800 bags of groceries provided to families during North Omaha’s largest holiday tradition
The Empowerment Network and community partners worked together to present the 10th Annual Christmas in the Village as a “Drive Thru” event. It was truly a Joy Ride to remember for all ages.
Though the lines backed up all the way to Cuming and at times Highway 75, the anticipation was extremely high for those that waited patiently for their turn to go through the Drive Thru Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake. The pandemic forced changes to the event, but it couldn’t stop the spirit of the community. Once the overflow traffic was organized, things went smoothly.
Judging by the reactions, smiles, ooohs and aaaaahs from children, parents, seniors and everyone in between, the 10th annual community celebration and holiday tradition delivered on the promise for all ages.
“It was awesome. Really a lot of fun. It really didn’t take that long to get through the line,” said one parent with three smiling children in the back checking out their “goodie bags.”
“The kids loved it,” said another.
“Thank you all for doing this,” said a woman driving a van through the event.
Music to the ears of event planner, Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Director of Operations for the Empowerment Network. Faced with a world-wide pandemic and a spike in COVID cases locally, there were questions about what to do with Christmas in the Village this year. Willie Barney, president of the Network, and Quaites-Ferris decided to take the vote to the committee.
The long-term partners agreed to host a drive thru event and practice all precautions needed to make it a safe event.
“We didn’t want to let the kids and families down,” said Barney. “It’s been a tough and challenging year for everyone, but we believed we could still create a memorable and fun experience for children and families. Our volunteers wore masks and used a lot of sanitizer.”
“It was even more than we expected,” said Quaites-Ferris. “Our partners really came through. In addition to the fun activities, we passed out sanitizer, masks and information on COVID-19.”
Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake is part of a longer term vision and initiative to rebuild an arts, culture, entertainment and business district in the historic neighborhood. The community-based North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan was facilitated by the Empowerment Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation and developed with the input of 800+ adults and children. It was approved unanimously by the Omaha City Council in 2011.
Major projects, events and developments have happened in the “Village Zone” since the passage of the Village plan. It has served as a catalyst for hundreds of millions in public and private investments. The theme of the plan: Connecting a Rich History to a Thriving Future.
Barney came up with the idea for Christmas in the Village and shared a vision for the event with Quaites-Ferris, Deb Bunting and Stacy Henry Westbrook. They worked quickly to develop the initial plan and implemented the first event in less than four weeks. Michael Maroney and the team at OEDC also agreed to partner on the first event and have co-presented for 10 years with the Network.
“When Willie first shared the idea,” said Quaites-Ferris, “I said that sounds great, let’s do it next year. He said, no, we need to do it this year. We need to start bringing people back to 24th and Lake, even without any new buildings.”
Bunting had consistently shared that the arts can play a major role in rebuilding urban communities. The strategy has had a very positive impact. The initial attendance has grown to annually attract 3,000 to 5,000 attendees to the Village at 24th and Lake.
The pandemic forced the team to innovate and do things differently.
“Even from their cars, participants were able to receive a free bag of groceries, see cartoon characters, listen to some amazing holiday music, wave at Santa, see live animals including a camel and donkey and get a free goodie bag,” she said.
“We essentially brought all of the activities outside so everyone could participate from their vehicle.”
Organizers couldn’t have asked for a better day. With the sun shining bright and temperatures near 50 degrees, God smiled again on Christmas in the Village.
Along the route attendees could see Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Olaf, Ninja Turtle, Elsa, a dancing Doc McStuffins and for the first time, Black Panther.
“The children loved the characters,” said Ernest White, Vice President at American National Bank, one of the major sponsors and a lead volunteer at every one of the 10 Christmas in the Village Celebrations.
“Look mom, Look, Black Panther!, WOW!” said one child.
“Oooo wee, there’s a Ninja Turtle”, said another.
Those comments of pure fun and delight could be heard thousands of times all day. Balloon characters were also very popular including Frosty, Snoopy, a giant black Santa and a holiday Minion.
There was a constant stream of cars throughout the event. Some even started to line up as early as 10:30 am, even though the event didn’t officially start until noon.
This was the first year for the drive thru version, so getting the traffic organized along 24th street took some time. Overwhelmingly, community members were very understanding as thousands waited patiently waving and thanking organizers for not cancelling the event.
“We’ve been a part of every event since its inception,” said Michael Maroney, President of Omaha Economic Development Corporation, one of the presenting organizations. “It was amazing to see so many cars come through the event. It’s great to see what the event has become for the community. Before Christmas in the Village, we hadn’t ever had anything like this in North Omaha.”
OEDC staff Geneva Lopez, Cynthia Hume, Mike Schulz, Toni Tyree, NAACP president Vickie Young and a large team of volunteers welcomed families to the event by providing a bag full of groceries from the Fair Deal Grocery Marketplace. Families were incredibly appreciative as COVID has been extremely challenging in many ways. 800 bags of groceries were distributed during Christmas in the Village.
The food was made possible through the Healthy Village Collaborative facilitated by the Empowerment Network and supported with Cares funding provided by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
The whole route was full of surprises for the kids, but the most popular moment seemed to be the opportunity to see Santa standing near the street waving and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Children and adults alike were smiling ear to ear with eyes wide open.
Santa was positioned right next to a new stage brought in to bring the singing and music closer to the cars. Santa’s visit each year is coordinated by Yolanda Barney of Revive Omaha Magazine and Revive Center.
The music, always a huge part of the event, was even more amazing this year as it was pumping up and down historic North 24th Street. Duke Rigg and his team have excellently managed the sound every year for ten years.
“We had an awesome lineup again,” said Barney. “We kicked off with Big Wade and the Last Few, and continued music all day with Gus McNair, Chad Stoner, Millicent Crawford, Eric and Doriette Jordan, Jarron Taylor and LaShaun McCroy. Most have been with us every year. Some of the best artists in the city.”
People were literally dancing in the streets and singing along in their cars as they drove past. The warm holiday spirit could be felt throughout the event. Volunteers were smiling and waving, and wishing a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.
Jonathan Chapman of the Empowerment Network and owner of a video and media company organized for the first time, a live broadcast of the event. He used it as an opportunity to train youth to bring a “Macy Days Parade” approach to Christmas in the Village. The video was available and can still be seen on the Empowerment Network’s Facebook page.
And though the event wasn’t able to host the Holiday Boutique, Aisha Conner of the Network and organizer of the annual Boutique found ways to incorporate Black Business owners into the event.
Candice Price, co-owner of Hometeam Auto, brought cars from her lot and positioned them at key points along the route.
“To sum up 2020 Christmas in the Village in two words… Simply Ahhmazing! It was a spectacular event enjoyed by thousands in the community. From live music, to giveaways including groceries for families, to local black owned businesses being given an opportunity to introduce their companies to so many, and even a fabulous manger set up with live animals! There was truly something for everyone! And to set it all up safely, in the midst of COVID-19, for all to enjoy is exactly what made it the event of the year,” said Price.
Leo Louis, CEO of his new moving company, Somebody with a Truck, was contracted to pick up and deliver items for Christmas in the Village and was able to post up his truck to help with distribution.
Ashley Reddick, owner of Mise En Scene Events, designed and installed beautiful balloon displays along the route. Entrepreneur and decorating consultant Carolyn Holmes wrapped the street poles beautifully with garland and flowers.
Jason Fischer, CEO of Surreal Media Lab, roamed the streets looking for the perfect moments to capture via video and photography. Jason is another partner who has partnered every year, producing excellent videos and capturing the essence of the event.
All of the traditional small businesses that participate in Holiday Boutique can be found on the Revive Omaha special edition online.
“You can support those businesses and others online with the virtual shopping guide,” said Conner.
Another black owned business that played a huge role was Calvin Jones and his team from Lions Gate Security. Jones went above and beyond by jumping in to help save the day and directing traffic at the 24th and Hamilton intersection.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” said Quaites-Ferris. “I want to thank all of the partners and volunteers for being a part of the event. Others from the planning team included the Omaha Star, Great Plains Black History Museum and OPD. The FBI Community Outreach Team, Bryant Center, UNO and Kappa Leaguers also came through big time.”
“This is the Village in action. Everyone working together, loving on each other, helping and supporting each other,” said Barney. “We will keep building on this community spirit. Now, we are moving to monthly events at 24th and Lake.”
Christmas in the Village is presented by the Empowerment Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation. American National Bank is the gold sponsor and has supported the vision for 10 years. Other major sponsors include the Nebraska Arts Council, Douglas County Visitors Bureau and the North Omaha Turnback Tax Committee. Media sponsors include KETV and Revive Omaha Magazine.
Over 100 community partners have worked with the Empowerment Network to host the event each year.
“The holidays bring about a true sense of community. Anytime organizations, businesses and volunteers can share a few laughs, listen to the soulful sounds of Christmas, all while serving a need in our community, that’s a beautiful blessing. Despite the pandemic, we were determined to make CITV20 a success. CITV is a family tradition. Four generations strong for my camp. We look forward to it every year.” – Vickie Young
“This year’s drive through celebration of Christmas in the village was nothing shy of breath taking. Being able to see so much of the community still gather and celebrate the season in a safe way definitely helped lift my spirits during this difficult time.” – Sha’lise Oliver, college student and volunteer.
“There was an individual who came thru the line – he wasn’t sure what was going on but said he was ‘just following traffic.’ When we handed him the bag of groceries he was appreciative as he didn’t know he was getting food – Gave him the bag and he said: ‘Oh thank you I’m so appreciative because I don’t have any food right now. It’s going to help out a lot.’ He had tears in his eyes because he was so appreciative.” – Cynthia L. Hume, Manager, Fair Deal Village MarketPlace
Source: Revive Omaha Magazine
April Hibbler, Business Development Specialist with Small Business Administration
Published: March 31, 2023
April Hibbler is a business development specialist in the SBA’s 8 (a) Business Development Program in Nebraska. April’s prior experience as an entrepreneur and business development consultant has strategically positioned her to truly understand and meet the needs of small business owners.
April moved to Omaha in 2022 and has hit the ground running. Her passion is helping small businesses get connected to contracting opportunities with the federal government.
“The federal government is the largest purchaser of products and services,” said Hibbler at a recent forum. “The Biden Administration wants to see more of these contracts go to small and emerging businesses, women-owned businesses, veterans and Hub Zones.”
April has dedicated her career to serving people from marginalized groups through economic integration and by combating economic injustice. April has successfully implemented and managed small-and large-scale economic and business development projects and consulting engagements in the US and Nigeria, for USAID and other public and private organizations interested in using their products and services to solve economic development problems.
In a very short amount of time, April has dedicated her time to community engagement, business development and creating awareness of the services available through the Small Business Administration. She has helped businesses work through the process of becoming certified and introduced them to other opportunities within the SBA and Nebraska Business Development Center.
“April has been a consistent presence at community events, business summits, workshops and other important activities in the community,” said Willie Barney, CEO of the Empowerment Network and owner of Revive Omaha, Revive Center and co-owner of the Carver Legacy Center. “April is really working hard to develop strong relationships in the community and takes her role very seriously in helping small businesses to maximize the training available.”
April holds a Master of Laws (LLM) in global antitrust law and economics from George Mason University, a juris doctor (JD) from Southern University Law Center, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in international strategic management from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) in international business and finance from the University of Memphis.
April values small businesses and is honored for the opportunity to use her educational and professional experience to serve small businesses interested in doing business with the federal government by helping them to navigate the process and succeed.
Leslie Smith joins Omaha Land Bank as Exec. Director
Published: March 31, 2023
The Omaha Municipal Land Bank recently announced the hiring of Leslie Smith as its new Executive Director. Smith joins the Land Bank after years working in Memphis, Tennessee, on the issues of community development and inclusive lending. Notably she launched many of the foundational programs of the Blight Authority Memphis, Inc. (BAM), a quasi-governmental nonprofit which became a full-scale operational landbank serving the city of Memphis under her leadership.
Through BAM, Smith developed and operationalized the first Land Deposit program within Tennessee, incentivizing affordable housing developments to support blight reduction efforts and promoting innovative green space reuse interventions that supported the stabilization of neighborhoods and spurred economic growth.
“It’s important for me that the community knows I’m willing to meet and talk about where the Land Bank is in the community and what our mission is so that there is a partnership for community good and investment,” said Leslie Smith, new Executive Director of the Omaha Land Bank.
The Land Bank is a catalyst for transforming distressed properties into community assets by acquiring vacant, abandoned or dilapidated properties to transform them into positive neighborhood assets. As the only organization of its kind in Nebraska, the Land Bank is a leading partner in neighborhood revitalization efforts in the Omaha community.
“As I have been transitioning out of the Executive Director Role, I have been looking back on the work we’ve done with nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to serve our community in a position that I believe sets the foundation for success for years to come,” added Shannon Snow, past Land Bank Executive Director.
“Together we created policies and systems that will forever transform the Land Bank into a tool for the strategic re-use of vacant properties and building generational wealth. These are not small tasks, and I am excited to see how this work is leveraged for greater impact in the future under Leslie’s leadership.”
The Land Bank board conducted a national search to fill the Executive Director role vacated by Snow in February of this year. “The Board is extremely excited to have Leslie given her experience with BAM, an organization that is similar to Omaha’s Land Bank,” John Heine, Omaha Municipal Land Bank’s Chair remarked.
“She has been actively involved in the National Land Bank Network & the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and her expertise will be valuable to Omaha as we continue to strategize around how the Land Bank can best serve our community. In addition to this expertise, Leslie’s professionalism give us a high level of confidence in her ability to navigate community, donor and political relationships. I don’t think we could have found a better candidate.”
As a community-centered development practitioner, Smith has previously served as a member of the Urban Land Institute – Memphis chapter, Memphis’ Orange Mound Task Force, the Tennessee Affordable Housing Coalition and Transit Coalition, Memphis’ Blight Elimination Steering Team, the Mayor’s Young Professional Council (as Vice-Chair), the Memphis Lights, Gas and Water Supplier Diversity External Advisory Board and the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals.
Now in her fourth week with the organization, Smith is looking forward to engaging with the community and learning more about their needs when it comes to purchasing lots from the Land Bank. “With a passion for improving all residents’ quality of life regardless of the zip code, serving as the Land Bank’s Executive Director will position me to engage, support, and collaborate with community practitioners to uplift every neighborhood in Omaha through growth and investment,” stated Smith.
“During my first week in Omaha a colleague was able to drive me around to some of our lots and I recognize a lot of them are located in North Omaha. “It’s important for me that the community knows I’m willing to meet and talk about where the Land Bank is in the community and what our mission is so that there is a partnership for community good and investment.”
In her new role Smith will report to the Land Bank Board of Directors and have overall strategic responsibility for the Land Bank’s staff, programs, and activities.
Background on Leslie Smith:
Leslie Smith serves as the Executive Director for the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, where she aims to lead the organization’s efforts to transform problem properties into vibrant opportunities in partnership with the community. Prior to joining the OMLB team, she worked for Truist’s Strategic Growth department, where she worked to develop strategies that drove their mortgage lending activities to support generational wealth-building and work towards closing the racial wealth gap throughout the bank’s digital footprint.
During her tenure at the Blight Authority of Memphis (BAM), she addressed multidimensional and systemic challenges, which inhibited urban renewal within the Memphis community throughout the global pandemic. Through leveraging cross-sector leadership and collaborative partnerships within neighborhoods, she was able to champion and finance BAM’s efforts to drive change at the local level.
With a passion for improving all residents’ quality of life regardless of their zip code, Smith looks to bring her national network, cross-sector expertise, and collective experience to drive momentum while addressing vacant and abandoned properties at the root.
Omaha Land Bank:
The Omaha Land Bank serves as a catalyst for transforming distressed properties into community assets. It partners with community entities focused on revitalization and affordable housing with the goal of reducing the number of vacant lots and finding suitable solutions. By driving community revitalization of underutilized areas, the Land Bank unlocks development potential, encourages economic development and enhances neighborhood growth. The Land Bank welcomes the community to engage in this work. To learn more, visit omahalandbank.org or call 402-800-1240.
Darnell Relford brings delicious casual food to 24th & Lake at Champions Cafe
Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2022
Darnell Relford was always destined to become a chef, shadowing his family’s rich history in the food industry dating back generations. His grandfather, Beatren “Humpie” Relford, cooked for Omaha’s legendary Skeet’s BBQ. His uncle, Arnold, was well-known for his finger-licking barbecue sauce.
At a younger age, Relford found himself at home in the kitchen. He worked for years behind the scenes at a number of casual and fast serve restaurants in Omaha.
Relford’s first break into the food industry started as a line cook, later advancing his career into a general manager position. His background ranges from breakfast foods to burgers and classic to southern.
The various trials in the kitchen skillfully molded his capabilities to cook and craft a wide array of flavorsome dishes.
Relford’s relatives would be proud to see how he continues their family cooking tradition down the line with nothing short of excellence.
Relford is a man of God and dedicated to his family. Of all of the roles that he plays, being a father to his son, Prince, brings him the greatest joy.
Darnell is committed to his community and lives the life of a servant leader. He’s an associate minister at Launch Church International under the leadership of Pastor Jalaal Wade and Apostle Edna Perkins.
He has a passion for ministry and also loves teaching the next generation about leadership, excellence and opportunities in the food industry. In 2021, he was a part of the Step Up Omaha culinary training team and received great reviews from the youth interns.
In addition to his cooking skills, Relford is an entrepreneur and has some of his own new business concepts that are coming soon.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” said Relford. “It’s great to be back home doing what my family has always done…giving the people great food in a welcoming atmosphere and building up the community.”
Relford Brings Talents to Champions Cafe at the Revive Center
Champions Cafe at the Revive Center
In the Village at 24th and Lake
Open Tuesday – Saturday 11:30 am to 2:00 pm
In 2019, Darnell joined the team at the Revive Center at 24th and Lake. Initially, he worked with Willie and Yolanda Barney to help set up the front of the house.
As The Center began to hit its stride, the pandemic swept through the community, forcing businesses to shut down.
When businesses started to reopen, Relford stepped up to plate at The Center to roll out an all-new menu for its concept now referred to as “Champions Cafe.”
Owners Willie and Yolanda Barney say the cafe name was inspired by the great champions from North Omaha.
Revive Center’s co-owner Willie Barney had held a vision for 30 years to have a family-oriented restaurant where customers can catch a game while they dine on casual foods like wings, burgers and salads. He had also written a business plan for an event center starting as far back as 2001.
After hearing the inspiration and vision of the Barney’s, Relford quickly hit the ground running. He first created a burger menu including what he calls the Hawaiian and California burgers. The patties and toppings were instant hits.
“I love it. The California is my favorite,” reflects Don McPherson, owner of Styles of Evolution who carried on, “Man, with that pineapple and barbecue sauce.”
Next Relford added the Revive Burger and Big Lake. The Big Lake brings a smile to his face when he describes it.
“It’s not just the Lake, it’s the ‘Big’ Lake,” said Relford with a hearty laugh. “Burger, bacon, topped with an egg however you want it and a toasted bun.”
Relford jokes, “We don’t advise you eat it every day, but every once in a while, go ahead and enjoy yourself.”
The burgers all come with a side. Customers can select from fries, mac and cheese, corn, green beans or a side salad.
If your preference is more on the lighter side for a main course, Relford has come up with multiple salad options. The most popular are the Very Berry and the Cobb salads.
A number of customers have remarked and said the Cobb salad is the best they have ever had.
The original Very Berry salad was created by another Revive Center chef, Ms. Linda McKleny. The salad features fresh fruit including strawberries and cranberries.
Customers call it “a refreshing, but filling dish.” The salad is topped with a perfectly seasoned grilled chicken breast to top things off. Darnell has added his own twist to the salad as well.
Relford has also added a crispy chicken or grilled chicken salad which is amazingly tasty and rivals anything you would find at top restaurants around the city.
Foodies who prefer chicken over a burger will not be dissatisfied with their choice of the menu. Relford cooks up a specialty Northside Chicken Sandwich made from scratch with additional fixings.
Another highlight of the main menu for Champions Cafe is the Gametime Chicken Strips. As one of the best sellers, it comes with a choice of three or five chicken strips with four mouthwatering flavor options: lemon pepper, garlic, spicy or BBQ.
“We have consistently received great reviews from customers about the food,” said Yolanda Barney. “Darnell and the other chefs and cooks do a great job and we are excited to bring different food options back to this historic corner.”
“Darnell is amazing to work with, has a commitment to quality and he’s always looking for new food to bring to the customers. He’s also very open to feedback.”
The positive comments from customers continuously roll in. Relford has more items to add to the menu, but he said he’ll keep those as a secret for now.
“The pandemic and weather slowed things down in January, but get ready for an amazing spring and summer,” said Yolanda Barney.
“Last year we really hit our stride with a mixture of major community events and private events. Now we are preparing to expand the daily food options and the events are ramping up again in March.”
The Barney’s suggest to look out for more great food and products coming from Relford and others like him in the historic 24th and Lake District.