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What the Future Community Leaders of Omaha Are Doing This Summer

Not all teens opt for summer break; some do summer service.
participants in Omaha's Cultivating Community Leaders program
Published on July 3, 2011

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When high school students picture summer, they typically imagine late mornings, late nights, and hours of carefree freedom.

But for 15-year-old Lucy Chung and and a dozen other students, summer instead begins with a 9 a.m. wakeup call, a 10 o’clock class, and community project work by 10:30. While many of her peers are still sleeping away a cheeseburger-and-soda hangover, Chung is out making her community better.

Her reason? “It’s good for the neighborhood!”

Chung is a participant in the 2011 pilot program Cultivating Community Leaders (CCL), a project focused on teaching young people the importance of community service and to help improve South Omaha’s housing stock. Created by Deer Park Neighborhood Association President Oscar Duran, this program encourages young people to recognize their potential as community leaders.

Duran has expanded the program by partnering with his employer Habitat for Humanity and the Neighborhood Center. Both organizations have helped in program development and have been assets to building upon the program mission. “I noticed that there was a gap in community service,” said Duran. “There was a significant difference in who had the energy and the resources to volunteer. I felt inspired by the active members of other organizations and started thinking about how we can improve the numbers of volunteers. Then I realized the number one asset was young people. That’s how this program came about.”

Omaha Neighborhood Scan volunteers in Deer ParkOmaha Neighborhood Scan volunteersThe first part of their community service has been a neighborhood scan in the Deer Park area. Omaha Neighborhood Scan (ONS) is a program designed by the Neighborhood Center that trains volunteers how to take inventory (via pocket PCs) of the housing stock in their neighborhoods. From the street, volunteers do a visual examination of a home and record any deterioration or code violations. This program is not meant to be predatory, but instead encourages neighbors to help one another.

ONS puts the aesthetic value of an area into the residents’ hands and gives them the tools to keep it viable without the City having to perform its own assessment. Most code violations are minor, and can be fixed in an afternoon. Many residents are simply unaware of any violations, or may be unable to fix problems themselves. ONS provides a way for neighbors to get to know one another and keep issues from becoming too severe. After each scan is performed, the Neighborhood Center runs the data and helps determine where the issues are and how they can be fixed. The program is easy to learn and anyone can become a volunteer.

The Neighborhood Center also uses GIS to create maps to give the kids. And my map-making fingers have about gone numb trying to keep up with the demand. To give you some perspective, these 13 kids have already scanned 400 homes. And they have only just begun.

CCL is a 10-week program that began in June and will wrap up in mid-August. Duran leads the classroom sessions, held at Metro Community College. Elizabeth Moldenhauer and I from the Neighborhood Center work in the field with the kids, with Duran’s home as base. It’s a versatile program that will not only enhance resumes but also create a sense of pride in their communities.

This program requires commitment from the kids. “A typical day would be me giving wake-up calls at 9 a.m., and to make sure everyone has a ride to Metro,” said Duran. “We get everyone together by 10 a.m., by 10:30 we are dispersing maps and are doing foot patrols through the neighborhood. We usually wrap up around 2:30 p.m. and then have lunch.”

Standing in the sun with Duran on the corner of 20th and Castelar, he wipes away a drop of sweat while motioning towards the kids scanning homes in their neon vests. “These kids are just so fantastic,” he said, his enthusiasm audible even in the shimmering heat of the afternoon. “Last week I said they could stop in the middle of their scanning to have lunch. Instead of breaking early, they all decided they would rather finish their scan and eat afterwards. They are incredibly motivated.

I’ll second that opinion, as I have been working in the field with the kids for a few weeks now. They are truly dedicated and work quickly and efficiently during scans. They have no problems talking with residents who are curious as to why they are looking at their homes, and can respond in English and Spanish, breaking language barriers. Maria Gomez, 14, has no issue talking to residents. In fact, she enjoys it. “I explain what we are doing so they know that we are not just scanning, but also helping them,” she said.

The perks for the ONS volunteers? They get to be with their friends all day and help the community. They get to be outside getting exercise and talking and laughing with one another. And they also get the privilege to help their communities and make their resumes swell with skills and experience. And that means big-time freedom to choose a job or college. For these students, their summer is more ideal than the stereotypical dream. They are making their neighborhoods better and helping keep their communities alive and healthy. Through the CCL program, these kids will inspire people to take pride in their communities and their city for years to come.

JrclemJessica Clem is an Omaha VISTA volunteer

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