry Hoberman said his motivation for Winners Circle is in part “payback for all those years I made judgments of other people and I was insensitive toward individuals and their needs.” His awakening revealed “the inequality and struggles these kids have. I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I understand the challenges they have. Education is the road for them to move up and anything we can do to try and even the playing field makes us feel really good.”

“It’s changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve built friends and relationships that are just…” “Invaluable,” added Cookie, who said moving “beyond our own circles” has promoted personal growth. “It’s enhanced our lives,” Jerry said. “I like myself a lot better now…there were times when I really didn’t.”

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