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Love Donor – Larry & Amee: A Father/Daughter Love Story


Here is a story I did some time ago about a prominent father and daughter in Omaha, Larry Kavich and Amee (Kavich) Zetzman. Their family business All Makes Office Equipment is a four generation success story. Just as Larry succeeded his father, who succeeded his own father in running the business, Larry eventually passed the business onto his daughter Amee and his son Jeff. After putting it in their good hands Larry was leading a carefree life enjoying his many hobbies and pursuits when he got sick. Suffering from advanced renal failure – his kidneys failing – his only option became an organ transplant. Amee became the donor for this life saving procedure that has given him a new lease on life and brought the already close father-daughter relationship even closer together than before.

I did this story for  Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) and I am posting it here for the first time.

Read an earlier story I did about the multi-generational All Makes at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/17/bedrock-values-at-the-core-of-four-generation-all-makes-office-furniture-company/

 

Love Donor– Larry & Amee: A Father/Daughter Love Story

  


Bob & Andee Hoig

Larry Kavich and his daughter Amee Zetzman have always been close. They worked together at the family’s fourth generation All Makes Office Equipment Co., where Larry headed things until turning the business over to his son Jeff and daughter Amee a few years ago.

 

All In The Family

The proud papa gave his “little girl” away in marriage. Amee and her husband Ted Zetzman have given Larry and his wife Andi two grandchildren. But the father-daughter bond went to a whole new level when Larry’s advanced renal failure necessitated a transplant earlier this year and she donated her kidney.

Thus, Kavich became one of an estimated 28,000 persons to receive an organ transplant in the U.S. annually. More than 114,000 are waiting list candidates. Amee’s one of 7,000 live donors projected to give an organ this year.The procedures took place March 19 at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, near Larry’s and (wife) Andi’s snowbird residence in Scottsdale. Father and daughter went into pre-op together and separate teams performed the surgeries in adjoining operating rooms. Weeks of testing preceded the transplant to ensure the best possible match. After four hours of general surgery Larry had a new kidney and just as hoped his body accepted it without complications.

After only four days in the hospital and frequent followup visits, he’s back to the full, active lifestyle he knew before his kidneys failed.

Far from the arduous experience Zetzman says donating is assumed to be, the two-hour laparoscopic procedure left only “three little scars.” Compared to her C-sections, she says it’s “no big deal…it’s doable.”
Hours after the transplant she walked down the hall to find her father sitting up in bed. She returned to work half-days about a week later.

Kavich says “it’s a miracle” she gave him this gift and resumed her life without major interruption. Amee feels she only did what anyone would in the same situation. “If you knew you could change someone’s life and you would still be OK wouldn’t you do it?” she asks.

Still, her father expresses gratitude every week. And not just to Amee. His son Jeff Kavitch also offered to donate. (Mayo will only test one candidate at a time until a suitable match is found.) The siblings decided who would be tested first with a coin flip. Once her donor suitability was confirmed the transplant was scheduled. Amee says she and her family were “very proactive” in educating themselves and pressing for answers. “You have to be your own advocate,” she says.

“I have a fabulous support team in my family,” Larry notes. “We’re the poster family for how things should happen. We’re very fortunate to have had everything that could have gone right go right, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to Mayo and to my children and my wife.”

A Curious Journey

As Kavich readily admits, he’s an anomaly in how his transplant journey unfolded . His new kidney functioned just as it should from the moment of insertion. His creatinine level and glomerular filtration rate steadily improved to where today they’re normal, something they hadn’t been since this all started in 1981. That’s when Kavich, who’s beaten Krohn’s disease and prostate cancer, was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Wegner’s Granulomatosis, that attacks kidneys and other organs.

“I had it 31 years ago and then the disease subsided and 15 years ago it came back,” he says. “On each occasion I was put on chemotherapy and high doses of steroids. It was a very unusual circumstance because I never manifested the symptoms that my numbers would have indicated.”

No loss of appetite or energy. No curtailed activities. It left doctors scratching their heads and Kavich feeling “I’ve been blessed.” He was always told that despite how well he felt he’d one day need dialysis and a transplant. Not wanting to believe it, he says he was “living in the land of denial” in one respect but also maintaining his natural optimism in another respect.

He says Nebraska Kidney Association CEO Tim Neal connected him with people who are transplant success stories and provided “support and encouragement.” He learned healthy regimens for eating right, drinking plenty of water and exercising. His wife filtered out any negative info. He wanted to keep everything positive.

He continued feeling well and living an unrestricted life despite progressive kidney disease, but late last year he finally had to face facts. He needed a transplant and doctors said he shouldn’t hesitate if he had a living, willing donor. His children had already offered but he’d refused. Waiting for a cadaver donor could take years and his condition would require dialysis in the interim. The one thing he didn’t want was a compromised life.

No Other Options

At a doctor’s urging he and Andi visited a dialysis center, where he says, “I saw what would have been my worst fear come to pass. I completely broke down. That’s when my wife called the kids and advised them I was in trouble.” After Amee emerged as his donor she pressed for the procedure to happen as soon as possible so that her father could bypass dialysis.

“Once I got approved I was very persistent and they were totally accommodating in working with us, and my father did avoid dialysis.”

In the extensive physical-psychological vetting process to determine a live donor match she says great pains are taken to ensure donors like herself are doing it for the right reason, i.e. not getting paid. She says it’s made clear that one can opt out at any time for any reason.

Did she have any second thoughts? “I didn’t. Once I made up my mind I was, ‘Let’s get this done.’” Transplant day, she says, is a blur of feelings. “It’s an emotional situation for the family because we’re both being wheeled away to surgery at the same time. It definitely affects the whole family, in all aspects.”

Like her father she’s struck by “the miracle of it,” saying, ““It is pretty unbelievable that they can take part of my body and make it work with his. And his numbers from day one were great. Mine went back to normal quickly as my body adjusted to just having one kidney. It just all worked so fast.”

Just as her father had ample support, she counts herself lucky to have had a support network. Her husband and kids, she says, “were on board, they knew papa was having issues. I have a good circle of friends who covered all my bases, and I have a brother who covered my office base. Not everyone is in that position,” she says, adding that the National Kidney Foundation is trying to devise programs” to assist donors with things like childcare and out-of-work benefits they may need.

Enhancing Lives

The family wants the public to know what a difference organ donation can make, whether getting on the national donation registry or volunteering to be a live donor.
“Towards the end when my kidneys were definitely failing my future and my ability to live any sort of life was impaired. I would not be leading the life I’m leading had the transplant not occurred,” says Kavich. “I am the richest guy you know and it has nothing to do with money.”

He gives back today by volunteering with the Arizona Kidney Foundation. “I will go anywhere and talk to anyone about my experience,” he says.

Another way to assist the donation community is by contributing to your local kidney foundation or association to help its mission of building awareness through education, screening and referral programs-services. For details, go to http://www.kidneyne.org or call 402-932-7200.

 

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

September 29, 2014 1 comment

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

Two of a Kind

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.

Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.

He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.

She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.

Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.

Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.

He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.

Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.

For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.

 

Vic Gutman

 

Idealist, Go-getter

Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.

“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.

He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.

“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,

At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.

“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”

He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.

“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”

Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.

“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”

The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”

Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.

He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.

In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.

“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”

Visionary, Dreamer
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.

“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. ”

Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.

“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”

She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.

In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.

About_1

 

 

“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”

Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.

The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.

“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”

“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.

Serving Youth
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.

“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”

He despaired at what he found in that arena.

“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.

“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”

He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.

“Some of their stories broke my heart.”

The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.

“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”

Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.

“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”

All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.

He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.

“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”

This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .

“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”

At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.

After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.

“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”

She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.

“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”

She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.

Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”

Transformation
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”

Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”

The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”

Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.

“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.

Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.

Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.

“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”

The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.

Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.

“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”

“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.

Colleagues
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.

“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”

She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.

“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”

Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.

“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”

“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.

Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.

“We were ragtag,” she says.

“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”

“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.

As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”

“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.

When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.

“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.

By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”

Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.

“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”

The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.

Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”

Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.

“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”

He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.

Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.

Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.

“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.

“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”

When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”

Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.

“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”

She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.

“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.

“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”

When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.

Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

 

 

 

Dreams
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”

Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.

Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”

“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”

Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”

Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.

“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”

Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.

Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.

“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.

“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”

The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?

“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”

 

 

 

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

November 25, 2012 4 comments

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons

After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.

The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.

Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.

photo
Theresa Glass Union, ©New Horizons

Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.

It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.

At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.

As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.

It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.

Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.

With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.

“The church is central to my family here.”

She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.

She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.

In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.

The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.

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Theresa and her brother James Glass with the children
©New Horizons

As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.

“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.

On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.

“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The     8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”

In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.

“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”

System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.

“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .

“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”

Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.

“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against.  I get my strength from her.”

The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”

Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.

Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..

“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.

In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”

Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.

Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.

“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”

Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.

Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”

It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”

She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.

“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”

Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”

Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.

“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.

“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”

photo
Theresa with Amari, Miyonna and Keira
©New Horizons

Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.

“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”

The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.

“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”

Things stated out different the second time around.

“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.

“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”

The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.

“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”

In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.

Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:

“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.

“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”

Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.

“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”

Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.

“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”

The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.

“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.

It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.

Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”

Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.

Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.

“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.

“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”

Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.

photo
Theresa, with portrait of her three adult children in background
©New Horizons

Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.

“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.

“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”

She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.

Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.

“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”

Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.

Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”

The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.

In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”

She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.

“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”

Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.

Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”

Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.

Theresa Union & Gabrielle Union pictured at the 'Cadillac Records' premiere after party at Marquee in New York City on December 1, 2008.  RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital
‘Cadillac Records’ New York Premiere

Theresa Union & Gabrielle Union pictured at the ‘Cadillac Records’ premiere after party at Marquee in New York City on December 1, 2008. RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital

A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

August 4, 2011 9 comments

Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right?  Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more.  Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.

 

 

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A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

With Native Omaha Days come and gone, another traditional African-American summer gathering, the Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion, begins.

The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.

Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.

The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.

NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.

The picnic draws the biggest family throng.

“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”

This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.

The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.

If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.

“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.

The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.

“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.

For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.

In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.

“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”

“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.

Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.

“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”

“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.

Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.

 

 

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Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”

On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”

Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.

“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.

When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.

“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.

Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.

“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.

“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”

As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.

“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”

Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”

The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.

One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.

The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.

Party crashers are not unheard of.

“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”

Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.

“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”

“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”

“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”

But there are posers, too.

“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.

With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.

“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.

“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”

 

 

 

Paul Bryant says he had to overcome his own shyness to fully partake in the reunion.
“You just have to get a comfort zone being around that many people and realizing all these people are family. They’re here to represent family, and you are a part of the family. Whether you’re a Bryant or a Fisher, at every tent you’re welcome, and that’s the way I conduct myself now. I walk right up to another tent, ‘Hey, you guys got anything to drink over here?’ ‘Sure, help yourself.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Paul Bryant. I’m the son of Doyle Bryant, who was the son of….”

And the lineage beat goes on.

There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.

“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ’em, brought        somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”

Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.

“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.

Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”

Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.

“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”

Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.

Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.

Emma Early Bryant Fisher
Thousands flocked back for the July 27-August 1 Days. They came from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, California, Back East and every which way. Hundreds will do the same for the reunion. Some stay for both.

Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.

The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.

Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.

There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.

When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.

Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.

For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.

“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.

“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”

Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.

“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.

“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”
photo
Paul Bryant

 

 

He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.

Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.

Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.

The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.

“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.

“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”

Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”

Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.

“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”

“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.

“It will go on I think for generations.”

Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha

July 18, 2011 6 comments

We are all suckers for stories of long separated family members reuniting, and while I have written a few stories that have touched on this subject, it’s never been the the entire focus of an article. Until now. As soon to be published in a small Omaha newspaper called El Perico, two half siblings (a brother and sister) born in Puerto Rico recently found each other after years apart in the United States and their reunion took place in, of all places, Omaha, Neb., where it turns out the brother lives and the sister’s husband is from. In fact, the brother’s wife is from Omaha as well. The unlikely parallels and coincidences that brought them together in Omaha are legion and hopefully make for a good read. On a personal note, I actually knew some of the family members involved in this tug at your heart tale before I got into the reunion story.

 

 

 Mimi and Angel

 

 

Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in El Perico

Omaha’s Hilton Hotel hosted a July 7 reunion between two Puerto Rico-born siblings separated almost their entire lives.

Myraida “Mimi” Goodwin knew she had a younger half brother somewhere. Likewise, Angel Rodriguez knew he had a half sister. Though they share the same father, the two had only met once, and then only briefly.

She grew up in Chicago with her single mother, who divorced her father. Angel grew up in Tampa, Fla. with his mother and step-father.

The two mothers arranged a single weekend meeting between the estranged siblings. Mimi was put on a plane to visit Angel in Tampa. She was 11, he was 8. There was never a second visit. Life moved on. Each relocated, embarked on careers, started families of their own. Decades passed without any contact.

Mimi became a women’s fashion designer. Angel, a dental assistant.

Meanwhile, in a improbable twist of fate or coincidence, each married an Omaha native. Mimi and her husband, film and television actor Randy Goodwin, live in Los Angeles with their six children. Angel, who returned to Puerto Rico for a time, actually moved to Omaha with his wife, former U.S. Army Reservist Kenyatta McCray, some years ago. They have four children.

When Mimi visited Omaha in the past, she and Angel were oblivious to their being so near. Their paths never crossed but easily could have, as Angel and Kenyatta live near Randy’s mother, Mary Goodwin.

“We’ve been back there five-six times since we’ve been married,” says Mimi. “All this time I’ve been going there and I’ve been so close to him, and I didn’t even know it.”

“There’s times when she’s probably been right up the road from me,” says Angel.

It’s only recently that Mimi rediscovered Angel. Learning that he lived in, of all places, Omaha, was too strange. “That just can’t be,” Mimi recalls saying.

“It’s crazy how it all came to be — the circumstances of it,” says Angel.

The Omaha links run even deeper, as Kenyatta and her family have known the Goodwins for years. She used to get her hair done by Randy’s brother Bryan.

“It’s overwhelming to take all of it in,” says Angel. “I can’t wrap my mind around it. Even now I still don’t believe it. I told Mimi I’m not going to believe this until you’re in front of me.”

When Mimi caught sight of Angel in the Hilton lobby last Thursday she says, “I flew into his arms,” adding, “I practically knocked him over.” Their tearful embrace lasted minutes. In the two weeks leading up to then, they traded countless texts and calls, catching up with each other’s lives, struck by how similar they are. As their weekend reunion unfolded they noticed more subtle similarities.

“I think it’s a lot of little things, not so much things we’re saying,” she says. “Like when I look at him he does certain eye movements that are the same as mine or that remind me of my dad’s. Or the way we laugh. Oh, my gosh, I can see myself in him.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” says Angel. “We have so many things in common it’s just crazy. It’s really neat though.”

Instead of feeling like two strangers, says Mimi, “it’s actually really familiar, it’s like we’ve known each other our entire lives.”

 

 

 Angel, Mimi and Angel’s wife, Kenyatta

 

 

All the parallels make their reunion seem like destiny fulfilled.  Angel says, “I think it was a long time coming and I think this is supposed to happen for us.” “This has to be an absolute manifestation of God‘s work,” says Mimi, “and it’s absolutely meant to be — I’m supposed to have him in my life.”

None of it may have happened if not for Mimi’s dogged search. Apart from him all those years, she hungered to reconnect and fill a hole that left her feeling incomplete. The more she was around her husband’s tight-knit family, the more she pined for her long lost brother.

“It became almost like a mission to find him because I found myself jealous of the    relationship Randy has with his family,” says Mimi. “Yeah, I have Randy and the kids, but there’s nobody like me around, and so I started trying to find him. About once a year, I would go on the Internet and type in his mother’s name and his name and whatever ever little information I had, and nothing would come up. After a while I kind of just gave up because I really didn’t know what else to do.

“I even thought of hiring somebody.”

In the end, it didn’t take a private detective, just prodding from her mother, a key lead from her father, the help of social media and perhaps some divine intervention. Never in her wildest dreams though did she expect finding Angel in Omaha.

 

 

Mimi
Mimi’s husband, Randy Goodwin

 

Connecting the dots that lead her to Angel happened June 25. She was doing a Facebook search for him when his profile popped up and listed Omaha as his residence. Before going any further, Mimi felt apprehension.

“The strange thing is I was so afraid that he wouldn’t want a relationship, and I don’t know why I felt that way. I thought, Gosh this could be awkward, what if we don’t have anything to say, what if our personalities are so different?”

After exchanging a couple texts, it was clear they were indeed blood and were two sides of the same coin. Angel explained he’d been wanting to reconnect with her, too, but just hadn’t got around yet to searching.

“She was definitely on my mind, but I guess she beat me to the punch,” he says.

Mimi says any fear they would not jive soon disappeared. “Talking to him it was like he was the other half of me. We say the same things, we like the same things, we have the same sense of humor. He was as excited as I was to have found him. It was like instant chemistry.”

He says, “It’s an awesome feeling knowing that I’m not alone in the world, that there’s somebody out there actually just like me.”

After going to bed flush with excitement, Mimi says she awoke the next morning wondering if she’d dreamed it all. “I thought, Was that real, did I really talk to him? I checked my phone and I texted, ‘Are you still there?’ And he texted back, ‘I’m not going anywhere.'”

Again, chalk it up to fate or coincidence, but Mimi and Randy were already booked to come to Omaha when she connected with Angel via the Web. Their story  became a communal celebration here, where the reunited siblings’ only desire was to finally get some alone time together. Mission accomplished. They vow never to lose track of each other again. Small chance, given their shared Omaha ties.

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha’s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

June 4, 2011 4 comments

Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make.

 

The new, redesigned Child Saving Institute

 

 

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.

The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.

The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.

Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.

The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.

 

 

The drab, old Child Saving Institute

 

 

There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.

Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.

“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”

Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.

Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.

He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.

“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.

 

 

Mary and Dick Holland, ©By Debra Joy Groesser

 

 

The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.

CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.

The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.

“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”

She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.

“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”

“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”

The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.

“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.

Such links can pay big dividends.

“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”

CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.

“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”

One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.

“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.

“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.

When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.

“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.

“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”

The playground became his sweet challenge.

“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.

 

Playground

Nature Explore Classroom at CSI

 

 

He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.

Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.

That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.

She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”

For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”

Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.

“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”

It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.

“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”

Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.

“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”

The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.

“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”

For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.

Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”

Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.

Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

He said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”


Standing on Faith, Sadie Bankston Continues One-Woman Vigil for Homicide Victim Families

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Crime scene tape

Image by Ross Catrow via Flickr

For years I read about this Omaha woman who has dedicated her life to help the families of homicide victims since she losing her own son to a senseless act of violence and finding the support network for grieving loved ones to be wanting.  I finally met Sadie Bankston a couple years ago and this is her story.  It originally appeared in The Reader  (www.thereader.com), and I think you will find her as determined and compassionate as I did.  She goes to rather extraordinary lengths to help people, mostly women, who in a very real way become the secondary victims of homicides.  Her clients may have lost a son or a daughter or a mate, and without the help she and thankfully some others now provide, these hurting parents and spouses are in danger of being casualties themselves.  Sadie carries on her work through her own nonprofit, PULSE, and she can always use more donations and resources to help out families trying to cope with the trauma of losing someone dear and often having to relive it through criminal investigations and court proceedings.

Standing on Faith, Sadie Bankston Continues One-Woman Vigil for Homicide Victim Families

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Whenever Omahan Sadie Bankston hears of a new homicide, her heart aches. Her son Wendell Grixby was shot and killed in 1989 in the Gene Leahy Mall. He was 19. An outpouring of support followed. Then Sadie was on her own. Paralyzed by pain. She sensed others expected her to move on with her life after a certain point. The rest of her adult kids had lives, families, careers of their own. She was single. There wasn’t anyone around to confide in who’d been in her place — another parent who’d suffered the same nightmare of a murdered son or daughter.

Violent crimes in Omaha only escalated. A growing number, gang-related. Others, domestic disputes or random acts turned deadly. Guns the main weapons of choice in the mounting homicide tallies. Sadie felt called to do something for others left adrift in the wake of such loss. She identified with their heartbreak.

Without a degree, she couldn’t provide formal mental health assistance, but she could reach out — mother to mother, heart to heart. Talking, praying, holding hands, preparing care packages, extending a lifeline for people to call day or night. Bearing witness for families at court hearings.

She’s been doing all this and more through the nonprofit organization she started in 1991 — PULSE or People United Lending Support and Encouragement.

Mary E. Lemon’s daughters Saundra and Renota Brown were stabbed to death last Christmas Eve in the basement of an Omaha home. The grieving mother has relied on Sadie to get through many long days and nights.

“Sadie has been a help,” said Lemon. “I call her and talk to her whenever I feel I need to talk to somebody, and that happens quite often. It helps to know that there is someone out there who cares — that you can talk to. And Sadie’s made me feel as if I could talk to her at anytime. She’s a friend worth having, I’ll tell you.”

PULSE began as a support group for mothers who’ve lost a child to homicide. The meetings “phase in and out” now due to funding limitations. Sadie hopes to start the sessions again. She knows how vital these unconditional forums can be.

“You hear their loneliness, their pain, their sleeplessness, their hopelessness. Will I ever stop crying? Those kinds of things. It’s just to come together with other parents who have lost. We have a common denominator there.”

Virgil Cook Jr. and his wife Patricia fell into a depression after their son, Little Virgil. was shot and killed in 1991. They thought they were alone in their grief until Sadie introduced the Native American couple to others suffering like them.

‘We found there are other people like us who’ve been through the same thing. White people, black people, Spanish people. We’re all in the same boat. We’ve become friends,” said Cook.

Sadie’s only guide in the beginning was her own experience. “Just the pain that I knew that I felt,” she said. “I knew other mothers were feeling the same, so I just wanted to help in some way to steer them in the right path as far as help and support.” She knew the most powerful thing she could offer was having walked the same painful journey they’re on. “When you can embrace someone and say, ‘I know how you feel.’ and really know it, it makes a difference,” said Sadie, whose eyes ooze empathy and mirror survival. “I always say, ‘The pain won’t go away, but it will get softer.’”

Lemon said she appreciates dealing with someone who’s walked in her shoes. Their conversations can be about anything or nothing at all. “I talk to Sadie at least once if not twice a week,” she said.

“We talk about my girls, we talk about old days, growing up in the old neighborhood, we talk about a lot of things. Just to kind of relieve my nerves, you know.”

Once Sadie enters a family’s life she sticks. Even years later, despite moves, remarriages, the bond remains.

“They’re not left alone with me around,” she said, “because I’m calling them.”

PULSE volunteer Denise Cousin got acquainted with Sadie while an Omaha police captain. Now retired, Cousin feels Sadie builds rapport by carrying no institutional agenda or baggage. She’s open, she’s real, she’s honest. She’s just Sadie.

‘“I think because she is not representing any type of governmental entity, there’s no concern the family’s going to be jeopardized as far as what they tell her. She does not have that attachment. And I think it is her personality. She is down to earth. She lets the family know she’s there for them. She kind of comes across as the mother figure. She comes across as family, and so she breaks that barrier of a professional I’m-here-to-tell-you-something.”

Cook said he and his wife regard Sadie “as an older sister” even though they have a few years on her. He credits her with getting them out of the deep funk they fell into after Little Virgil was killed.

“We didn’t want to work, we didn’t want to go anywhere, we didn’t want to do anything. Things got real bad. She helped us out of that ugly state. She’s been like an angel to us. Everybody needs a Sadie.”

With her warm, soulful, old-school way, it’s easy picturing Sadie as everyone’s auntie or big mama or sistah. A girlish, impish side shines when she laughs. She’s no pushover though. A steely, sassy righteousness shows through when describing disrespectful “bagging and sagging” young men, silly girls getting pregnant and senseless gun play taking lives and wrecking havoc on families and neighborhoods.

 

 

Sadie Bankston-Mother of victim has lent support
 for 25 years

 

 

This woman of faith ascribes her own healing to her higher power. “My source, and still is my source of comfort and strength,” she said, casting her eyes heavenward. A hardness shows, too, when she bemoans PULSE’s chronic financial straits. PULSE grew beyond being merely a support group to a multi-faceted human services operation providing food, clothes and other support. Ambitious programs, including at-risk workshops, were drawn up.

But as a largely one-woman band, Sadie’s left to scratch for dollars and volunteers wherever she can find them. There’ve been many supporters. Churches, businesses, individuals. Lowes donated materials to renovate the house she resides-offices in. Sadie and fellow victim moms did all the labor. Lamar Advertising does billboards for Stop the Violence messages. Popeye’s Chicken donates dinners for We-Care packages PULSE delivers to families.

An annual Mother’s Day banquet she hosts relies on donated food and facilities. Lately though she’s cut back PULSE services.

All the begging, all the scrounging, all the promised donations that don’t come through, all the unrealized dreams get to be too much at times. “I’m just tired of constantly having to ask.” Then there’s her own well-being. She was 46 at PULSE’s start. She’s 63 now. Like many caregivers the last person she thinks of is herself. She realizes that has to change. “I figure I should be taking care of myself because I’m a senior citizen now. I’m just tired.”

A bad back prevents her from working. She’s on disability. Despite this hand-to-mouth existence the work of PULSE goes on, largely unheralded. Oh, she receives glowing endorsements.

Omaha Police Department Sgt. Patrick Rowland said, “What makes Sadie effective is she’s determined to make a difference even when it’s not the most pleasant of times. She gets out there and she still tries. She truly cares for people. She doesn’t judge them or the circumstances in which their loved ones lost their life. She sees the families as being victims also. She cares about the police, too. She wants them to do a good job. She understands the difficulty in trying to solve these things.”

Sadie’s declined Woman of the Year citations. She’s not looking for awards or pats on the back, but tangible support. The situation’s akin to the way parents feel when a child’s been murdered. Life must go on but until someone notices their pain, it’s hard to want to go forward. Attention must be paid. She said one of the hardest things in the aftermath of her son’s murder was the unpleasant realization the world was oblivious to her sorrow. Instead of validating her trauma, life ground on as usual. It made the void that much more cruel. In her outreach work Sadie’s found nearly everyone experiencing a loss feels a sense of emptiness and abandonment at their suffering being ignored or minimized. It’s as if society tells you, “they’re gone,” so get on with your life, she said.

“When I talk to mothers they explain it the same way. When my son was murdered I was driving somewhere and the street lights were still coming on and I wondered, Why is this going on just like nothing happened? People are still walking and laughing like nothing had happened. It’s a sad feeling, yeah. I wouldn’t say so much lonely. It’s just more, Here, feel my pain — recognize I’m hurting here. Instead of people still eating their ice cream like nothing has affected you, you want everybody to stop and acknowledge what you’re going through.”

She inaugurated the Forget Us Not Memorial Wall shortly after launching PULSE. The commemorative marker ensures victims like her son “will not be forgotten.” Resembling an opened Bible, the tall, custom-made wooden memorial has hinged panels that presently display 150 name plates, most accompanied by a likeness of the victim. The majority of victims are African-American. Two OPD officers slain in the line of duty — Jimmie Wilson Jr. and Jason Pratt — are among those memorialized. A small collection box next to the memorial accepts donations.

Sadie contacts families for permission to affix their loved ones’ names to the wall. The memorial’s had different homes. It’s now displayed at St. Benedict the Moor, 2423 Grant St. The church’s pastor, Rev. Ken Vavrina, champions Sadie’s work. “She has a good heart, she’s compassionate, and she’s been there,” he said. “And she’s worked now over the years with so many families who have a lost a child she really is good at it. She’s developed the expertise of being able to reach out and support these families who have had someone killed. It’s a great idea. I don’t know of any other organization that is doing what she’s doing — certainly not as consistently as she does. We’re honored to have it (the wall) here.”

He and Sadie admit the wall’s not up to date. So many killings. So hard to keep up. “I had no idea it was going to be filled up (so quickly) that we had to have two more extensions put on it. I was just thinking in the here and now,” she said.

In the years following Wendell’s death Omaha homicides exploded. There were 12 in 1990, 35 in 1991 and an average of 31 over the next 17 years, with the count reaching a record 42 last year. 2008 has already seen 40-plus homicides. With more frequency than ever killings happen in waves. This year alone has seen a handful of weeks with multiple fatalities each. “I just don’t know what to say or think about the recent rash of homicide that is plaguing our community,” Sadie said in response to a flurry of gun deaths in early November.

A problem once seen confined to northeast Omaha appears more widespread, including recent incidents in Dundee and south Omaha and, most starkly, the deadly spree at the Westroads Von Maur in 2007. Community responses to the problem are evident. Prayer vigils, anti-violence summits, stop-the-violence campaigns, sermons, editorials, articles, proposed ordinances to stiffen gun laws, public discussions on ways to stem the flow of guns and, ironically, increased gun sales/registrations as people arm themselves to feel safer.

crime-scene-police-shoot
Name after name graces the Forget Us Not wall but in no way is it all-inclusive. “That’s not the half of them. That wall would be filled and more,” Sadie said. PULSE omits the names of those engaged in culpable behavior at the time of their death. That leads to some hard feelings. “There’s a few families upset their loved ones do not go on the wall. There’s so much stuff I have to go through with family members. For instance, a man was coming out a house with a gun and the police shot and killed him. His widow was fussing, ‘Why can’t he be on the wall?’ And I said, ‘Well, he was coming out of the house with a gun — what were they supposed to do?’”
In rare cases, she said, a loved one declines a victim’s name adorning the wall. “The wife of one of the Von Maur victims called and said she didn’t want her husband’s name on the wall, because there’s too much media attention, and I understood. We’re presenting this to her at a later date,” said Sadie, holding up a plaque.

She doesn’t like turning anybody away. “I refer people PULSE cannot help to The Compassionate Friends (a national nonprofit grief assistance group with an Omaha chapter). I don’t let them just drown out there. I don’t say we can’t help you and let it go.” There’s not much she lets go of once she latches onto something.

“I have to say I admire Sadie’s persistence, because she has encountered numerous roadblocks and obstacles. Not getting paid a dime for this. Very little if any type of donation comes her way. This is strictly a heartfelt humanitarian effort that she continues to push on, day after day, year after year. I think most of us would say, ‘That’s it, I’m tired, I’m ready to go on to other things,’” said Denise Cousin. That’s why when Sadie reached a point of no return last summer, Cousin was sympathetic.

A March car accident left Sadie with severe injuries, including two torn rotator cuffs. “I’m in pain now. The accident had a lot to do with it. Then I have nerve damage from having two teeth pulled.” Bad enough. But when Sadie learned the office the Salvation Army let PULSE use starting a year ago would no longer be available, it was more than she could take. She’d talked about closing PULSE before but this was different. “This time I was really at my lowest,” she said. After all, a body can only take so much. It’s why on June 25 she called reporters and friends together to announce PULSE’s end. “I’m tired of the struggle,” she told the gathering. Among those in attendance were some of the parents she’s comforted over the years. They expressed appreciation for all PULSE has done.

 

 

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Cousin let her know it was OK to walk away. “I was in her corner there saying, You have put in a sufficient amount of time. I can understand you being tired.” Vavrina empathized, too. “Sadie got discouraged and I can understand she gets discouraged, because she’s financially strapped all the time. She doesn’t get the support she needs,” he said. “We try to help her as much as we can.” “But then she called me and said she just couldn’t put it down. She still felt compelled to help families,” said Cousin.

Soon enough, the word got out — Sadie was back and recommitted to serving what’s become her life’s mission. What helped change her mind were messages from friends, associates and complete strangers. One, from a woman who identified herself as Eunice, stood out: “I’m calling you Miss Bankston because you were placed in that position for a reason. God put you there, sweetheart. Don’t get weary yet. I get weary at times, too. I know you’re tired. You become tired when you’re trying to do something all by yourself, baby, but you’re not by yourself. God doesn’t want you to get weary. He’ll lift you up. It seems nobody cares but we do care, because that’s our future out there dying daily. We see it. And it’s time for us as women to come together and stop it. Please don’t give up yet, Miss Bankston. I beg you in Jesus’ name.”

Buoyed by such words Sadie’s staying the course, even though she still battles health problems, still pleads for money, still gets frustrated fighting the good fight on little more than goodwill and prayer. But she can’t bear to turn her back on the truth: the killings go on unabated and each time a family’s left to pick up the pieces. “So I must go on. Life goes on. You know I must love what I’m doing or I wouldn’t be doing it for this long,” said Sadie. “I love what I do. You know it’s not for money. Anytime you can reach out and help people it is just so nice. That’s what we’re put here for — to love our brothers and sisters.”

Lemon wouldn’t have blamed her if she had quit but added, “I’m glad she didn’t. Sadie does a job that a lot of people probably wouldn’t even consider doing. Sadie is a special person, That job is meant for Sadie. She does such a good job.”

Sadie plans going about it smarter now though. For years she resisted advice that she should write grant applications for operating funds. Recently, she devised a budget for a year-long project grant. If she gets the monies PULSE will gain the financial stability it’s never enjoyed before. She needs it to ease her mind.

“I’m not going to overstress myself because if I’m no good for myself I’m no good for anyone else. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m not gong to do it anymore.”

Vavrina’s sure it’s a sound strategic move. “Now that she’s doing it the right way,” he said, “I think she can get funded.” He’s encouraged Sadie has a contingency plan “that would permit PULSE to continue without her.”

 

Forget Me Not Memorial Wall

 

 

Her friends know she’s given so much of herself for so long she may not have much left to give. Crisis intervention takes a toll. What some don’t know is that she’s seen some hard things no one should see. “Well, why shouldn’t I see it? I mean, it happens,” she said. PULSE was part of a University of Nebraska Medical Center pilot program that trained folks like her to respond to homicide events. She was on call trauma nights. When the phone rang with a new assignment it meant going to hospitals at all hours to console loved ones. On at least one occasion, she said, “I had to tell the family their loved one was gone. I did. l mean, its really hard comforting people who’ve just lost a son or daughter. Sad, sad, sad.”

Her work at times meant going to crime scenes, where families lived amid fresh evidence of carnage. Even there, she tended to their needs. “There would be blood on the floor from shootings. There was so much it just glistened from the lights.”

She recalled the case of a young mother from Chicago. The woman’s husband kidnapped their baby and fled to Omaha. She followed, with her other kids in tow. After finding and confronting him here, he slit her throat in front of the kids. Sadie managed getting the kids released from the foster care system. Said Sadie, “Now you know how hard that is to do, don’t you? To get someone out of foster care once they’re in? I got ‘em out. I have a gift for gab when something needs to be done.” The victim’s family contacted Sadie asking her to retrieve items from the murder site. “We went into the apartment. It was all white, except where it was saturated with blood. Blood splattered all over. And we retrieved the kids’ clothes and the toys and I sent them back to Chicago. I still keep in contact with the grandma. The kids are grown now.”

Another time, Sadie observed how difficult it was for a family to be surrounded by the stain of murder in their Omaha Housing Authority unit. “Two young men were killed at home, and the blood — it was hard for the mother, for the family to see, so I contacted OHA and they came out and cleaned up everything.” Sadie had noticed a throw rug the mother avoided walking on. Sadie had trod over the same rug and it wasn’t until she got home, she said, “I realized that must have been where her son was murdered. So I called her back and I apologized, and she said, ‘That’s OK, Sadie.’”

In this conspiracy of broken hearts, Sadie said, “there’s that camaraderie” that makes explanations unnecessary. “They (OHA) had to take the carpet up because it soaked through,” Sadie said. She demonstrates she’s not just there for families once, never to be seen or heard from again. She’s there for the long haul. “If they ask for me to attend the funeral I will, and I do.” Celebrations, too. She’s cooked holiday dinners for families. She’s bought groceries, clothes. She even had a wheelchair ramp built for a family. Around her home are tokens of families’ appreciation for her going the extra mile.

Being a court advocate is another example of Sadie going beyond the call of duty. She understands the strain of seeking justice for a loved one. She attended every proceeding for her son’s assailant. To her other children’s dismay she forgave the young man, who was convicted of manslaughter and is now free. So she attends court with families — to be a pillar of strength, a shoulder to cry on. She knows the last thing a family under extreme emotional distress needs is to see her cry. “Normally I stifle my tears,” she said. She couldn’t once, she said, when it was read into evidence a female shooting victim’s “last words were, ‘It burns.’ I handed tissues to the family and I had to turn my head so they wouldn’t see my tears. It’s hard for me to find someone to go with me because I can’t have them crying.”

Sadie also treads a delicate line as a liaison between families and law enforcement officials investigating unsolved homicides. She’s well aware “snitching” is seriously frowned on by some in the African American community. “A lot of people don’t like the police and I try to be the mediator to keep an open line of communication with the police department,” she said. She said sometimes family members with information about a case tell her what they won’t disclose to police. With a family’s consent, she shares leads. “As a mother how would you feel if someone killed your child and no one came forward?”

OPD’s Sgt. Rowland, who worked with Sadie when he was in homicide, said, “She understands the situation that some of these families are put in, just by the nature of where they live and what their loved one, the homicide victim, was involved in. Sadie does what she can to get them to cooperate with the police. She’s very honest with us. Very blunt.” “She will continue to beat down a door until the information is laid at the footsteps of the police department,” said Cousin.

Sadie’s also known to put herself in harm’s way breaking up scuffles between kids before they escalate into something worse. “I try to intervene. Once, I got flung around and I landed on the hood of the car. But I got back up. I broke up the fight. The cops came. Everybody was OK,” she said. “All I’m trying to do is get ‘em to just think. When I say I lost my son some of them seem to have compassion or pity for me.” Once, a gun was pulled on her. The windows of her home have been shot out. She won’t be intimidated. Would she get involved in the middle of a dispute again? “Probably, and 100 percent if a woman we’re being hit by a man. There would be no doubt.”

She still has dreams for PULSE. She envisions youth life coaching classes. “Make them feel better about themselves, so they’ll make better choices and won’t settle for anything,” she said. “So, that’s a goal. My theory now is if we pay attention to the children maybe there’d be less grief support meetings we have to have.” Cousin suspects Sadie will go right on with PULSE till her dying days.

“As long as we continue to have homicides in this community and as long as there’s breath in her body Sadie will continue to help the families. She’s quite remarkable and definitely unforgettable.” Miss Sadie may not have everything to give she’d like but, she said, “I have my heart and my family. And I have hope. Keep hope alive. I guess I have to stand on faith.”

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