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Step-Up Omaha! seeks to connect 1,000 youth
to career exploration, job training, internships and entrepreneurship

Application open until March 7; more businesses needed to meet the demand

Over 50 business executives, elected officials, community partners, employers and others gathered on Thursday, February 25th for the official launch of Step-Up Omaha 2021.

Step-Up Omaha is headed into its 14th year of connecting youth and young adults ages 14-21 with career exploration, jobs, internships, entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities.  The collaborative initiative of the Empowerment Network has connected over 6,500 youth with jobs and job training since its inception.

Youth and young adults are able to identify their career interests, develop skills to prepare them for the future, experience hands-on job training and generate a positive income.

Step-Up is still taking applications until March 7th at stepupomaha.com.  The partners are also looking to increase the number of internship opportunities available by working with large and small businesses, organizations and ministries.  The team will continue to monitor guidance from health professionals to determine the size of the program and best format regarding virtual and in-person.


“With the support of the City of Omaha, Lakin Foundation and other foundations, the business community and our partners, we seek to connect 700 to 1,000 interns this summer and 250 in the year round program,” said Willie Barney, CEO and Founder of the Empowerment Network.  “Together, we can make this our biggest and best year ever.”

Barney thanked major employers, American National Bank, CHI Health and UNMC for their long term support.

American National Bank, under the leadership Co-CEOs and Co-Chairmen John and Wende Kotouc, was the original corporate partner, hiring 6 to 10 interns every summer since 2008.  CHI Health and UNMC return again in 2021, each hiring 10 to 20 interns.

In addition to funding, the City of Omaha will once again provide internships in a number of departments including Planning, Police, Fire, HR&R and others.  Union Pacific joins for the first time in 2021.  Small businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations also provide important worksite opportunities.  To become a worksite, employer or sponsor, go to stepupomaha.com.

The City of Omaha is the largest financial supporter of the Step-Up Omaha program.  Mayor Jean Stothert, Councilman Ben Gray and the Omaha City Council have invested between $900,000 and $1 million for the past four years.

“We invest more in Step-Up Omaha than any other job program in the city because we know it works,” said Mayor Stothert.  “The job placements, training and development opportunities provided by Step-Up and our business community provide valuable experiences and opportunities and that’s exactly what all young people need, a chance to be successful.”

“Step-Up also depends on the generous support of the business and philanthropic community to provide additional funds or jobs,” added Stothert.

Gray agreed.  “We can continue to do 700-800 jobs,” said Councilman Gray. “But, why not get more businesses engaged and reach as many as 1,000 or more.”

Gray emphasized the importance of providing these opportunities to youth in the community and the dividends it will pay to the city.  “We will keep more of our talent here when we invest and show them what’s possible for them in Omaha.  We know that what they see is what they will be,” said Gray.

Also announced at the press conference was the second year of a $1.8 million commitment from the Charles E. Lakin Foundation.  Steve Wild, President of the Lakin Foundation, provided their reasoning for such a large scale investment over three years.

“One of the greatest strengths of the United States is its diversity.  At the same time, this diversity has been underused as a resource,” said Wild.  “We also know over the years there’s been a shortage of African-Americans and people of color in senior management and executive suites in Omaha and the Council Bluffs area.  The area is suffering from brain drain and doesn’t have a large enough skilled workforce.  The Empowerment Network’s Step-Up Omaha program is one vital tool to addressing this long term.  It shows our youth what is available right here at home.”

Step-Up Omaha has not only gained local support, but has received national support from the Obama Foundation.  The Obama Foundation/MBK Alliance selected the Empowerment Network and City of Omaha as 1 of 19 out of 250 communities to receive a $50,000 seed grant in 2019.  Because of the Network’s continued success, the Obama Foundation/MBK Alliance has agreed to expand the support with an additional $67,000 in 2021.

Locally, the Kiewit Foundation has committed $50,000 for 2021 and other foundations are joining in to support the expansion of the program.  The Lozier Foundation has supported Step-Up for the past decade and the Holland Foundation one of the initial supporters also participated in the Obama Foundation/MBK Community Challenge.  The United Way of the Midlands and Office of Violence Prevention have also contributed between $150,000 to $250,000 annually.

Step-Up Omaha is successful because of the active engagement and support of many community partners.

Omaha Public Schools has partnered in a variety of ways since 2008.  OPS looks to extend summer school options to a much larger group of students this summer and will offer some educational related internships to students 16 and older.

Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Logan sees this as another opportunity to increase the number of youth gaining valuable work experience and continues to support the work of Step-Up Omaha in offering internships with local corporations, small businesses and organizations throughout the community.

Annique Clark, a former OPS student who currently attends college in Mississippi, also spoke at the press conference.  Clark has participated in Step-Up for five years, having the opportunity to work with a number of health organizations.  She stated that the program has helped her to determine her double major combining art and therapy, and also assisted with launching a business while still in high school.

“Clark is a great example of the brilliance we have in Omaha,” said Barney.  “She’s a double major and an entrepreneur.  We have talent right here at our front door.”

Step-Up looks to expand in a number of ways again in 2021:

  1. Entrepreneurship.  All of the participants ages 14-15 are exposed to the SocialPreneurship curriculum, learning how to turn problems into opportunities, develop business plans and experience the process of taking a product to market.  The youth work with Jaylen Bledsoe, CEO of Bledsoe Global, now in his early 20’s, who started as a teen millionaire; national consultant, Jamela Peterson, founder of SocialPreneurship; and Debra Dogba, CEO of Business Seals.
  2. STEAM.  As part of the commitment from the Obama Foundation, Step-Up Omaha expanded opportunities in STEAM including; robotics, drones, coding, social media and manufacturing.  All of these partnerships will be expanded including an enhanced program with the Tuskegee Airmen where participants will learn to build and fly drones.
  3. Trades.  In partnership with the Bryant Center and Metropolitan Community College, Step-Up will continue providing hands-on opportunities in 3D Printing, Construction, OSHA Certification, Culinary and other vocational fields.
  4. Internships.  More corporate partners and small businesses are working with Step-Up to provide opportunities in their respective career fields.  American National Bank, CHI Heath, UNMC, the City of Omaha and Union Pacific are major employers who have committed to developing and retaining Omaha youth by connecting with Step-Up.  Employers of all sizes, including non-profits, can participate.  Interested employers, sponsors and worksites, can learn more here.

    Moniki Cannon has joined Step-Up Omaha partner, CHI Health, as a Senior HR Business Partner.
    Cannon will continue to partner with Step-Up from an employer’s role.  A new Step-Up Omaha Director will join the Empowerment Network team in March 2021 to continue the expansion of the program.
  5. South Omaha.  The Step-Up Omaha team continues its city-wide expansion with even more outreach and partnerships in South Omaha and within the Latino community.  The South Omaha and Latino Advisory Council has been expanded and is already producing positive results.

    Ana Torres was hired as a full time South Omaha coach in 2020 and will lead efforts in the area.  Step-Up is also increasing outreach to the Asian, Native American and immigrant audiences.
  6. Council Bluffs.  With the support of the Charles E. Lakin Foundation, Step-Up will formally launch in Council Bluffs in 2021 after being put on hold last year because of the pandemic.  The Step-Up Council Bluffs application will open in March.

Step-Up Omaha is an initiative of the Empowerment Network and works with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Girls Inc., Hope Center for Kids, Urban League of Nebraska and PACE as coaching partners. Youth are assigned to these organizations who then hire coaches to train and prepare the participants and partner with worksites throughout program.

Long time community partner, Thomas Warren, CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, discussed the importance of Step-Up at the press conference.

“I have the privilege of working with affiliates of the Urban League in every major city.  This public/private partnership in Omaha is recognized across the country for the results it has generated,” said Warren.  “Very few communities have this type of partnership for youth employment.”

“We focus on helping students to thrive.  We are preparing the next generation’s workforce and it is important for us to retain our talent in Omaha.”

Youth and young adults can apply at stepupomaha.com and employers, worksites and sponsors can also use the site to partner with Step-Up Omaha!

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Community Features

Thousands attend 11th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th & Lake

The streets were once again full of smiling, laughing and dancing children, families and community members celebrating the holiday spirit at 24th and Lake.

After making the decision to convert the event into a drive thru in 2020, Christmas in the Village returned to the streets of 24th and Lake in a big way.

“Though last year turned out to be an excellent event and much needed escape from the pandemic with over 1,000 cars driving through, it was amazing to see children and families return to 24th and Lake to enjoy themselves and celebrate the season at Christmas in the Village,” said Willie Barney, CEO and founder of the Empowerment Network.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since we launched the event and inspiring to see how much it has grown and the impact that it has made.”

Christmas in the Village is presented by the Empowerment Network and OEDC in partnership with dozens of organizations and businesses.  Major sponsors include American National Bank, Douglas County Visitors Fund, North Omaha Turnback Tax Committee, Nebraska Arts Council, KETV, Revive and main stage sponsor, Veridian Credit Union.

It started as a vision from Barney. He presented the idea for the event to Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Stacy Henry, Deb Bunting, Michael Maroney and the OEDC team.  They jumped on board and the first event was planned in just four weeks back in 2011.

Over 70 businesses, organizations, artists and ministries worked together to make the event possible this year.

“Christmas in the Village is a great example of what is possible when we collaborate and each business and organization does their part,” said Barney. “We have been able to create a high quality and well attended event with the help of so many partners. It has also served as a catalyst to show what’s possible here in this historic district.”

The day started with volunteers and businesses working together to place inflatable balloons and characters up and down 24th Street. Business owners swept sidewalks. Volunteers raked leaves. Tents and games were set up early in the morning.

By 10 am, children and families started arriving to receive free gifts from the toy giveaway arranged by 4 Urban and sponsored by UNO.

By 10:30, teams had put Street barricades in place and the event officially started at noon with the Bryant Center’s Condor Drum Corp leading Mr and Mrs Claus down N 24th Street in a horse drawn carriage.

“It was a beautiful sight,” said Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Director of Operations for the Empowerment Network and event manager.

“The streets were lined with families who were excited to see the drum team, elves, and of course, Santa and Mrs. Claus.”

That was just the beginning of a day full of interactive and fun activities. Some have called it a “Winter Wonderland.” People come from all over the region and some as far away as St Louis, Kansas City and Minneapolis rave about the event.

Visitors were treated to free carriage rides sponsored by the Network.

There were face painters in the Fair Deal and families could receive discounts and specials from the local businesses. One of the businesses, Still Poppin, was also celebrating five years in business.

At OEDC, children could wave to Mrs. Claus, receive a free goodie bag and play interactive games.

Tasty food was available on both ends of the event. Smoking Guns and A Taste of New Orleans food trucks were on the street and the Revive Center served customers throughout the day. Between the trucks and Revive those in attendance had a wide range of options.

Some new businesses experienced Christmas in the Village for the very first time. Ital Vital Living which opened this past summer selling smoothies and juices in the former location of the Cooler, hosted a Selfie photo booth and sold their delicious products.

“We had a great turnout and response throughout the day,” said Imani Murry. “24th and Lake is a beautiful place to celebrate the holidays and it was so awesome to see so many kids and families here. We’ve had some great events this fall and this was the largest.”

Just to the North, the Union returned as a participant with a balloon artist, interactive children’s activities and the highly popular Raku pottery.

The largest crowds always gather in Dreamland Park for an awesome holiday concert featuring some of Omaha’s top gospel and jazz artists, including Millicent Crawford, Kathy Tyree, The Arvies, Eric and Doriette Jordan, Chad Stoner and Big Wade.

Pear Tree Performing Arts wasn’t able to perform in 2020 but returned once again to deliver inspiring dance routines in front of a packed audience. The Sacred Heart children’s choir also joined in for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed the event.

Another crowd favorite is the live nativity scene complete with a camel, donkey and other animals. The Empowerment Network partners with Mt. Moriah and Scatter Joy Acres on the attraction that draws great reactions from kids.

There was plenty of hot apple cider and cookies provided by Styles of Evolution.

“We doubled up this year on cider and cookies and we ran out midway through the event there were so many people,” said Don McPherson, owner of Styles.

Kids and families enjoyed all their holiday favorites including hot chocolate, cookies, popcorn, cotton candy and other snacks available from different locations.

The Omaha Police Department handed out candy canes and stickers. The Black Police Officers Association has been involved every year as a sponsor and handing out toys and candy bags in partnership with Revive and Santa.  The Omaha Fire Department provided an interactive experience that kids seemed to thoroughly enjoy.

Bridge Church joined in for the first time with some excellent and engaging activities outside on Lake Street.

The Great Plains Black History Museum presented a Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and handed out free candy.

The Omaha Star provided a children’s activity book and sold subscriptions.

Families stopped by the Carver Legacy Center and received some swag and information from the Carver team and American National Bank. American National Bank is a platinum sponsor and has supported Christmas in the Village every year since it started.

One of the other major impacts with Christmas in the Village is the support for local small businesses. Many of them reported record sales during the five hour event.

“We truly appreciate the support from our community” said Valerie Bradford, owner of Divine Nspirations.

“An event like this can do wonders for a small business. We did very well and it’s such a positive experience for families.”

Further to the South, LeFlores New Look Fashions, Get N Go Foods and other businesses also participate and see the economic impact of Christmas in the Village.

Because of the pandemic, precautions were implemented to keep attendees safe. Most activities were held outside and masks were required when guests ventured inside buildings. Hand sanitizer was distributed and available at every location.

Although the group would much rather have had Santa interact directly with the kids all day, he was primarily waving through a window from a specially made office on 24th Street. It still created some awesome moments and memories.

“We want to thank all of our partners, sponsors and volunteers,” said Quaites-Ferris. “This wouldn’t be possible without them.”

Another major bonus was the nearly 300 residents that received their vaccinations through a partnership between the IMA, Mocha Docs, Douglas County Health Department, Mt. Moriah and the Empowerment Network.

“We worked with the county and they brought all three vaccinations and the booster as we requested,” said Pastor Portia Cavitt, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Senior Pastor of Clair Memorial Church.

“I was out talking with the people and encouraging them to come get vaccinated right there on the spot. There was a tremendous response. We want the County to do more of this. Meet the people where they are.”

That was music to the ears of the organizers.

“The Village is a now a place where you can play, eat, shop, sing, worship, enjoy family, get healthy and have a great time throughout the year, not only during the holidays,” said Barney.

“When we created Christmas in the Village 11 years ago, part of the vision was to bring people back to 24th and Lake and to serve as a catalyst for holistic revitalization.”

“The momentum is building. We’ve come a long way, but even greater things are just ahead. 2022 will be the best ever.”

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2021 Photo Gallery

 

 

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Community Features

24th & Lake Holiday Schedule. Shop. Eat. Play. Sing. Enjoy.

Building on ten years of success with Christmas in the Village, the Empowerment Network, OEDC, Revive, FHAS, Omaha Star and 30 plus businesses, venues and organizations have come together to plan and host a great series of events for the Holidays.

The businesses are sending an open invitation for families, friends, neighbors and the whole community to come down and celebrate the holiday season and support small black businesses.

“We have something for all ages,” said Willie Barney, CEO of the Empowerment Network and co-owner of the Revive Center and Carver Legacy Center in the district.

“It’s an opportunity to continue the positive momentum at 24th and Lake, provide some fun activities for children and families and continue the development of our business, food, arts, culture and entertainment district.”

Friday, November 26th is Black Friday in the Village.  Shoppers are encourage to visit and shop at all of the stores in the Village.  Most of the stores are offering 20% off this weekend, including special deals, discounts and gift cards.

Saturday, November 27th is a great day to celebrate Small Business Saturday and support Black-owned businesses.  Stores are once again offering 20% discounts and there will be a holiday lighting ceremony starting at 4:30 pm at Dreamland Park.  Music will be provided by Millicent Crawford and Big Wade.  Trolley rides will be available from 1 to 5 pm.

Next Saturday, December 4th, is the 11th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake.  Over 50 organizations and dozens of businesses come together annually to host the event which has become the largest community celebration and holiday tradition in North Omaha.  Visitors from all over the region attend the event.  The hours are Noon to 5 pm with special activities for the whole family.

The Village at 24th and Lake Partners are also working with the community to host a series of events during Kwanzaa.  Stay connected on the Village facebook page.

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Community Features

Smiles & Sweets; Over 1,000 attend Trunk or Treat in the Village

Children and families celebrate, enjoy the activities at 24th and Lake

Great things are happening in the Village.  Businesses, venues and organizations are working together to create a great place to come together consistently for food, music, arts, entertainment and to support the small businesses in the area.

“Saturday was completely magical. Seeing the kids dressed up and the adults getting engaged as they played the games and got candy was wonderful,” said Cynthia Hume, site manager for OEDC’s Fair Deal Village.   “I’m thankful for the partners of The Village at 24th and Lake who collaborated to host another successful event.”

In early September, partners developed a calendar of events for the fall and winter season in the Village.  The first two major events have been well attended and received rave reviews from the community.

“Fall Fest was a huge success with 500 in attendance and then, two weeks later the Trunk or Treat had over 1,000,” said Willie Barney, CEO of the Empowerment Network and Co-owner of the Revive Center and Carver Legacy Center, all located in the Village.  “It was a beautiful day and the kids really enjoyed themselves. It is always a blessing to see so many families in the Village.”

Most of the event was focused on the 20 plus stops where kids could get free candy.

Kids definitely went home with their pumpkins, buckets and goodie bags full.

Ital Vital Living took it even further by creating a haunted house which drew a crowd and some surprises for the visitors.

“My mom built the haunted house from scratch.  I could definitely hear some screams coming from inside,” said Latisha Taylor, one of the co-owners at Ital Vital.  “Overall, the kids had a good time.  We think we will have to go even bigger next year.”

In addition to the bountiful candy and haunted house, families could make arts and crafts at the Union, play small carnival games at OEDC, listen to the DJ at Dreamland Park, take a tour of the Great Plains Black History Museum and purchase cinnamon rolls, caramel apples and peach cobbler at the Revive Center.

“We had another big turnout, with 300 visitors at the Great Plains,” said Eric Ewing, executive director at the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Members of the Omaha Police Department, Black Police Officers Association and Douglas County Sheriff candidate Wayne Hudson were also handing out candy and interacting with the community.

“This is great for the officers to engage in a positive way with the community and for the kids just to come outside and enjoy themselves in a safe and positive environment,” said Sgt. Marcus Taylor of the BPOA.

The event was also an opportunity to stay informed and get connected with important health resources.

Visitors were able to pick up health information and swag from UNMC, get their vaccination from Douglas County at IMA’s MLK Park and listen to African-American Mocha Docs speak about keeping safe from COVID and the importance of getting vaccinated.

“Saturday was amazing on the northwest corner of 24th & Lake Street, the IMA’s MLK Park as IMA pastors gave out candy to hundreds of children and the DCHD Vaccination Team administered vaccination shots,” said Pastor Portia Cavitt, Senior Pastor or Clair Memorial UMC and President of the IMA.  “Through much prayer and scientific knowledge, we have the power of prevention!”

“To see the families and the smiles on the faces of the children, that’s what it is all about for me,” said Barney.  “It reminds me of my own childhood going to Harvest Festivals with my family.”

“It’s also a great way to connect the community to the exciting things happening in the district.  Many of them tell us they didn’t know there were so many businesses, opportunities and resources here at 24th and Lake and they definitely plan to come back.”

It was another beautiful day in the Village at 24th and Lake.  Momentum is building.  The next big event will be the 11th Annual Christmas in the Village on Saturday, December 4th.

Stay connected with future events here.

 

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