50.24. Client Update.

As I was re-reading some of my old blog entries, I was amazed to see how much things can change in a relatively short period of time.  Unfortunately, not all news has been positive.  Craig continues to lose weight as the cancer is taking a tremendous toll on his body.  Several of the kids that I have blogged about may not have to worry about when they will get to eat next thanks to the Center but they have suffered more tragedy by losing family members to gun violence.

Even so, the majority of our clients’ and volunteers’ lives are much better.  Many have found work.  John Passarelli still volunteers at the Center but now does this during his limited free time as he has found full-time employment with a property manager.  Leticia is employed as a caregiver for a home-bound senior.  Alan found a job at Outlook Nebraska shortly after his blog entry was posted and has been working there ever since.  Life has also changed dramatically for even some of the clients that were more recently featured.

Most notably, Melvin Johnson says “life could not possibly be any better.”  As we sit down for breakfast, Melvin keeps on giggling.  It is strange to see this physically imposing man laughing like a 12 year-old-girl but he just keeps repeating, “Life is so good and I am so happy.”  Melvin talks about how thankful he is for Dave Ernst.   Even though Melvin has never met Dave, it was Dave’s generosity in gifting the Center an SUV that provided Melvin with much needed transportation.  Melvin now drives this vehicle to his new job at Kids Against Hunger.  Melvin talks glowingly about his boss Elijah and how working at this organization is his dream job.  When I dropped Melvin off, he shuts the door and the re-opens it and exclaims, “Man…life is beautiful!”

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50.23. A “New” Person. Meet Cathy.

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There are no guarantees that life will be easy.  Undoubtedly, in life people are faced with struggles that hopefully make us all stronger.  Pathway graduate Cathy Weaver is a strong person.  Cathy has lived a very interesting life full of challenges and personal setbacks yet she remains resilient and extremely upbeat.

At breakfast, Cathy retells stories about her childhood.  Throughout all these stories, there seems to be one consistent theme: she had an idyllic childhood.  She attended school in Omaha and on the weekends, her parents took her and her siblings to the country for more family time.  She remembers swimming in the lake, playing outdoor games, and just running around outside.  Unfortunately, all this changed in a single moment.  Cathy’s older brother was killed when his truck smashed him against the tree.  The manner in which he died only added to the heartache as her brother was working on the truck with his dog watching in the front seat.  The dog inadvertently disengaged the parking brake allowing the truck to sandwich Mike against the tree.

The family was all heartbroken over the loss and responded to the tragedy in different ways.  Cathy’s parents’ once strong marriage was now combative and argumentative.  Cathy’s dad began to find solace in alcohol and became distant.  Even so, he was also overly protective and did not want to lose any other person from his family.  Thus, he removed his children from school so they could attend a very small, conservative Christian school where he could more closely monitor all their activities.  In both middle school and high school, Cathy tried to re-enroll in public school but became overwhelmed and no longer felt like she belong.  Cathy eventually dropped out of high school.

With nothing to do and few people in her life including an overbearing father, Cathy’s bond with her mom only grew stronger.  Cathy did everything with her mom.  She became a balloon artist and was featured in the Bellevue Leader for her talents.

Despite this close-knit relationship with her mother, Cathy still felt like she was missing something.  Cathy eventually began a relationship with a young man and shortly thereafter was pregnant.  Wanting to be accepted by his family, Cathy and her boyfriend decided to get married.  While raising a son gave Cathy a sense of purpose and made her happy, she still felt restless.  Her marriage suffered as a result and Cathy and her husband eventually decided to separate.

During this separation from her husband, Cathy found her new family: the 18th Street Gang.  Gang life was excited and more importantly from Cathy gave her a sense of belonging.  Wanting to make her new family happy, Cathy willingly agreed to begin trafficking drugs.  Not surprisingly, Cathy was eventually caught by police and sent to prison.  During this time, Cathy decided that she needed to do more with her life.  As such, she earned two separate certifications as a nurse’s aid and an emergency medical technician.  Upon her release, Cathy was able to find work relatively easy.

While Cathy loved the work she was doing, her home life remained uneasy.  After several years, Cathy and her husband finally decided to divorce for good.  After the divorce Cathy struggled financially.  Scared about not being able to provide for her now three children, Cathy admittedly made a big mistake.  With assistance from her former brother-in-law, she was able to gain access to her ex-husband’s bank account and removed a few thousand dollars.  Cathy was eventually caught and sentenced to 12 years and 20 years in prison.

Today Cathy is a different person.  Cathy openly talks about the mistakes that she has made and how she does not want to be defined by these actions.  When talking Cathy, it is impossible to not like her.  She is shockingly candid and has a calming presence.  She mentions how she hopes others learn from her mistakes.  Cathy mentions at breakfast that she only wants “to live a good life by helping and caring for others.”  Cathy’s words are not empty.  In fact, Cathy reminds me towards the end of breakfast that she needs to get back to the Center.  Despite needing a job herself, Cathy is currently assisting other clients’ find work.  Cathy may have made mistakes in her life and her life may not have been easy.  Nonetheless, Cathy is a kind, caring human being that I am proud to know.

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50.22. A Resilient Child. Meet Deandre.

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Over the past several years I have been fortunate enough to meet some amazing kids.  While it may sound like an exaggeration, I have learned more from these kids in any single encounter than I did throughout my time in law school.  These kids are happy, resilient, and resourceful.  I look at these kids no different than my own.  I worry about the challenges they will face, I want to protect them from harm, and I hope they can achieve everything they want in life.  Even so, I oftentimes find myself learning from these kids.

Deandre is 10 years old.  He has been a part of our mentoring program for the past three years.  Deandre has experienced much in his young life.  Deandre has raised money so his slain brother could get buried.  Deandre has lost another sibling to gun violence.  Deandre is also sometimes singled out at school for no particular reason.  Most recently, a classmate through his backpack in the aisle while on the school bus.  Rather than punishing the bully, Deandre was barred from riding the bus for three days.  Rather than complain about the injustice, Deandre found other transportation to get to and from school.  Yesterday Deandre asked if I could give him a ride.

As I pulled up to Deandre’s house, he was waiting on the curb.  I asked Deandre what he wanted to eat and he looked at me with hesitation before asking, “Anything?” I quickly responded “Anything” to which he immediately shouted, “Burger King.”  As Deandre and I ate our Burger King, he mentioned how proud he was of his mom, who had recently started two new jobs.  He also told me that his girlfriend broke up with him during art class but it was okay because he had another girlfriend by the next class period.  Deandre also tells me that he hopes to get to play basketball this year but needs shoes and money to sign up.  I tell him not to worry about the cost.  Deandre then announces to me how he can now make a three pointer.

Deandre is no different than any other kid.  He has dreams.  He has favorite hobbies.  Deandre thinks certain school subjects are boring.  Deandre has just experienced and more importantly overcome much more than many kids his age.  I feel fortunate to call Deandre my friend as he truly has become a special young man.

50.21. A Dedicated Grandmother. Meet Margaret.

Poverty is not restricted to east Omaha.  Poverty is everywhere in Omaha.  Rarely does a day go by that I do not see a client at a restaurant waiting a table, at a bank being a teller, at a grocery store as a clerk, or at a park in west Omaha playing with their children.  Most recently, I took my two sons Oliver and Henry to Burger King off 144th and Maple Street to eat and play at the play place.

As I am sitting in the play place watching my children run and scream throughout the play area, a grandmother walks in with her grandson.  I quickly realize that this is a client of the Center but do not say anything.  After all, most people are embarrassed that they have to come to a food pantry.  Within five minutes, the grandmother (Margaret) strikes up a conversation by thanking me for what we do at the Center.   I tell her we are happy to help.  She proceeds to tell me that she never thought she would ever need help and mentions proudly that she has even donated money to pantries before.

Margaret’s story is not that atypical from many of our clients.  Margaret is a lifelong Omaha resident.  Her and her husband had four children.  She was a stay at home mom while her husband Stuart worked construction.  The children all attended Northwest High School and two of the four subsequently received college degrees.  As she speaks about her children, it is obvious she is very proud of them.  I compliment her on the job her and her husband did as parents.  She is flattered but is also saddened as she says that she wishes her husband could have seen the type of adults their children grew to be.  Stuart died of a heart attack six years ago.  Since then, she has found work as a secretary but recently quit to care for her grandson.  While three of Margaret’s children no longer live in Omaha, she tells me how happy she is for one of the children to still be in town and she loves being able to watch her grandson.  Margaret mentions that she is scared that if she did not care for the grandson, then her only daughter in town would move.  She talks about how the lack of a steady paycheck and no more money in her savings account has forced her to come to the Heart Ministry Center.

Margaret openly discusses her worries.  She says that she debated using a food pantry for a really long time but the hunger of not eating for days forced to her come.  Margaret tells me how none of her friends know of her struggles and she wants to keep it this way.  By this time, Oliver and Henry have somehow managed to get themselves stuck in the slide and I realize we should probably leave.  Before we head out, I notice that Margaret has not gotten anything to eat yet.  With some fear of insulting Margaret, I give her $20 and tell her thank you for being so good to her grandson and to treat herself to a nice breakfast.  Margaret then stands up and gives me a hug.

50.20. Our clients.

Despite being an extrovert asking people for money is difficult for me to do.  I cannot pinpoint why it makes me feel uncomfortable but it does.  Over time I have hopefully gotten a little less awkward and learned at least one trick to make it easier.  Before various cross country races in high school (this was the pinnacle of my athletic career), I used to listen to music in order to pump me up.  While I no longer listen to music to get me motivated, there is one thing that helps me as I prepare to meet with a donor.  I talk to a client.

I cannot think of a better time to share some of these client stories then before Holy Smokes.  After all, Holy Smokes is our largest fundraiser of the year.  These individuals are the reasons the Center exists and these are the people I will be thinking of throughout Thursday night.

  1. Tiffany: A 10 year-old girl that has lived with 7 different families in the past 4 years. She comes in because it is her birthday and she heard we have new toys for children.  She has never gotten a birthday present so she decided to come get her own gift.
  2. James: A 32 year-old father of 4 young children. James’ work hours have been cut back and his wife has health problems.  With no other option, James prepared road kill for his family to eat.
  3. Berniece: A 68 year-old grandmother battling MS. Her daughter was killed in a car accident so she is now raising her two grandchildren.  With limited funds, Berniece has not eaten for days at a time in order to make sure her grandchildren have food.
  4. Javon: A 9 year-old boy in our mentoring program. As we eat lunch, I notice Javon is putting food in his pockets.  I do not want to embarrass Javon so I do not say anything, however, before I drop him off at his house we head back to the Center.  I tell him he can take whatever food he wants.  He then asks me why some kids like him do not get to eat food every day.
  5. Donita: A single mother with two children under the age of four. Donita stops by the day before our summer block party to ask me if she will be allowed to attend.  I respond that we would love to see her and her children.   She then quietly asks me if people will think she is a bad mother because she cannot afford to buy shoes for her one year old son so he will be barefoot.  I next look down and see that Donita is also not wearing shoes.
  6. Omjuma: A 19 year-old Sudanese refugee. Omjuma has lived alone for the past three years as the rest of her family returned to Sudan.  Omjuma is trying to earn her high school diploma and currently walks to the library every single day to study despite suffering from spina bifida, which causes her both discomfort and pain.  Omjuma comes to the Center because she hopes to find books to read to help her to learn.
  7. Andre: A 15 year-old high school sophomore that wants to be a police officer. Andre explains that he wants to be a police officer so he can arrest “bad people.”  We talk about who are “bad people” and he simply responds, “People that kills parents so their kids never get to know them.  Like the people that killed my dad.”

50.19. A Kind Soul. Meet Melvin.

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Melvin is a man filled with ironies.  Melvin is a gentle, peaceful man yet is an undefeated cage fighter.  Melvin is a caring dad yet never knew his own biological father.  Melvin hates violence yet has little choice but to live in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Omaha.

At 6 feet 5 inches, Melvin truly is a giant teddy bear.  He always has a smile on his face and when he is meeting someone knew, he shakes their hand extremely gently with both of his hands.  Melvin almost seems to cup the other person’s fingers as though he is afraid that his power would crush their delicate hand.  Melvin’s apparent concern about his own power is well-grounded.  After all, Melvin is an accomplished athlete that has an undefeated record in mixed martial arts cage fighting.  Melvin talks proudly about his record and what the winning purses provided for his family.  Listening to his doctor’s warning that one more blow to the face could blind him, Melvin retired from MMA fighting.  At breakfast, Melvin tells me that he is considering returning to fighting.  Melvin would prefer not to fight but knows the money could help his family greatly.

Recently, Melvin was thrust into the role of father to his wife’s two children.  Melvin raised these children as though they were his own.  Melvin learned from the best.  Melvin may have not known his biological father but a patient, caring family friend Eugene Williams similarly treated Melvin as though he was his own son.  Melvin remembers fondly how Eugene drove him to visit his mother in the state penitentiary.  Not surprisingly, Melvin wants to pay Eugene’s kindness forward by now being a father to his two teenage step sons.

While Melvin is a good man, his life is not without worry.  Melvin embarrassingly admits that he had to sell the family car in order to pay the utility bills.  He talks about the problems in finding a job without transportation or money to ride the bus.  Melvin mentions that he wants to go back to school to obtain his criminal justice degree but does not know how he will afford school.  Melvin is proud that he has lived in his house for the past eight years but hates the violence or knowing a six year old girl was senselessly killed across the street.

Melvin may seem to be a complex man but after spending time with him I am able to get a better picture who he is.  Melvin is a caring father.  Melvin is a loyal friend.  Melvin is an engaged volunteer.  In general, Melvin is just a good human being.

50.18. An extraordinary human being. Meet John.

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  1. Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.
  2. The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.
  3. What does not kill us, makes us stronger.

        As I was brainstorming the above quotes in hopes of describing John Passarelli, nothing quite fit. While this initially frustrated me, I realized that I am trying to be too clever. Instead I believe John is better described by one of the last things I tell him at breakfast. John is an extraordinary human being.

        By all outward appearances, John Passarelli had an extremely blessed life. He is the second oldest of five boys. His father is a well-respected, successful attorney and his mother is an active, engaged community volunteer. John grew up in a loving home and did not have to worry about many of the problems facing the Center’s clients. John went to St. Cecilia Grade School, Creighton Prep High School, and Creighton University where he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration. From just a few minutes with John, it is blatantly obvious that he is much smarter than me, thoughtful, and introspective.

        There is much more to John’s story. John is a recovering drug addict, was homeless, and has spent time in prison. When John was 20 years old he started experimenting with drugs. By the time he was 22, John was using cocaine. Despite the fact he had no place to live, John’s primary focus was to “get high.”   Desperate to feed his addiction, John robbed several gas stations before he was caught and convicted for his crimes. John continued to battle his addiction throughout his twenties but has now been sober for five months. During breakfast John proudly (and rightfully so) talks about his focus on staying clean.

        To me, there is still so much more to John. Every day I witness a caring volunteer that treats each client with the utmost respect and compassion. John has been volunteering at the Center for roughly the last two months and I already have a handful of “John stories.”

  1. There is the elderly lady that sought me out after John took groceries to her car. She started tearing up as she talked about how John just stopped to listen to her.
  2. There is the young family that John helped bag up meat to take with them. The mother told me that she had never been to a food pantry before but how John never judged her and only asked if she needed anything else. She told me that John made her know it was okay to ask for help and get food from a pantry.
  3. There is Mark Dahir, our operations director, that regularly refers to John as “our rock star” and seems to calm down and comments that pantry will run smooth as soon as he sees John show up.
  4. There is a client volunteer that came to my office last week. She only wanted to tell me how special John was. In her words, “That John guy is really smart but I like him because he is even a nicer person.”

      I could go on with more stories. There is much to John. In best describing John, I would simply say, he is an amazing and extraordinary human being that has lived a remarkable life.