NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males.
The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doesn’t put limits on students, regardless of socio-economic, family or environmental circumstances. It provides fifth to ninth graders academic and exploratory experiences designed to transition them to high school.
It helps when kids aspire to success and mentors reinforce their aspirations. For director of programming Jannette Taylor, that “anything’s possible” attitude is a welcome change from the despair she encountered as founder-director of Impact One, which among other things does gang intervention work.
“Working with the young people there, I knew they had potential but they had to believe it. They’d had so many people telling them they couldn’t do something they started to believe that instead of believing in themselves, and that was a challenge,” she says.
After a stint with Weed & Seed under Mayor Mike Fahey, who was a Creighton Universit law student at the time, Tylor launched Impact One as her impassioned response to quell rampant gun violence.
“I was really ambitious and naive. I believed I could do anything.”
In five-years she lost several clients as well as two of her own relatives to violence. Those tragedies brought home the toxic, consequences of limited expectations, negative perceptions and devalued lives. Emotionally wasted, she left Omaha, not expecting to return anytime soon.
“You would have a kid fill out an individual development plan and it would be so short-term because they didn’t think into the future about what they could do. You’d be working with a kid one day and they’d be dead the next.”
She reached her breaking point.
“It’s hard to lose family members. It’s hard to lose kids you work with and love. I put all this time, energy and effort into trying to help people onto the right path. It was pretty much game over for me. I was pretty much done. I had given all I could and I didn’t have anything else to give.”
Then NorthStar founder-director Scott Hazelrigg, who’d collaborated with Taylor and used her as a consultant, asked her to join NorthStar. She accepted. Now she’s refocused on helping her community again. Trusting Hazelrigg’s vision helped her decide to return.
“I just believe in what he’s doing – I always have. I think that’s why I jumped on board.”
He saw her as the right fit.
“We recruited Jannette back to Omaha,” he says, “because she really gets it. She cares passionately about these kids and not only wants to see them succeed but passionately believes they will succeed. We just have to give them the structure and the opportunity to do so.”
He says she helped build the NorthStar “climate and culture” that provides many avenues to discover passions and to build skills for future success. The center’s interior features learning labs, homework areas, a rock climbing wall and a basketball court. The exterior includes a sports field and garden. The comprehensive, experiential-based offerings range from art immersion to healthy lifestyles, from employment readiness to chess, robotics, computer coding, culinary arts, gardening and lacrosse. STEM education is especially stressed.
Youth also make college tours, visit historic cites, attend cultural events, go on wilderness treks and test themselves on the adjacent Outward Bound ropes course.
“Parents are really excited their kids here are able to find what their strengths and talents are,” Taylor says. “We do have research on all of our programs. Everything’s based off of a best practice model.”
At NorthStar every kid’s encouraged to try new things. She says unlike the punitive measures some schools use to deny behaviorally-challenged students participation in things like robotics, NorthStar uses incentives and old-school remedies to motivate kids.
Members are encouraged to seize and own their future rather than have it dictated to them.
“When I talk about our boys, I say these are our new leaders. That’s how I see them. One of the worst things we do is we put limits on kids. At NorthStar we do things and get them to critically think and that’s good because they’re young, they have potential and they believe it. I know they believe in themselves because I see it and hear it every day. In order for that to grow, we have to have people that will believe in them and push them forward.
“I want this to be a brotherhood of us believing in the kids and them believing they can do anything.”
Empowering kids “to think differently about their future and getting them to realize, hey, we can make opportunities for ourselves, helps prepare them to make smarter choices,” she says.
Molding kids at an impressionable age helps.
“What I love about NorthStar is that the kids are young, they haven’t been jilted by life, they haven’t had people beat them down and tell them you can’t do this. We have them playing lacrosse for God’s sake. They believe they have this potential to go and do great things. When kids have that faith and that belief, you can’t kill that. It really makes me happy to see a kid always in trouble in school or getting kicked out of other programs come and be successful here because we’re not telling him what he can’t do, we’re telling him what he can do.”
She says NorthStar rejects “assumptions kids coming out of North Omaha won’t amount to anything, especially African-American boys.”
“We don’t care what neighborhood you come from or what you’ve been through. We all have a story. What’s more important is where you think you can go and how I can help you get there. We remove barriers for our kids. It’s why we have seventh graders writing essays for college scholarships.”
With high expectations comes accountability.
“A big component of NorthStar is trying to get kids to stay on course, stay on grade level. The curriculum is based off of Neb. state standards. We have really clear communication with parents, teachers and counselors.”
Hazelrigg says getting kids grade-ready before their sophomore year is critical, as that’s when a disproportionate number of African-American students drop out after falling too far behind.
He and Taylor say the academically rigorous summer camp is meant to reduce summer learning loss. Then, as during the school year, kids are kept engaged by programming of NorthStar’s own design or of partners’ design.
“Anything we can build up in these kids as far as character and leadership, we do.,” she says “If it’s something that fits with our core areas that will enrich the kids then we’ll do it.”
Thus, NorthStar invites partner organizations in or brings kids out to partners to experience everything from live theater to ball games.
Hazelrigg says compared to many after school and summer programs “we have more structure,” adding, “When kids walk in the door it’s not three hours of playing basketball – there’s a sequence of things they’re going to do. It’s how we expose them to a broad band of things.”
Taylor says a sure sign the center’s a hit is that despite being only a year-old it’s added feeder schools due to demand by students and parents. “They are our biggest advocates.” She says kids who come there “take ownership over this space and they don’t want to leave.” She notes some school staff want their kids there badly enough that they pay students’ yearly dues.
The center’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood, whose troubled Park Crest apartment complex was known as New Jack City for its drug/gang/gun activity. That blighted complex was razed to make room for NorthStar. Hazelrigg says, “We’re intentionally in the neighborhood as essentially the neighborhood school. We want this to be the safe space for kids living in this area.”
Taylor says the Omaha Police Department’s North Precinct reports reduced crime in the area, which has seen a community garden flourish, a Walmart open and a Heartland Family Services building renovation.
“It just changes the entire community when you have people investing in it.”
For Taylor, the Impact One scars remain, though she says, “there were some good things that happened with that job.
“Everything you go through is either a blessing or a lesson.”
Now it’s a time for healing and hope.
Visit northstar360.org. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.