Nonprofits thrive when they find a community niche no one else serves. Next comes getting influencers and supporters to catch their vision and invest in the mission. The entrepreneurs behind the six Omaha nonprofits featured here don’t lead the largest or the most well-known organizations. But each oversees a distinct work borne of passion and vision that serves a specific population. Each entity stands apart from the crowded nonprofit field by filling a need or gap that otherwise wouldn’t be satisfied.
Sweat and soul make these nonprofits click. It all starts and ends with the people who dreamed them up. Each founder is still at the helm, refining the vision, steadying the course, and retelling the story.
The Bike Union and Coffee
As mentoring efforts go, Bike Union and Coffee follows an unconventional path not unlike that of founder-executive director Miah Sommer.
For starters, its human services are intentionally scaled-down to serve a handful of young people. Bigger isn’t always better the way Sommer sees it.
“There’s a point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Do we want numbers to feel good about how many we’re serving, or do we want results? We’ll only grow if we feel that makes the most sense.”
Union-Coffee mentors mainly young adults who’ve aged out of foster care. Most have a history of trauma. They struggle re-entering society as independent young men and women. Devoting attention to a few clients, Sommer said, “hasn’t been real popular with some funders, but I really think that’s the only way to tackle trauma. I want to make relationship-based programming. In some way that’s what I was lacking at their age – meaningful adult mentor relationships.”
Clients learn social-job skills working alongside staff and volunteers and dealing with customers at this combo repair shop and coffeehouse at 1818 Dodge Street. Experts provide GED preparation, reading comprehension, financial literacy and other services.
Mindfulness meditation and cooking-nutrition classes are offered, too.
Bike repair and coffee revenues help fund operations.
Though Sommer was never in the system, he grew up adrift and estranged. He dropped out of high school, only earning his GED at 27. He majored in history and religion in college. He turned a serious cycling passion into a retail career that spawned a recreational trek biking program for inner-city youth, BUMP. It’s now part of his social entrepreneurship mentoring endeavor.
“I left my job to start this in 2015 with a month’s salary, a wife, kids and a house, so I had to make it happen. I blinded myself to all the challenges of starting a nonprofit that is also a business.”
Employment program participants are referred by Project Everlast and Bridge to Independence. Originally designed for new cohorts of four mentees to graduate every 12 months, real life dictates a looser timetable.
“Now we understand this is a for-keeps relationship we need to stay involved in. We might have five in the program right now, but ten might come through the door each week needing services. Some don’t go through the 12 months. They just aren’t ready to work on themselves or they exit early when they find another job. Others stay 16 months until they’re ready to move on.”
“Until they’re ready” is the new mantra.
There are breakthroughs and setbacks. The camaraderie and training, including peer-to-peer mentoring, keep drawing participants in.
“Some just come to hang around. Others need help with problems they’re having. Even the kids that have been fired still come back. It’s a safe place for them. It’s a place where they feel accepted. It’s like a big family.”
Illegal or threatening behaviors are not tolerated.
“Generally, those kids are weeded out at about three months,” Sommer said. “They usually end up leaving on their own free will.”
For those who stick it out, there’s no hard and fast goal.
“The programming is designed to achieve what they want to achieve. There’s no, you’ll do this, this, this and this. It’s like, where do you see yourself? It works differently for different people.”
The focus is on getting participants to overcome doubts, face fears and achieve realistic goals.
“They come from a place where they’ve been told they can’t do things, or they tell themselves they can’t do things. We’re all about telling them you can do this thing.
They end up with all these small victories.”
Rites-of-passage moments like getting a driver’s license,
opening a bank account, graduating high school, getting a GED, starting college and finding steady employment are celebrated, he said, because those “are huge” considering where clients have been.
“Each is a step in the right direction and makes them feel more connected to society,” he said. “Belonging and connecting and doing things that are societal norms is real important. Everybody has a need to belong and the people we serve are no different. They want the same things everybody else does. It’s not a question of ability, it’s a question of opportunity.”
The public can support the effort just by bringing in a bike, buying coffee and interacting with participants.
“It’s great to like us on Facebook,” Sommer said, “but this doesn’t work if people don’t come in.”
Just don’t confuse what happens there with charity.
“We don’t do this out of pity. We do this out of solidarity
and standing on the margins with young people whose resilience to keep moving forward is pretty pronounced.”
Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue
Beth Ostdiek Smith was a 59-year-old former travel industry professional and nonprofit executive when she launched an organization poised at the intersection of
food waste, hunger, access and healthy eating.
The core mission of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue (SGPFR) is capturing and redistributing fresh and prepared edibles – 1.6 million pounds and counting since 2013.
“We’re not taking it for us. We don’t warehouse anything,” Smith said. “As fresh as everything we get, our clients get it.”
Four refrigerated trucks, each wrapped in the logo of an urchin girl holding a spoon, run on a tight schedule. Professional drivers-food handlers make all the pickups-deliveries.
“In this perishable food business,” she said, “you have to show up when you say you’ll show up.”
Her service redirects some metro food waste – an estimated 40 percent of food ends up in landfills – to people who need it, including an estimated 20 percent of children who otherwise go to bed hungry.
She started Grace to bridge the excess-want gap.
“I noticed there was always excess food at events. I asked around Omaha and nobody was doing food rescue at scale. I took a leap of faith and put Saving Grace together. It’s a nonprofit business that provides a charitable service to our community.”
She based it on an Arizona food rescue program – hiring away its operations director, Judy Rydberg.
Smith’s networking has gotten hotels, convention centers, restaurant chains, grocers and wholesale food suppliers to consistently donate their excess.
“That’s the movement we’re trying to have happen. It takes the community to do that. My expertise is really bringing people together. I’m a builder and entrepreneur.”
The organization also has a mission to raise awareness around food waste and hunger. As it’s neither a pantry nor a food bank, Smith said, “it’s a different model than everybody’s used to.” It’s why she spends much time “explaining who we are and what we do.”
She recruits most food donors, but more are calling her. Major recipients include pantries.
“We get the right food to them by doing a food match based on client needs. They’re not having to go out and source all this food. We bring it to them.”
Heart Ministry Center Pantry in North Omaha is a primary user. Grace will supply even more food there once the center’s expanded pantry opens.
“For some of our larger nonprofit partners we are just a small portion of the food they give out because
they purchase from Food Bank of the Heartland. Others don’t qualify for the Food Bank because they’re too small and so we are their only source for food.”
Education efforts encourage people to make better choices in shopping for food in order to reduce waste.
“We’re trying to deliver those messages through our Food for Thought programs,” Smith said.
A recent program partnered with Hillside Solutions on excess food as compost.
Saving Grace is also identifying “on that whole food chain where excess should go and ways to get it to more people,” Smith said, including those who don’t qualify for a pantry but need food assistance.
Smith plans visiting perishable food rescues to assess what they do and envisions a national food rescue consortium for sharing best practices.
She doesn’t want to grow just for growth’s sake.
“We’ll always be lean and mean. We get a lot of in-kind donations.”
Grants tend to follow SGPFR’s clear, easy-to-track outcomes. Smith would like more multi-year grants to fund a reserve or endowment. She’s looking to build a revenue stream by partnering with a local brewer who would make beer out of excess bread and retail it.
A September 30 dinner and wine pairing at Dante Pizzeria will celebrate Saving Grace’s sixth anniversary.
Smith acknowledges her effort is one piece in a collaborative mosaic addressing food insecurity.
“We can’t be everything to everyone. We don’t do all of it. But we have a model that works for a lot of it.”
Intercultural Senior Center
After years learning how nonprofits work at One World Community Health, Carolina Padilla ran the Latino Resource Center, which assists young women and families. When some women requested services for their aging immigrant mothers isolated by language and transportation barriers, she realized the organization was ill-equipped to do so. Wanting to address this community need going unmet, she left to found the Intercultural Senior Center (ISC) in 2009 with help from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.
“I found what I really wanted to do,” said Padilla. “I thought, I have to do this and I’m going to make this happen whatever it takes. Then I realized I could do it.”
Working with immigrant and migrant elders appealed to Padilla because in her native Guatemala she lost her mother at age 6 and was raised by aged aunts.
“They made my life. I always felt strongly that one day I will give back in some way.”
She also identified with the challenges newcomers face having moved to the U.S. with her husband and children. Thus, she created “a place where people share what it means coming to a different country and having to adjust to many cultural differences.”
“They come to share their thoughts and their lives.”
The center started exceedingly small – Padilla did everything herself – and operated from leased South Omaha sites always short on space.
Her mentor and former One World boss, Mary Lee Fitzsimmons, guided the center in obtaining its 501 C3 status and finding donors.
“Great foundations have been behind us helping us grow our membership, programs and services,” Padilla said. “When we started, we focused just on the basics,
serving maybe five or ten people a day and 20 to 25 in a week. Right now, we have 60, 80, even 100 people a day and 400 a week.”
There’s no participation or membership fee. As the numbers have grown, so has diversity, especially since ISC added senior refugees to its service outreach. On any given day, this melting pot accommodates seniors from two dozen or more nations.
Center programs include:
Basic computer-skill classes
Case managed social work
A monthly pantry
Interpreters help breech language divides.
After four sites in nine years Padilla asked her board to lead a $6.3 million capital campaign to give ISC a home of its own.
“They helped me get that dream.”
ISC moved into its new, 22,000-square-foot home at 5545 Center Street in March after extensive remodeling to the structure. There’s more room than ISC has ever had, including dedicated spaces for classes and
private conference rooms for social services.
“I’m so happy and proud of what we have.”
More meaningful than the facilities, Padilla said, participants “have each other.” “This center gets them out of isolation. It provides opportunities to learn, to stay active. It becomes people’s second home.
“Coming here lets them see they still have so much to do. It helps them not become a burden to their families.
People are really happy here. They feel welcomed. It’s a warm place. Our staff is welcoming. They love our seniors. Sure, we have programming and a structure, but it’s more about the way people feel here.”
ISC partners create intergenerational opportunities between seniors and young people.
“We work very closely with UNO’s Service Learning program. Students come here and get involved in different activities and programs year-round. Elementary, middle and high school students participate in those projects. Youth interact with seniors making art, exercising, playing games, sharing stories.
“College and university nursing students work with seniors in our wellness program. It’s a way for students to put their skills into practice and learn what it is to be around diversity.”
Longtime ISC partner Big Garden is moving raised beds
from the center’s previous site to the new location “so our seniors can garden again,” Padilla said. “We’re a grassroots organization. We depend on partnerships.
Partnering allows us to better serve the community. That’s the beauty of doing things together.
“What we have built is the base and we’re just trying to get better. There’s still so many things to do to improve serving the aging population.”
She’d like to add physical therapy and additional wellness components.
Padilla is banking on ISC receiving accreditation from the National Council on Aging.
“I think this will help our organization to be seen in a different way, so we can bring more resources to the center.”
Though she has a staff of 18, she keeps close tabs on operations.
“I am hands-on in every single thing that goes on here.”
Padilla said working with seniors sparks “a new appreciation for life.”
“It’s an honor to serve this community. It’s a mission I feel. It’s not a job – it’s part of me.”
Making it all worthwhile is having octogenarians become citizens, learn to write their names, develop English fluency and earn their GEDs.
“That’s big and we are making that possible.”
If the center’s diversity has taught her anything, she said, it’s that “regardless of educational-cultural backgrounds and financial stability, all of our seniors have amazing stories of happiness, struggles and hard work and they all have the need to be loved and to hold someone’s hand.”
Then there’s the balancing act seniors who are transplants to America must negotiate in terms of assimilation versus holding onto native cultural identities. Padilla said the center helps promote mutual respect and understanding of cultures. It’s all about welcoming the stranger and adjusting to new ways.
“It’s difficult, but they do it.”
ISC’s August 22 World Bash fundraiser is at St. Robert Bellarmine Church.
Heartland Workers Center
Guatemala native Sergio Sosa won victories for meatpackers as an Omaha Together One Community labor organizer in the early 2000s. He advised Latinos in the packing and hospitality industries in staging mass demonstrations for immigration reform. Flush with success among this constituency, he launched Heartland Workers Center (HWC) in 2009.
“The vision was to improve the lives of Latino-Latina immigrants in the Heartland,” said Sosa. “Our strategic mission’s major programs are leadership development,
workers’ rights and civic engagement.”
Sosa and his team of community organizers conduct their work in the streets, in people’s homes, at community centers, churches and schools.
“We do not provide services. If we do, it’s only to affect what we do for people who will be part of the solution of their own problems. Our Rule No. 1 is never do for others what they can for themselves.”
With lead organizer Abbie Kretz, Sosa “built the capacity of the center, got the trust of major funders, went from a couple employees to almost 20 and expanded from one site, in South Omaha, to offices across the state.”
The first South Omaha Political Convention followed in 2015. The biennial event is expected to draw 1,000 participants when it happens again November 10.
Year-round civic engagement revolves around statewide Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts that mobilize minorities to register, vote and run for elected office.
A major emphasis, Sosa said. is “bringing leaders from rural and urban areas together to think of this as one state.” “Economically,” he said, “the goal is to find investments to improve communities in terms of housing, infrastructure, education.”
Another focus is advocating immigration reform and workers’ rights issues in the Unicameral.
“We train people how to testify before state legislators and how the Unicameral works,” he said.
Recently, HWC activists supported bills preserving SNAP benefits and increasing worker’s wages from tips and granting protection from employer retaliation.
Before Gabriela Pedroza became an HWC organizer, Sosa said, she never had visited Lincoln. “But now she’s testified, trained others to testify and knows the ins and outs of the Unicameral. Next year she will be in charge of the Unicameral effort.
“That’s how change happens,” said Sosa, adding, “Women are becoming a major voice and catalyst for change. The traditional institutions are not reinventing themselves. That’s why they’re dying. Youth and women-led movements are spawning new institutions with grassroots political power.”
The Center cultivates new leaders. “We teach organizers where they can find leaders,” he said. “It can be through canvassing neighborhoods.” Once captured, HWC “mentors, teaches and activates them.”
On the micro level, he said, “It’s about people investing in their own neighborhoods and communities and being the agents of change themselves rather than waiting for the city to act.” South Omaha’s Brown Park had fallen into disrepair and a coalition of neighbors “are now working with leaders to fix it.”
“People have to learn how to act for themselves,” Kretz said. “Otherwise, they create dependency on organizers to do those things. It’s learning how processes and power work and building relationships with public officials and nonprofit leaders. You have more capacity and power when you do it collectively.”
In Schuyler, Nebraska, HWC-led efforts increased voter participation by the Latino majority and resulted in four Latinos in public office, Kretz said. Parents there demanded dual-language programs and “a collective of folks from the schools and the community working together got one started.”
“That’s what democracy is all about,” Sosa said. “It’s a very patient work, but in the end it pays off.”
HWC has established itself with that steady work.
“By building relationships with people over time they understand who we are and what we do,” Kretz said, “and that’s helped to build bridges versus burn them.”
“Rural Nebraska doesn’t see us as foreign outsiders coming to their small towns,” Sosa said, “because we hire people from those towns.”
Inroads for inclusive leadership and representation are happening statewide. In Columbus, HWC partners with entrenched organizations on community-wide events. Latinos in Grand Island are now part of the Nebraska State Fair planning committee. Traditional Latino celebrations and memorials are embraced by more towns as part of the fabric of life there.
“So, it’s changing,” said Sosa, who sees it as proof that “if you combine love with power, you get social justice.”
Change starts from within.
“If you don’t change you, nothing around you is going to change. You have to give yourself that permission to dream big,” he said.
Pedroza knows from experience.
“That awakening keeps me going,” she said. “Realizing who you are and having that relationship with yourself is hard work and it takes time. But once you start, you want to do it with others. You want others to know you have more power than you think.”
Despite how polarized the U.S. is, Sosa said, “we still have open political spaces that provide an opportunity for compromise and change – and we better be active now in teaching others to do it so we don’t lose it.”
Young Black & Influential/I Be Black Girl
Omaha native Ashlei Spivey has generated two buzz-worthy black-centric empowerment movements that reflect her late mother’s passion.
“My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about what do you want your life to mean? What does that look like? How do you create impact for folks? So I think I’ve always had that embedded in me,” said Spivey. “Growing up there was a lot of systemic inequity happening around me. There was the richness of the black community but due to racism and oppression also lack of jobs and those things.”
Her father was incarcerated most of her life.
“My mom wanted to protect me from the situation surrounding me and made sure I had every opportunity. I was fortunate to have a parent who really poured into me in a way that added value. She saw all the potential I had.”
Spivey went to college in the South, returning to Omaha eight years ago following her mother’s death. “It was very sudden. That was really hard. We were very close. I came back to be the guardian to my sister, who was 12.”
Spivey’s grandmother helps raise her 5-year-old son.
Working at College Possible and Heartland Family Service led to Spivey’s current post at Peter Kiewit Foundation. Wherever she’s worked, she’s been the only or first African-American. “Thinking about empowerment for the people on the receiving end of inequity” led to Young Black & Influential (YBI) in 2015 and I Be Black Girl (IBBG) in 2017.
“YBI was created to say we can affirm black folks doing things for the black community based on our own definition. You don’t have to look, talk, have certain experiences in order to be deemed an influencer. The people we recognize may have a degree or not, may work in a corporate setting or not. may have been incarcerated or not. There’s the whole spectrum
“It’s about supporting, acknowledging and showing leadership in different ways. It’s about creating your own narrative and owning it and affirming this is who I am and no one can take that away or negate that.”
Influencers from the community are recognized at a YBI awards banquet – the next is June 30 at The Living Room in The Mastercraft.
“There are some dynamic folks doing awesome work under the radar. We also do leadership development at the grassroots level. We’ve launched a board training program to get black folks on nonprofit boards. We’re really trying to build power.”
IBBG’s name riffs off the best-selling children’s book Be Boy Buzz celebrating what black boys can be. Spivey sees IBBG as “changing narratives and creating space for black women to have access to different spaces.”
The organization “holds networking events and does programming around things that affect black women and girls,” such as a recent screening of Little.
IBBG’s advisory committee intentionally includes women working in philanthropy. Spivey views it as “disrupting power structures.” “We feel like this might be a place where we are creating philanthropists that don’t look like Omaha’s very old, white, male philanthropists now.”
An IBBG Giving Circle with a goal of $10,000 raised $50,000. In May, IBBG is awarding $35,000 in grants to innovative approaches that advance black girls and women. Grant awards will be made annually. New Giving Circle donations are being accepted.
The funding, Spivey said, “is all about making possible
seats at the table and building an institution you have to check in with before you do service delivery or interventions for black women and girls in the community.”
Both IBBG and YBI are tapping into “a restored pride in being black, in how we take care of community and how we make decisions about community,” she said. “This is a way people can engage and add value with whatever their investment in the community is.”
Adding stability to these changemaker efforts is fiscal sponsor Women’s Fund of Omaha. “They have been great partners. Ally-ship is important.”
Spivey’s exploring the addition of entrepreneurship and youth leadership development programs.
“My energy and effort is really building power that not only addresses racism but other intersecting isms people may encounter based on their identity.”
She believes her movements align well with where Black America’s arrived.
“Our people have always wanted to pursue their own vision of success and to help raise up our community. The issue has been access, resources and opportunity – that’s what it’s about. Now people are re-energized on how to have ownership over their community.
“A lot of young leaders are not concerned with assimilating or wanting to perpetuate patriarchy. They want to do things radically different and I think radical change is key. We were always ready – we just didn’t know we were ready. Now people are focused on that collective agenda on how things can be black-led.”
IBBG hosts a June 23 celebratory event at The Venue.
Visit www.ibbgomaha.com and www.ybiomaha.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.