Betsye Paragas

Queen of Cultural Collaboration: Paragas grew Omaha’s cultural footprint

story by Cheril Lee

“My favorite thing is collaborating. I like to see the arts organizations in Omaha do things together,” enthused Betsye Paragas, director of community relations for Opera Omaha.

Over the course of her career, Paragas has worked for many arts organizations including the Omaha Children’s Museum and most notably, the Omaha Community Playhouse. She thought she was leaving there to retire, but duty called and she started helping Opera Omaha during a time of transition that led up to the new leadership it has today.

The Creston, Iowa, native was a natural in theater, studying drama for two years at Iowa University before being recruited to the Pasadena Playhouse School to perform and study. Her hometown sweetheart kept calling, though, and she followed him to Omaha, where working in a behavioral class room for Omaha Public Schools and raising a family led to joining the Omaha Children’s Museum just as it was moving into its permanent home on 20th Street.

Paragas said collaborating with other arts organizations has been a great way to share funding and cross promote events and she’s never been afraid to push boundaries on arts promotions.

She recalled a particular promotion she did while working at the Omaha Children’s Museum that was a lot of fun, “When the moving, growling dinosaurs first came to the museum, we went out under the cover of darkness and painted dinosaur tracks all over downtown. The tracks led up to the museum for that big opening day.”

During her tenure at the Omaha Children’s Museum, Paragas was able to initiate collaborations with many different organizations, not just arts groups. One day, the museum brought in a fire engine from a store at Crossroads Mall. Paragas explained the fire engine had been sitting there a long time and the museum kept trying to acquire it. Finally, the Omaha Fire Department gave it to the museum. “We kid-proofed it and brought it into the museum,” Paragas said.

The Omaha Children’s Museum also partnered with Cox Communications for its Spookfest events. Spookfest offered kids who couldn’t afford it, the opportunity to choose from an assortment of donated costumes for Halloween.

Thinking back to her time at the Playhouse, Paragas laughed, “When we did Forbidden Planet. I put a rocket ship up on the roof of the playhouse and it attracted lots of attention and brought people in.”

It was while she was working at the Playhouse that she had what she considers her biggest promotion idea of all time. The Playhouse was getting ready to do The Buddy Holly Story. She said she was sitting there wondering how she was going to attract the people who loved ‘50s music to the musical. “I decided to have a ’50s car show here on the opening day. It just drew all sorts of people who were interested in ’50s music. They brought in wonderful cars from the 1950s and that made everyone aware we were doing this,” she said.

Singer Billy McGuigan was incorporated into that particular show.  Paragas admits she always felt guilty about asking him to do the musical. That’s because it was so successful and brought so many people in, McGuigan went on to become a first-rate musician instead of becoming a teacher as he planned to do that fall.

The Buddy Holly Story ended up making more money than any show the Playhouse had done up to that point. Paragas credits McGuigan’s talents, tons of promotion and a lobby decorated with ’50s memorabilia for that success.

Paragas described the opera as a smorgasbord because you get everything in one place: singing, acting, costumes, sets and dancing.  “It’s just great because when someone walks into the opera for the first time, they are kind of amazed that all of these parts of the performing arts are all there,” she said.

Paragas loves introducing people to art forms that are new to them and she said Opera Omaha’s new mission is exciting. “Roger Weitz wanted to introduce opera goers in Omaha to things they never thought they would see here. He plans to offer one grand opera every year, one opera that is not obscure but maybe hasn’t been in Omaha before and then one family opera at the end of the season.”

Successful collaborations require everyone to put forth their best effort. Paragas said the key to her success has been something she calls “piggyback public relations and marketing.”

“I look around at all the arts organizations and see what they’re doing. Then I see if we are doing something that goes along with it. If they are, I jump on that and do cross promotion with them. It helps the budget and it helps attendance,” Paragas said.

She explained that if you attend one event, you might well be spurred on to go to another. Paragas said instead of organizations competing with one another, collaboration is truly the way to make each organization successful.

“It’s really important for Omaha to continue to support their arts organizations because it enhances our community so much and makes it a place to come to and a place to live,” Paragas said.

Mark Hasebroock

Lots of Action and a Little Talk: Hasebroock gives back to startup culture in Omaha

story by Tunette Powell

Even though it has been more than 30 years, Mark Hasebroock still remembers being told “no” as he entered First National Bank looking for employment in 1982. The unemployed Hasebroock, fresh out of college, plopped down in a chair at the bank and refused to leave until he was hired.

The business administration graduate from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln left with a job in commercial banking, he said. That stubborn banker is now arguably the most successful startup entrepreneur in Omaha. And while he might be part owner of a bank now, he is still stubborn.

These days, Hasebroock is founder of Dundee Venture Capital (DVC), a local venture capital firm investing in Midwest-based growth companies with an e-commerce and web services focus. This year, the Omaha native went a step further when he introduced Straight Shot, a 90-day accelerator that supports startups with money and mentors.

DVC and Straight Shot were not originally part of Hasebroock’s plan. But after years of searching for local investors and turning up none, the startup business owner, said he owed it local entrepreneurs.  “There has been a huge demand for startup capital in Omaha, but it’s always been a lot of talk and no action,” Hasebroock said. “I wanted to change that.”

Hasebroock’s passion to help startups stems back to the 1980s, just three years into his banking career. In his own words, he caught the “entrepreneur bug” and left the banking industry to start his own business – selling gourmet popcorn to grocery stores. As the business and the headaches that came with it grew, Hasebroock sold his popcorn business. The decision paved the way for Hasebroock and two of his buddies to start an e-commerce business selling gift cards, now known as Laying out the blueprint for the online business was easy; finding local investors was not.

“It was frustrating because I couldn’t get anybody in Omaha to write a check,” he said.

While local investors were not willing, investors in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati and Boulder, Colo. wrote checks. After successfully kick-starting, the trio founded, an e-commerce business venture that grew from a phone call between Hasebroock and an unhappy hammock salesman. 

“I was on the phone with a guy who sold hammocks over the Internet, but he wasn’t making a lot of money,” Hasebroock said. “He kept saying he wish he could find someone to buy it and I said I would.”

Within 24 hours of purchasing, Hasebroock said sales increased by 300 percent. Hasebroock saw an opportunity to offer more than just hammocks. He wanted to sell porch swings, bird feeders and other items for outdoor living and leisure. That idea gave birth to – a home furniture e-commerce business offering everything from hammocks to garden greenhouses.

Today, Hasebroock’s businesses have racked up a host of accolades and have turned over quite the financial gain, but he is not satisfied. After attending TechStars, an accelerator for startups offered in cities like New York City and Boston, the guy who refused to leave until he got a job resurfaced. Hasebroock said he will not rest until he is able to bring something like that to Omaha.

“I want to create an ecosystem where anyone in Omaha knows where to go to start a company.”

Through his new offering – Straight Shot – he may just be able to do that. Straight Shot puts entrepreneurs, mentors and investors in the same room. Mentors include names like Tracy Britt, assistant to the chairman at Berkshire Hathaway and Jonathan LeBlanc, head of North America PayPal Developer. Investors include First National Bank, Scott Technology Center and PayPal Developer. In just its first year, Straight Shot is working with seven startup companies – three in Omaha and four others from around the country. Hasebroock’s goal is to have helped kick-start 100 companies in 10 years.

And if that’s not enough, the full-time businessman is a full-time dad. Hasebroock and his wife of 29 years have eight children ranging from the ages of 12 to 27. His wife Jan, whom he calls the general of their household, has stayed by his side even when friends questioned her husband’s sanity.

“Friends have asked her if everything was okay with me after some of the business decisions I’ve made,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

Though work is very busy and keeps him at a desk more often than not, Hasebroock still makes time for his family and for the sport he loves – hockey. Two nights a week, Hasebroock suits up at the forward position for Team Gold, a three-time championship team in Omaha’s Beer and Pretzel Hockey League.

Hasebroock’s life is demanding and very busy and includes way more Jimmy John’s sandwiches than one should consume, but he said he would not have it any other way.

“I don’t view it as busy,” he said. “It’s energizing.”

Kris Denton

Collaborating Gives Students the Chance to see that Science Happens Everywhere

story by Cheril Lee

“It is vital not only for our students to see what is available in our community but it’s also vital for the community to see how fantastic our kids are,” said Kris Denton.

Denton knows how important education and community are. The Omaha North graduate now works with kids from the same neighborhood she grew up in, first as a 5th grade teacher at Minne Lusa and now as a teacher and Magnet Facilitator at King Science and Technology Magnet Center. The trail-blazing, creative educator took a detour into optical manager before following her lifelong passion to teach.

She said one of the most notable collaborations has been with Gregg Fripp of Whispering Roots, a non-profit that aims to teach individuals how to have self-sustaining farms and gardens in their yards.

Denton explained, “He’d done a lot of in-depth study on the concept of urban deserts and King Science sits in the middle of an urban desert. I could take my students and walk to a gas station and get any processed food we want, but we are not within walking distance of a grocery store where we could get fresh produce.”

So King Science partnered with Fripp though UNO’s Service Learning Academy and created a whole project where the students have built aquaponics systems in Denton’s classroom. She said they started with one, are now up to two and are getting ready to build a third.

“The basis behind aquaponics is you have a large fish tank and the protein produced by the fish tank goes up into a soilless grow bed and provides the nutrients for the plants. The best part is it’s all organic and completely healthy,” said Denton. 

The students are able to harvest fresh produce every 4-6 weeks. Most recently, they’ve been donating the produce to the Open Door Mission after it has been harvested.

“And just from the project with Whispering Roots alone, we’ve been able to branch out and help build a system over at Bancroft Elementary. So my students have had the opportunity to go there and work with 2nd and 3rd graders. Then those students take a field trip and come to our school and see the big system and compare it to their little system. It’s a pretty amazing thing,” Denton said.

When she started the aquaponics system she just thought it would be cool for science but said the more the students got into it, the more excited they became. Denton said lots of people have visited the school to learn about the system and she always introduces visitors to the students who are in charge of the system. The kids talk about how they take care of it and what they have learned from the process.

Denton laughed, “And everyone gets to feed the Tilapia fish. They almost react like the Koi fish at the zoo now where they almost jump out at you.”

She is also proud of the “SET for Life” conference she helps plan. SET stands for Science, Engineering and Technology. During the event, 75-100 different community leaders, including doctors, engineers and university professors, go out to the school and speak with the students about different career paths and how to make positive choices in their lives.

Denton said, “There’s also a 7th and 8th grade science fair going on during the conference, so not only do students learn what’s available in the community, but they also have a chance to present a long-term science project they’ve worked on which is then judged by members of the community.”

Many students tell Denton how they feel more empowered after collaborating because they’ve had the opportunity to work out in the community.  “For the kids, being able to do service learning projects and being able to be out in the community and meet people allows them to see this whole other side to learning that a standardized test just can’t capture,” she said.

Denton has high hopes for future collaborations as well. She said the school has just become partners with Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and is starting a pilot class called “Introduction to Zoology.” 

Right now it’s just for 8th graders but Denton has bigger plans. “My big goal is for us to develop a middle school academy for the zoo. That way, students who are super excited about animal science, conservation efforts or botany could take their courses at the zoo and become immersed in the science.”

She also wants to create a virtual community collaboration for distance learning projects. For example, Denton explained, if she has kids who are excited about whales, they could distance learn with the San Diego Zoo and create a partnership there. Ultimately, she wants her students creating, writing and teaching lessons virtually to other schools around the globe.

“Collaborating gives students the chance to see that science happens everywhere, that excellent writing and presentation skills have to happen everywhere as well. That’s something they can only understand if they are out in the community,” said Denton.

Sergio Sosa

Organizing Across Cultures: Sosa’s Social Service to Empower Immigrants

story by Cheril Lee

“W e work to improve the quality of life of Latino/a immigrant workers by promoting leadership development, workers’ rights, and civic engagement through information sharing, training, and organizing,” said Sergio Sosa, Executive Director of Heartland Workers Center.

Sosa, a native of Guatemala, founded the Heartland Workers Center (HWC) in January 2009, along with Latino/a workers, social and religious institutions, and hometown associations. Growing up in the war-torn country with a mother who was a “very busy” nurse to the community, Sosa became involved in organizing youth in nonviolent protests against the war and working with the Roman Catholic Church in its outreach to indigenous communities. When the politics made it too dangerous to stay, he came to his wife’s hometown, Omaha, and saw an immediate need for community organizing here.

According to Sosa, HWC has three main purposes: promoting civic engagement, protecting and defending voters’ rights and training individuals to be leaders or agents of change.

“We want to get Latinos and Latinas to participate in public life. In order to do that, we have a campaign called ‘Vote for your Family,’ because we know how connected Latino/a voters are to their families,” he explained.

Sosa said he is committed to collaboration.

“Many years ago we realized that the Latino/a population was growing and changing rapidly in south Omaha and in the state. We knew of many Latino/a led organizations and associations and thought it was a good idea to try to connect them with one another,” said Sosa.

From that idea, 22 new organizations attempted to build an alliance in Omaha and connect. The group that formed was called the Latino American Organization Alliance.

Heartland Workers is also part of the DREAMers Coalition, along with Catholic Charities, the ACLU, Justice for Our Neighbors and the Latino Center for the Midlands. Sosa explained the coalition was formed a year ago when President Obama announced he extended the terms of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. The organizations joined forces to start advocating for youth in the community. Ultimately, the coalition hired a youth coordinator to start organizing youth across south Omaha and the Omaha metro. “In the past, we were part of the Nebraska coalition as well. That was comprised of south, north and west Omaha. It was us, Black Men United, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League,” Sosa said.

The organizations pulled together to put political pressure on Douglas County Commissioner Dave Phipps to reopen polling places that had been closed in south Omaha. Because of their efforts, 28 polling centers were reopened as well as two new ones. Additionally, the group was able to expand the number of bilingual workers across precincts from two to 32.

For Sosa, there are several key ingredients to a successful collaboration. “You have to be honest about the amount of time and resources you can actually bring to a project or collaboration. And you have to have the will to do it.”

He said you also have to have a clear objective, regardless of what you’re working on. Sosa mentioned a quote from Warren Buffett, “The more power I share, the more I have.” This is an idea that Sosa takes to heart. “We need to develop leaders but it’s crucial to understand the difference between providing services versus giving power. In other words, we need to be clear about our self-interests and learn to act in a collective way,” explained Sosa.

He also believes that it is not necessarily a political leaders’ job to create community collaboration or integration. According to Sosa, from the community, the ones who are bringing the issues or complaints, need to learn to create their own collaborations and become active protagonists of their own lives.

Because of both political and financial resources, Sosa said the only way to build collective power and empower people to act is by bringing organizations together. Taken a step further, he said non-profits cannot just become complacent teaming up with one another. They have to open their minds.

“We need to come up with political and tactical alliances with unions, schools, churches and other organizations as well. We need to start thinking seriously about how we can support and raise money to sustain ourselves,” he said.

If Heartland Workers expects to be around 5-10 years from now, Sosa believes they need to become an organization that connects with voters and understands their issues. This becomes even more important as the population of Latino/a voters grows in the state.

By 2050, Latinos and Latinas will represent 34% of the total population of Nebraska. “If we join forces with other minorities, then you will see another kind of power to really act and get changes made,” Sosa said.

Additionally, he said Heartland Workers will need to go beyond south Omaha because Latinos and Latinas are located around the state. There are about 6,000 Latino/a citizens who are eligible to vote in Sarpy County and 3,000 eligible voters in west Omaha as well.

Sosa encourages building a coalition of leaders with political vision who will engage voters. Heartland Workers wants to expand beyond the Omaha metro and start addressing rural areas as well, not to build another center but to teach people in those areas what the organization has learned and empower them to be active.

“We need to start talking in those places about how we can find, train and teach leaders to do what we are doing here but for their own places. Even so, we do want to ensure that we are inter-connected with all of the different community organizations and leaders. If you do this in Nebraska, it is something that can go beyond our own state,” Sosa said.

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