Before five o’clock on any given weeknight, the South Omaha building at 3003 Q St. is relatively quiet. Then the kids start to arrive.
Some come by bus from North and South Omaha neighborhoods; others get dropped off by family or walk over from their homes at the neighboring Southside Terrace Apartments, Omaha’s largest public housing complex. By six o’clock, the building that used to be a YMCA is alive with the echoing sounds of sneakers hitting the gym floor, upbeat music and kids’ laughter.
This is the hallmark soundtrack to after school programming at The Simple Foundation, a South-Omaha-based nonprofit that supports immigrant, refugee and low-income youth and their families through sports, tutoring, college prep, entrepreneurship and life skill development programs.
On the first floor, younger kids — some as young as age 5 — flock into a classroom to watch an educational video before they get their reward of play time with video games, foosball and toys in the adjacent game room. Upstairs, dozens of girls, some of whom wear colorful head scarves and brightly patterned long skirts, giggle and smile as they dance, mimicking their instructor’s movements.
In the main gym, teenage boys from high schools across Omaha descend onto the basketball courts. Hassan Musa, 16, said The Simple Foundation has helped him a lot – from giving him transportation to his first job to tutoring him when he struggled in science and math last year.
“Science is now my favorite subject,” the Central High School student said, before running off to dunk on a basketball hoop. To Bakar Ibrahim, 14, The Simple Foundation feels like family. Now a student at Bella Vista High School, he’s been a part of the organization’s soccer academy for years.
“We grew up together,” he said, motioning to his peers playing basketball nearby. “I wish people knew how fun it is, what they do here for the kids.”
Since 2014, The Simple Foundation has created spaces for young people in Omaha’s growing immigrant and refugee populations to thrive in a city that hasn’t always met their needs.
Fifteen percent of North Omaha’s population and 24% of South Omaha’s population were born outside the United States. Facing language and cultural barriers in a new home that has gaps in culturally specific resources, many immigrant and refugee families work hard but face higher risks of poverty and low incomes. Kids of immigrant parents often walk the line of multiple cultures — Nebraska’s population of U.S.-born children in immigrant families is one of the highest in the nation, and many Simple Foundation kids are from African and Latin American families.
The Simple Foundation provides resources that can’t be replicated — staff members who can truly relate with the kids. Like the young players they coach and students they tutor, the majority of staff members grew up in North and South Omaha or in immigrant households, and many played soccer with the program as kids.
As change comes to these communities — in the form of lawmakers’ historic investment into easternmost neighborhoods of Omaha and new development at the nearby city housing complex where many participants live — The Simple Foundation is teaching youth how to build businesses, fight gender roles and generate wealth as their own investment in their communities, families and selves.
“Everybody is always here for you”
Before the multilevel facility and big gym the organization owns today, the nonprofit started as a small, community effort. Co-founders and brothers Osuman and Sal Issaka saw little to no resources for families who had moved to Omaha from another country. Born in Ghana, taking care of your community like you would your own family, “is part of our culture,” said Osuman Issaka, who is the current CEO of the organization. The brothers created a soccer academy hoping it would double as a support system for kids of immigrant and refugee households.
The group’s soccer academy gained popularity as participants spread the word to their siblings and friends — that’s always been all the organization needed to grow its numbers, Issaka said. As more girls showed up to play soccer with the boys, they added a girls’ team. All jerseys, shoes and gear are provided for players free of charge. Tutoring and academic support came next, since Issaka wanted his players to do well in school and feel confident to graduate high school, go to college and get a good job.
When the pandemic hit and many school districts went remote, the group stayed focused on their promise to help kids keep school attendance and grades up. Participants masked up, grabbed their devices and attended their remote learning classes at The Simple Foundation, helping out parents who needed child care and kids who couldn’t focus at home in isolation.
“No matter what, everybody is always here for you,” said Nurto Ibrahim, a 15-year-old who has attended programming for years, volunteers at the center and is the older sister of Bakar. She first found out about the group when she decided to join her brother at his soccer practice about two years ago even though she’d never played the game.
“I didn’t know much about soccer other than watching it, until the staff at Simple Foundation convinced me to play soccer,” Ibrahim said. “That was probably the best experience ever because I’m really good at it now.”
Ibrahim might have come for soccer, but she stayed for Boduri — an all-girls peer group that meets to chat, explore interests and develop new skills. After meeting her peers and getting to know them, Boduri started feeling more like a big family to Ibrahim. It became a place to share issues girls were having at school or home and help each other solve them.
“We understand each other,” she said.
“An anchor institution”
Before 2020, The Simple Foundation served almost 400 youth. Now, the group serves more than 600 and continues growing to meet families’ needs as business owners and community members recover from the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Meanwhile, lawmakers are deciding how to disperse $335 million in pandemic relief and state money for North and South Omaha, with the goal to “create sweeping economic growth” through investment in employment, small businesses, housing and more, according to the Omaha Economic Recovery Act Coordination Plan website.
The community investment comes at the right time for The Simple Foundation, which is planning its own big changes. Chandra Wrightsell, a consultant working with the foundation, said the group is ready to start a multimillion dollar renovation of the South Omaha building in 2023 thanks to grants and funding they’ve raised over the past few years. The nonprofit hopes to reach 1,000 youth with its greater capacity, Wrightsell said.
That change to the program’s building will come close to another big change in many participants’ lives. The neighboring Southside Terrace Apartments — where many families of The Simple Foundation reside — is preparing for its own renovations. Omaha is one of four cities recently awarded a $50 million grant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to rebuild the city’s largest public housing complex.
At a press conference in late September, Adrianne Todman, the deputy secretary of HUD, acknowledged how The Simple Foundation has supported families living in Southside Terrace as the development prepares for changes.
“Thank you for being an anchor institution here and doing the heavy lift with the families even before it got to this point,” she said.
While investing in youth, The Simple Foundation teaches participants to invest in themselves and their community as well. The “Simple Path to Build Legacy” entrepreneurship program equips participants with the resources and knowledge to build their own businesses and then helps them actually create them. Five businesses owned by The Simple Foundation participants in their teens and early 20s have emerged from the entrepreneurship program, including a janitorial business, catering and a clothing shop, according to Wrightsell.
The entrepreneurship program started from a class project staff member DeValon Whitcomb thought up while in school at the University of South Dakota. He wanted to create a program that was “budget relieving, but also added value to the foundation.” Overall, the staff members hope to show young people that they don’t need to be dependent on a single job to create economic stability and generational wealth for themselves and their families, according to Wrightsell.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re going to learn those workforce skills,” Wrightsell said. “But at the same time, you’re putting your talents and your experience and things that you love to do into something that can actually grow and be profitable for not only you, but your family and your community.”
Through the program, Apia Madut, 22, created and owns three businesses: Imperial Events, an event planning business, Why Me, a clothing line, and Import Village, an African artifacts shop. Like many other girls at The Simple Foundation, she first got involved by joining her brother one day when he came to play soccer.
As the oldest girl in her family, she had many responsibilities in her household growing up and often had stricter rules than her brothers. But The Simple Foundation became one of few places her parents allowed her to go besides school.
“The Simple Foundation is one of my strongest support systems,” Madut said while sitting at the building’s front desk where she now works as an employee. “We’re very open and we welcome everybody. We don’t care what you look like, your skin color, what language you speak — we’ll put on Google Translate.”
Gabriela Pedroza, the program’s civic engagement coordinator, has seen young girls flourish and feel empowered at The Simple Foundation when they have freedom from the gender roles often placed on them at home.
“Simple is here to push us to be the better version of ourselves, and believe that we deserve everything that we want to achieve, ” Pedroza said. “There’s no ‘women do this, men do that’ here; you have dreams, and you have achievements to accomplish, and we’re gonna work hard for it.”