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After steep decline, the Wesley House rises under Paul Bryant to become youth academy of excellence in the inner city

August 27, 2011 5 comments

The headline attached to this story is misleading, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s outdated. The headline reflected the facts when I wrote the story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago, but since then Paul Bryant has left the Wesley House and the organization itself has disbanded. Indeed, there’s a story on this blog entitled “An Omaha Legacy Ends” and filed under the Paul Bryant and Wesley House categories that details the Wesley House’s closing after 139 years of service. Before that closure, Bryant led a revival of a once proud community center that had lost its way and its lustre. Bryant frequented the Wesley House as a youth, when it was a community force, but by the time he found success in the corporate world it had fallen on hard times. As this profile explains bryant left a corporate career to lead the nonprofit and to reinvent it as a youth academy of excellence. You will read about some of the great things he did there in a short time and about some of the dreams he had in store for down the line. In the end, the resources couldn’t match the vision. Paul is doing very much the same work he began at the Wesley House, only now through his own Leadership Institute for Urban Education. Paul is the author of the book, The Purpose Driven Leader.

NOTE: This blog also contains a story entitled “Artist Therman Statom Works with Children…” that profiles how the noted glass artist worked with youths from the Wesley House.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

After steep decline, the Wesley House rises under Paul Bryant to become youth academy of excellence in the inner city 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Founded as the Omaha City Mission by the Christian Workers Association in 1872, the United Methodist Community Centers-Wesley House is the oldest social service agency in Nebraska. Traditionally focused on the underprivileged, the agency’s adapted over the years to target different groups, trends and needs among the poor. The Wesley House itself has seen hard times, but nothing like the financial quagmire that closed its doors the end of 2004 and start of 2005.

Since executive director Paul Bryant took over in May of 2005– leaving behind a career in banking — the agency’s gained a new lease on life as the Wesley House Leadership Academy of Academic and Artistic Excellence. While trying to get its house in order, it’s embarked on year two of a program to nurture high achievement among inner city children through tutoring, academic and life skills training and enrichment activities. Students are taught everything from small business and stock market concepts to good manners. Kids greet visitors with a firm handshake, direct eye contact and the words “Welcome to the Wesley House.”

The ACADEMIC Summer Academy targets boys ages 7 to 12. An after school program works with boys and girls, ages 7 to 12, over the school year.

In the spare conference room where he teaches a Business in the Boardroom class to 3rd and 4th graders, Bryant fits the exec profile with his crisp attire, tall frame and on-point demeanor. The fact he sounds like a banker, a brother and a preacher bodes well for building the broad-based support the organization needs.

In the Wesley House’s brick and glass building at 2001 North 35th Street the hope stirred by the new program is expressed in the eager faces, urgent voices and insistent raised hands of children vying for coveted blue blazers. Both a prize and a symbol, the jackets are reserved for students who demonstrate a grasp of business principles usually taught in high school or college.

Bryant puts the boys, many from single-parent homes, through their paces. Most are too small to rest their elbows on the table. “What’s the calculation for a balance sheet?” In unison, they answer, “Assets minus liabilities equals net worth.” “What about an income statement?” “Revenues minus expenses equals net income.” “When an asset loses value, what’s that called?” “Depreciation.” “What is it when it gains value?” “Appreciation.”

What may seem too dry or advanced is fun. “It’s structured, it’s cerebral, and they like it. They’re not bouncing off the walls,” he said. “This is a ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ environment. There’s no sagging here. You’ve got to pull your pants up. There’s no cursing, no fighting. You can lose your privileges. That’s just the way it is, and we’re not apologetic about it.”

Holding kids to a higher plain is what it’s all about. Bryant feels so strongly about it that his son Paul (P.J.) attends the academy/after school.

“We’re changing lives,” he said. “I truly believe that. There’s a lot of programs that teach our kids how to score baskets and touchdowns and everything else, but we’re teaching them how to think and how to operate in the real world.”

A lifetime Omahan and a member of the storied Bryant-Fisher family that owns a long history of community service here, Bryant volunteered summers in an after school program operated by Wesley, located near where he grew up. He knew first-hand the positive activities offered there. When he heard about its problems, he felt “an obligation” to help rescue what’s been a community anchor.

 

 

 

 

“I said, ‘Not the Wesley House. Not another minority-managed organization going down the tubes on hard times. The Wesley House can’t go down’”

He applied for the job and soon left corporate America to head the troubled non-profit. “I was a leader looking for an organization and this is an organization that’s in dire need of some leadership,” he said. “My challenge is to bring this organization to its rightful place of prominence in this community.”

Eyebrows arched and tongues wagged when he left a Wells Fargo VP post to start from scratch with a tarnished agency whose vital signs read critical. He’s fine going from a sure thing to a long shot — and taking a pay cut — as long as kids succeed.

“My happiness really is not associated with money. Wealth isn’t the end all. It’s what you do. I’ve had dinner with President Clinton, I’ve had lunch with Colin Powell. I’ve had cocktails with Henry Kissinger. I’ve taken a seven-day cruise with Oprah Winfrey. I’ve been in Evander Holyfield’s house. My biggest client was Isaiah Thomas. I got no better feeling being in any of those circumstances than I do being with these kids here. When I see them get it. When I see them desire those blazers…I mean, they want ‘em. They want ‘em bad.”

Bryant, who holds master’s degrees in urban studies and urban education, is not an academic per se, but he professes to know what ails the community he calls home.

“I’m from this community. I’m a Bryant-Fisher. I don’t need to do scientific research to know what goes on. I see a culture floundering to find relevance in society post-Martin Luther King, Jr. How to fit into a society that really hasn’t found the value in who you are, and still be true to and proud of who you are.

“Somehow, we’ve got to a point in the inner city where black people think being smart is white behavior, and we’ve got to change that. This is a community that’s not identified by its talent. Ask anybody. Close your eyes and picture a junior high school African-American male. The mental picture you have isn’t going to be of a magna cum laude. But there is no correlation between intellect and income at birth. It’s a matter of what kids are exposed to. We’ve got to start identifying the success stories — the kids who like to read and write and learn science.”

 

 

 

 

He said the Gallup Organization surveyed the boys in last year’s academy and found some “have higher expectations than their parents. We want to raise standards, and we work with parents to do that.” He said post-testing revealed an increase in kids’ self-esteem. Anecdotally, the students seem to be doing better in school.

“What we want to do is expose inner city kids to cerebral activities and create an environment where it’s cool to be smart,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘Smart People Win.’ If you come here and pick up a book, nobody’s going to call you egghead and push you around and take your lunch money. If you want to write, we encourage you. We want the smart kids to know they’re not islands. We tell them, ‘If you stay in school and get good grades, you’re going to be at the top of your class and get a scholarship to college. And if you keep getting good grades, you’re going to get a good job. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, it’s really going to pay off.’”

Attitudes outside the inner city can get in the way, too, he said. “When I shared with a foundation president that I want these kids to aspire to Ivy-league schools, she told me, ‘Well, wouldn’t Metro (Metropolitan Community College) be more realistic?’” He knew he’d lost her, but he told her anyway that “kids at this age haven’t lost the game — they have the potential to succeed” anywhere.

His message has reached others. At a March 9 press conference he trotted out reps from many partnering organizations. Tutors from UNO, Creighton University, Metro and the Civil Air Patrol aid students with homework and “augment the educational process” with special training in math, reading, the arts, science, technology, etc. Kids display their handiwork in fairs and exhibits. They learn about different careers from professionals they meet on field trips or at Wesley. They track/trade stocks. Their summer garden project is also a small business venture.

A partnership with Mutual of Omaha has created the Technology Project, a pilot program to help bridge the digital divide. Mutual is to donate 60 computers annually to the Wesley House for use by kids in an on-site computer lab now under development and for ACADEMIC Summer Academy students to use at home.

If he can secure funding, Bryant envisions “keeping these kids together for 10 years. At that point, they’re going to be a group of smart young men that understand public and private sector finance and economics. They can truly help make north Omaha a vital part of the city’s growth and development, where we’re no longer the weakest link.” He has plans for early childhood and teen programs.

Opening an academy in an area associated with remedial and recreation programs is a bold move for an agency that appeared on its way out.

Before its recent change of course, Wesley House was providing services to youth in the state juvenile justice system. When juvenile justice staff expressed concerns over Wesley’s program outcomes and reporting methods, referrals made to the agency dropped. Soon, United Way raised its own questions about “the effectiveness” of Welsey programs and services. By 2003, all UW money was pulled. Wesley shifted to serving youth and families in the foster care system, but couldn’t bring in enough clients. With the loss of officials’ trust and of any steady revenue stream, Wesley exhausted $500,000 in reserves on operating expenses, saw its executive director resign and eventually let go all staff and shut down all programs.

Board chairman Dan Johnston confirmed closing the venerable institution was an option, but a decision was made “to give it one more good shot.”

By then, Wesley was decades removed from its days as a model community revitalization engine in the 1960s-early ‘70s War on Poverty. It was the agency’s shining hour. Money poured in and national recognition followed an array of initiatives to empower blacks. Then-executive director Rodney Wead led efforts that spawned a black owned radio station (KOWH), community bank (Community Bank of Nebraska), credit union (Franklin Federal Community Credit Union), minority scholarship program and an ethnic culture center. Later, north side redevelopment organizations led by Michael Maroney (New Community Development Corporation) and Alvin Goodwin (Omaha Economic Development Corporation) sprung up there.

Long before, the organization reached out to help youth, women and families living on the edge. One of 105 UMCC missions/institutions in the U.S., the agency began as a mission serving newly arrived immigrants then settling the Nebraska territory, one of many such shelters that grew out of the Progressive Area’s settlement house movement. Charged by a social reform agenda, these centers provided the types of programs and services then not being offered by government.

As the times dictated, the agency shifted its response. The early 20th century migration of rural families into the city, along with the growing Native American underclass and homeless population, became a prime focus. After years operating downtown, the local UMCC mission relocated to its present site in 1958, just a few blocks from Franklin Elementary School, and with the move made serving the area’s poor black residents a top priority. The neighborhood reflects north Omaha’s dual identity. While many low income families are stuck in a cycle of poverty and the area is run down by distressed houses and vacant lots, pockets of pricey new housing (Miami Heights) and resurgent business/service centers (the revitalized Lake Street corridor from 24th to 30th Streets) can be found.

Although Wesley receives some United Methodist church support, it’s long depended on most of its funding from the United Way and other public/private sources, leaving it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of donors.

Only 12 months into Bryant’s reign the center is still reeling from the aftermath of the United Way pull out. That severing meant the loss of not only hard-to-replace monies — some $300,000 worth annually — but the even more valuable endorsement that comes with UW support. Aware of how much stature Wesley lost in the eyes of the establishment, Bryant, a paradox of by-the-numbers-cruncher, deeply spiritual Christian and community-minded legacy-keeper, approaches his task to reinvent and redeem the agency as nothing less than a calling from above. To justify leaving behind a six-figure income with Wells Fargo (previous to that he was at Gallup and First National Bank), he’s put aside cold hard calculations and proceeded on faith.

“I am operating on faith every step of the way. My moves have not been thought out, studied and projected. When I accepted this job I didn’t have any staff. We had no revenues and a $40,000 debt I’d just found out about. I took a leap of faith. Quite frankly, I don’t have five-year projections. Right now, it’s a matter of survival for this organization. But, hey, I’m on a mission and I’m not too proud to beg,”

Bryant also felt it was time to give back. “I was at a point in my life when I was really looking for significance, and I felt this is what I’m supposed to do.” The agency’s bleak prospects gave him pause, but not enough to deter him. “I just felt pricked in my heart. Something’s got to be done, I thought.”

In short order, he introduced his new vision and set about restoring the agency’s good name. He promised to retire its $40,000 debt in a Biblically-inspired 40 days. He wiped out the deficit in 36 days. But getting there was never a sure thing.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was. It wasn’t like I had some trump card up my sleeve. The fact is I didn’t have some big corporation in my hip pocket. I stepped out on faith and it happened. Just like this new direction we’re going. The largest contribution was $5,000. There was only one of those. There were several $1,000 donations. The rest was a whole lot of $500, $100, $25, $10 and $5 checks.”

The margin for error is still slim given the $20,000 in monthly operating expenses. “When I came, we had two weeks before our doors could be shut. Now, we’ve probably got a two-month cushion. We are not where we need to be but things are looking much better then they were this time last year,” he said. Another concern is the small number of children being served. Sixteen boys graduated last summer’s academy. Enrollment begins next week for this summer’s academy. A Summer Fun Club currently has 24 kids signed up. About 48 kids attended this past school year’s after school program. It’s not all about numbers, but as numbers go, monies flow. That’s why Bryant, who emphasizes recruitment is largely by word-of-mouth, hopes to see a spike in enrollees.

To bolster the financial footing, ensure continued operations and endow future growth, he hopes grant applications made to foundations and corporations pay off. Getting back in the UWs good graces is another goal. He’s also organized benefit events involving Omaha native and pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and his wife Ardie, who are making Wesley House their official Omaha charitable cause. On April 28, a DVD big screen projection of the original 1971 made-for-television movie Brian’s Song was screened at Omaha Central High School’s auditorium. Bryant said the event raised about $2,000, enough for the agency to pay off a line of credit.

 

 

 

Gale Sayers

 

 

 

On June 19, the Gale Sayers Wesley House Classic is set for the Players Club at Deer Creek. Entries for the golf tournament sold out a month in advance. Among the celebrities expected to hit the links are National Baseball Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, Cornhusker quarterback legend Jerry Tagge, the NFL’s first black quarterback in Marlin Briscoe, former NBA All-Star Bob Boozer and Creighton University head basketball coach Dana Altman. Tee-off is at 10 a.m.

Bryant knows public events like this can only do so much. Bottom line, he and the Wesley House must prove the agency is back to stay and demonstrate they’ve found a sustainable niche that others buy into. One indication he is there to say, is the new house he and wife Robin are building in the nearby Miami Heights development.

“It’s about longevity. There’s a lot of people who’ve heard about the bad recent history and they want to see if this is a flash in the pan. Will it still be here? Will I still be here? I can’t see going anywhere. I want to be part of the solution. I want to be a bridge-builder.” To bridge the achievement gap. The desired end result is summed up in the academy creed the kids recite from memory. It ends with, “Through self-discipline we will grow into adults of honor and integrity. Our legacy will be a source of pride to our families and communities.”

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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.

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.”
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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.”

An Omaha legacy ends, Wesley House Community Center shutters after 139 years — New use for site unknown

May 21, 2011 1 comment

Recently, I stumbled across some information on the Internet that surprised me because the United Methodist Church Nebraska Conference website was announcing that a historic social service and community center in Omaha, the Wesley House, was closing. This was news to me, which I found odd since I am in the news business in Omaha and the organization said to be closing was one I was quite familiar with. Yet, I had heard nothing about it and to my knowledge nothing had appeared in the local media reporting this development.  A couple phone calls quickly confirmed that the Web announcement was true and that I was indeed the first journalist on the story.  It has to be one of the first times here or anywhere that an organization serving the community for nearly 140 years, as the Wesley had, was going by the wayside without any mention of it in the press.  The following story I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) rectifies that, providing readers a bit of context for the enterprising role the center played at one time, how it lost some relevance and stature in recent years, and why the powers that be decided it was time to close the Wesley after all this time.

 

Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Community Center shutters after 139 years – New use for site unknown

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha’s oldest social service agency closed earlier this year with a whimper, not a bang. The Wesley House Community Center, a United Methodist Church mission since 1872, has ended 139 years of service, confirmed Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, interim executive director and head of United Methodist Ministries in Omaha.

The agency’s two-acre, twin-building campus at 2001 North 35th St. will be sold, she says. And it’s unclear who will purchase it.

Wesley served the African-American community for the last half century. At its peak, it offered youth and adult programs and spun off a black-run radio station, a community bank, a credit union and a pair of economic development organizations.

But Wesley lost traction in the 1990s. Later, when management came under fire, primary funding support was pulled. By the early 2000s, Wesley barely hung on as a youth center. In 2005, Paul Bryant came on as executive director to shore up the nonprofit’s reputation and finances. He largely succeeded through the youth leadership academy he launched.

In October, Bryant tendered his resignation with the understanding Wesley would continue.

“Last year was our absolute best year at the Wesley House. Things were hitting on all cylinders,” he says, adding that the agency’s annual fundraising dinner and golf tournament were successful.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

However, financial pressures remained. He says the academy struggled competing with larger, better-funded programs with more facilities. It scrambled just to meet operating costs. Besides, he says, “it was time to go, my work there was done. I felt a calling to take this work and expand it outside the walls of Wesley House into the schools.” He’s doing that under his Purpose Leading brand.

Bryant says he offered to remain through 2010 to assist the transition once a new executive director was hired. On Nov. 12, Ahlschwede was appointed. Bryant says he was then asked to clear out and disband the academy by Nov. 19.

Ahlschwede says she and the board intended to keep the center open, but closer examination revealed it wasn’t financially sustainable.

“The type of program Paul envisioned was much more difficult to fund than we realized,” she says. “You’ve got program costs to have things be adequately staffed and nurtured and tended, but you also have overhead, and the property itself comes with a significant amount of overhead because they’re big, old buildings.”

She says the board considered converting the site into an urban farm and food-justice campus, “until we realized the significance of the financial shortfall.”

 

 

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

 

 

With Bryant — the center’s chief programmer and fundraiser — leaving to form his own nonprofit, the board soon decided to close the agency.

“They probably got a first-hand look at what it took to keep that thing afloat — I raised close to $2.5 million in the time I was there,” Bryant says.

Ahlschwede says she and the board concluded it was time to break the decades-old cycle of underfunding and revolving programs.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster here and at some point you can’t ignore it anymore,” she says.

She’s aware a legacy’s come to an end.

“It’s hard to end things and to say no to things,” she says. “When you talk to United Methodists who’ve been around about Wesley House, everyone sighs and is really sad because there’s been all these dreams and a long, rich history with many visionary and charismatic leaders, including Paul.

“It was very difficult. the board really struggled, because the dream and the reality weren’t matching up, and that is heartbreaking.”

Bryant learned of Wesley’s demise from The Reader.

“This is quite shocking to me it’s closed and it’s going to be sold,” he says. “It was so much more than a gym and swim program. In Omaha, at one time, it was the point agency for change.”

While the center received donations from Methodist congregations, even in outstate Nebraska, he says, “It really didn’t feel like we had the whole weight and support of the United Methodist Church behind it.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney shares a heavy heart over the news of Wesley’s closing.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, when it actually was doing unprecedented things,” says Maroney, who worked there on three occasions.

In a twist of fate, OEDC, which began at Wesley, is weighing a purchase agreement for the site. If OEDC decides to buy, Maroney says, “we would do the best we could to ensure it continues to add value to the community going forward, and no one knows exactly what that means. But we didn’t want to see an abandoned property or an inappropriate use. We wanted to make sure that whatever goes in there is hopefully embraced and supported by the community.”

Bryant and Ahlschwede express confidence in Maroney’s stewardship should OEDC proceed. The OEDC board is expected to decide before June.

 

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