A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth.
The Girls Inc. of Omaha center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School but somehow made do in cramped, out-dated quarters. Last month the nonprofit dedicated renovations to the old building as well as the addition of an adjoining 55,000-square-foot structure whose extra space and new facilities allow expanded programming and invite more community participation. The changes prompted the complex being renamed the Katherine Fletcher Center in honor of the late Omaha educator who broke barriers and fought for civil rights. The addition is among many recently completed and ongoing North O building projects worth hundreds of millions dollars in new development there.
This local after-school affiliate of the national Girls Inc. takes a holistic approach to life skills, mentoring, career readiness, education enrichment and health-wellness opportunities it provides girls ages 5 through 18. Members are largely African-American, many from single parent homes. Others are in foster care. Young girls take pre-STEM Operation SMART through the College of Saint Mary. Older girls take the Eureka STEM program through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There are also healthy cooking classes, aquaponics, arts, crafts, gardening, sports, field trips and an annual excursion outside Nebraska. Girls Inc. also awards secondary and post-secondary scholarships.
The addition emphasizes health and wellness through a gymnasium featuring a regulation size basketball court with overhead track, a fitness room, a health clinic operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a space devoted to yoga, meditation, massage and a media room. Amenities such as the gym and clinic and an outdoor playground are open to the public. The clinic's goal is to encourage more young women, including expectant and new mothers, to access health care, undergo screenings and get inoculations.
Dedicated teen rooms give older girls their own spaces to hang out or study rather than share space with younger girls as in the older facility. Multi-use spaces there became inadequate to serve the 200 or so girls who daily frequent the center.
"I think we'll see more teens in our programs because this expansion separates them from the younger girls and provides more opportunities to get drawn into our programs," says executive director Roberta Wilhelm. "They may start as drop-ins but we foresee them getting involved in the more core programs and becoming consistent members. So we think we'll impact more girls and families."
A big, bright, open indoor commons area, the Girls Hub, is where the brick, circa 1917 historic landmark meets the glass and steel addition.
"The design team showed great respect for how to best join the two buildings and for the importance of this space and for the social aspects of how girls gather and interact," Wilhelm says.
The impressive, brightly colored, prominently placed new addition – atop a hill with a commanding view – gives the organization a visual equivalent to its "strong, smart and bold" slogan.
"It's a big statement," says director of health access Carolyn Green. "It speaks loudly, it brings awareness, it turns heads. People can't wait to come through and see what is all in here."
Before the open house program director Emily Mwaja referenced the high anticipation. saying, "I'm ready, the girls are ready, we're ready for everything."
Girls Inc. member Desyree McGhee, 14, says, "I'm excited for the new building. I feel it's giving us girls the opportunity for bigger and better things and bringing us together with the community. I just feel like a lot of good things could come from it." Her grandmother, Cheryl Greer, who lives across the street, appreciates what it does for youth like Desyree and for the neighborhood. "It's just like home away from home. I have seen her grow. She's turning into a very mature, respectful young lady. I think Girls Inc. is a wonderful experience for these girls to grow up to be independent, educated adults. The center is a great asset for them and the community."
McGhee says Girls Inc. empowers her "to not just settle for the bare minimum but to go beyond and follow your dreams. It's really given me the confidence to thrive in this world. They really want you to go out and leave your mark. I love Girls Inc. That's my second family."
Girls Inc. alum Camille Ehlers, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, says caring adults "pour into you" the expectations and rewards youth need. "It was motivating to me to see how working hard would pay off." She says she felt called to be strong, smart and bold. "That's what I can make my life – I can create that." Mentors nudged her to follow her passion for serving at-risk students, which she does at a South Side of Chicago nonprofit. Denai Fraction, a UNL pre-med grad now taking courses at UNO before medical school, says Girls Inc. nurtured her dream of being a doctor. Both benefited from opportunities that stretched them and their horizons. McGhee is inspired by alums like them and Bernie Sanders' National Press Secretary, Symone Sanders, who prove anything is possible.
Wilhelm says, "Girls Inc. removes barriers to help girls find their natural strengths and talents, and when you do that over a period of years with groups of girls you're helping affect positive change. A lot of the girls are strong and resilient and have chops to get through life and school, but if we can remove some barriers they will go so much farther and be able to accomplish so much more. We see ourselves in that business.
"If you help a girl delay pregnancy so she's not a teen mom, it's a health outcome, an education outcome, a job outcome, it's all of those things, they're all tied together. If you are feeding girls who are hungry that impacts academics and also impacts growing bodies. I do think our holistic model has become more intentional, more focused. We use a lot more partners in the community who bring expertise, We are all partners with parents and families in lifting up girls. The Girls Inc. experience is all these things but the secret sauce is the relationships adult mentors, staff and volunteers cultivate with youth." Alums come back to engage girls in real talk about college, career and relationships. The shared Girls Inc. expereince creates networking bonds.
Support doesn't stop when girls age out. "Even after they graduate they call us for help. We encourage that reaching out. They know there's someone on the other end of the phone they can trust."Assistance can mean advice, referrals, funds or most anything.
Everyone from alums and members to staff and volunteers feel invested in the bigger, bolder, smarter Girls Inc.
"It's not just about the million-dollar donors," Wilhelm says. "We all have ownership in this. I always tell the girls, 'The community invests in you for a reason. They want you to create a better future for yourself, to be a good student, to focus on education, to live healthy, to make good choices. They think you're worth this investment.'"
She says there's no better investment than girls.
"Girls make decisions when they grow up for their families for education and health. To the extent you can educate girls to make wise decisions and choices, you really do start to see cycle breaking changes. How you educate girls, how you treat girls, how you invest in girls matters over time and we're a piece of that, so we're foundational.
The girls graduating college now are maybe going to be living and working in this community and hopefully be a part of the solution to make North O more attractive to retain the best and brightest."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.