Pumped to Change Lives

Excerpt from 2016 We Don’t Coast magazine. Photo by Sarah Hoffman.

Emily Mwaja knows all about the drive to achieve. Not only is she a world champion weightlifter, she’s also director of programs at Girls Inc. of Omaha.

“Whatever dream they want, we will do what we can to make it happen,” Emily says.

That includes a major renovation and expansion project at the north Omaha campus; a $15 million upgrade that enhances the organization’s ability to inspire “all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.” Renamed in memory of Katherine Fletcher, a respected Omaha Public Schools educator, the center now offers a full-sized gymnasium; teen, media and fitness centers; and an on-site health clinic.

“Every girl will be able to spark a new interest or add to her current interest,” says Desyree McGhee, a high school freshman who’s been a member for 10 years.

In 2016, Girls Inc. of Omaha was one of six affiliates from among the 82 in the U.S. and Canada to be recognized for performance. Among the benchmarks, the Omaha affiliate saw an 11 percent increase in girls served. Judy Vredenburgh, president and chief executive officer of Girls Inc. in the U.S. and Canada, described the Omaha affiliate as a standard bearer for the rest of the organization.

“(Omaha) dramatically changes lives,” she says. “This is an organization that does brilliant work — for girls who have the greatest need and who are at greatest risk of not having a chance.”


You might also like: Generosity & Compassion Are In Our DNA

Posted in We Care, We Inspire |

We Are O.NE. Derek Dillon

We Are O.NE. Series. Let’s make this a place where I get to be me and you get to be you. Let’s make this a place where together, we are O.NE. Put your hands in the middle and share your story.

Although a lot of my life revolves around the majestic world of cinema and film, my true love is and always will be stories. As I was growing up in Hastings, NE, I dove deep into understanding the creators of some the best stories that have been told in our history. Checking out books in elementary school about Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.(Frankenstein and The Wolf Man) to seeing Ira Glass (This American Life) enact his craft upon an awestruck audience at the Holland Center. And to be able to present some of the best stories on the big screen to an Omaha audience has given me the greatest professional and personal satisfaction I could ask for.

I moved to Omaha for work and I’ve loved every second of it.

Omaha provides so many opportunities to pursue your creative endeavors with its robust community of creators but also being grounded in its Midwestern roots. Having that laid-back atmosphere in a “big city” feel has been an important part of my growth as an individual and a professional.

How do you make a difference in this community? 

One big goal of mine since working at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema was to use my position and influence to give back to the community whether it be our yearly Management Community Project or our annual Toy Drive that coincides with the holiday release of a Star Wars film. It’s a beautiful thing to see our Alamo guests get onboard with the “community” aspect of our theater because they believe in what we do.

Posted in We Live |

We Are O.NE. Sabastian Hunt

We Are O.NE. Series. Let’s make this a place where I get to be me and you get to be you. Let’s make this a place where together, we are O.NE. Put your hands in the middle and share your story.

I think my defining characteristic is my mixture of ambitious and lazy. I want to be the best but I don’t like feeling like I’ve been working hard so this combination over time has made me very inventive, adaptive and experimental. This year I’m listening to 120 audiobooks, writing 52 blog posts and writing 2 novels. I’m trying to be a modern day renaissance man. I’m also a vegan.

I’m Omaha af. I lived here from birth to age nine and then moved back at nineteen and Omaha has played a tremendous role in shaping me. Omaha to me has always represented opportunity (I’m probably one of the few PoC who feel this way) but I’ve always looked at Omaha as a place where I can be or do anything that I want – much more so than other places I’ve called home (Chicago, KC, Texas).

Omaha’s just big enough to matter but just undeveloped enough to allow quick entry for ambitious newcomers. I don’t think I could have launched Year of the Startup in maybe only 5 other cities in the country and had as much success as I had.

How do you make a difference in this community? 

In the past few years I’ve made a difference with Year of the Startup which was a live/work/learn community which housed and incubated 50 entrepreneurs in its 3 years of operation. Today I’m on the executive committee of Mayor Stothert’s Millennial Advisory where we’re developing plans to attract and retrain more of our millennials. I also just became the interim executive director at Cali Commons which is a creative community center with coworking, art shows and other events. Overall, my goal is to incite human flourishing, a condition which occurs when people are connected to one another, exchanging resources and ideas, doing meaningful work and fulfilling their potential.

Posted in We Live |

Buttoned-down? Not on your life.

Excerpt from 2017 We Don’t Coast magazine. Photos by Michelle Bazis and Ben Bazis.

For my husband and me, loving where we live starts with loving how we live.

Actively. Enthusiastically.

On any given day, you can find us riding mountain and dirt bikes with our friends on local tracks and trails, including those at Tranquility Park in Omaha. Our daily adventures aren’t exclusive to land. Omaha is also loaded with options for watersports like wakeboarding, wake surfing, kayaking and paddle boarding.

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I’ll admit, after living in Florida for a few years, I had mixed feelings about moving back to the Midwest. The beach, palm trees and year-round warmth had me a bit jaded. Fortunately, my return home also came with a new perspective. In Florida, Ben had introduced me to wakeboarding and surfing, mountain biking and motocross – and exposed me to a whole new way of living.

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With an appetite for those new experiences, moving back revealed how little I really knew about my hometown. In the short time I was away, it felt like Omaha had transformed as much as I had – not as buttoned-down as I remembered but a place fully capable of pumping the adrenaline and being as exciting as we want it to be.

Posted in We Explore |

A Toast to Our Vets

Excerpt from 2017 We Don’t Coast magazine. Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

From the unique, canteen-inspired bottles to the brand name – Soldier Valley Spirits – they all serve as a toast to our nation’s veterans.

“One of the big things we’re about is giving back by teaming up with veterans groups. It’s just the right thing to do,” says Jeff Hadden, founder and owner of four-year-old Patriarch Distillers.

From its headquarters in Papillion, Patriarch produces award-winning Soldier Valley Whiskey, Soldier Valley Vodka and Solider Valley True American Bourbon. (It also hosts tours and live music events on-site.) Jeff has spent years perfecting his craft, taking classes and making trips to whiskey hotbeds like Ireland and Kentucky where he got his two 50-gallon stainless steel stills.

“The stills are a little smaller than what you might see normally,” he says. “But that allows me to work with smaller batches and to monitor the quality.”

The canteen-style bottles – those are a throwback to Jeff’s four years in the Army Reserves.

“Every bottle is different,” he says, turning over one of the two-pound glass canteens and pointing out slight irregularities. “That’s by design. When I was in the Army, I always had a canteen with a dent in it.”

Supporting fellow veterans has been a company cornerstone from the beginning. Patriarch currently donates a portion of its profits to Airborne Demonstration Team and Soundz of Freedom, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping servicemembers, wounded warriors and their families.


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Posted in We Care, We Launch |

We Are O.NE. Ashley Rae Turner

We Are O.NE. Series. Let’s make this a place where I get to be me and you get to be you. Let’s make this a place where together, we are O.NE. Put your hands in the middle and share your story.

Communications. Food. Advancement. I run content marketing for Borsheims and communicating with our customers is my number one task. It spills over into my personal life as I sit on a number of boards both young professional and non-profit and one of the best ways to get our message out is through communications. Food is the thing I am super passionate about and if I ever stop to breathe for more than five minutes, I’m going to build back up my food blog lol. Lastly, advancement because everything I choose to participate in is a cause or organization that I want to advance in some way. Whether that’s improving Omaha for Black YPs or destigmatizing mental health in my community.

Living in Omaha has created a sense of service within me.

Going from someone who could not wait to move away forever to someone who is trying very hard to have young women and men who look like me want to stay here because it’s a place worth being in has been really great. Omaha is small enough to really make an impact, even if it takes longer than one might like.

How do you make a difference in this community? 

A lot of the work I do involves young professionals both through the Chamber and the Urban League. The past year has been a turning point in the conversation about diversity and inclusion and I’m fortunate to be working with individuals who have a personal stake in improving this community, providing better opportunities and building a bigger table so that everyone gets a “seat” and is given the food they need to thrive, not just what decision makers think they need. I’ve met so many dynamic individuals who are doing so many incredible things and Omaha will be better for it if we listen to these changemakers more often.

Posted in We Live |

Uncork A Bottle & Expand Your Horizons

The same old night out? That’s just not our taste. Chart your course through a few of our Greater Omaha drink and foodie favorites. Excerpt from 2015 We Don’t Coast magazine.

Photos: Kurt Keeler and Bill Sitzmann

Welcome to our wine country.

Call it the ultimate road “sip.”

Fill the tank, chart your course and set out on the Western Iowa Wine Trail for free tastings, food pairings and chats with locals who love their craft. Make a weekend of it and hit all six:

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Soaring Wings Vineyard

In addition to more than 20 wine selections and a growing menu of craft beers, this Sarpy County vineyard offers a full-bodied calendar of events, including a Spring Wine, Beer, Blues and Hot Air Festival; year-round Acoustic Sundays and a fall Harvest Festival. Bring a picnic meal, a blanket and a camera. Sunsets over the vineyard are magical.

Slattery Vintage Estates Vineyard & Tasting Room

Pairing award-winning Nebraska wines against a tranquil Cass County backdrop, Slattery keeps guests coming back with tastings, live music, a light menu and “glamping” (glamour camping) with bungalow tents, antique furniture and electricity. A pond and gardens add to the rural charm.

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Posted in We Entertain, We Explore, We Toast |

RTG Medical Program Offers Ways for Staff to ‘Give Back’

Whether it’s analyzing competitive data or planning the future direction of the company, RTG Medical has always made decisions strategically. So when business leaders were deciding the best ways to positively impact and give back to the community in 2016, they were equally strategic.

Enter RTG Medical’s Community Partnership Program.

“Company leaders conducted an internal survey asking staff what’s really important to them. This way, leadership could learn where staff members wanted company donations to go and help them learn about opportunities to volunteer in the community,” said Veronica Barrientos, marketing and brand ambassador for RTG Medical, a medical staffing agency focused on contracting travel and permanent health care professionals in nursing, radiology, therapy and laboratory in all 50 states.

“They learned that staff have certain areas they are interested in and passionate about, so we established the Community Partnership Program to give staff members opportunities to give back in a variety of personal ways.”


The 2015 survey revealed that employees wanted to support organizations that serve youth, pets and veterans – the latter a group especially meaningful to company president/CEO Charlie Janssen, a U.S. Navy and First Gulf War veteran. Among those three categories, several organizations were chosen to be part of RTG’s Community Partnership Program. Special Olympics Nebraska and Fremont teams; Fremont Family YMCA; Nebraska Humane Society and Dodge County Humane Society; and Wreaths Across America were identified as causes employees had a strong interest in supporting – financially and as volunteers.

“Many of our employees sit on nonprofit boards and volunteer, so the desire to give back is strong at RTG Medical,” Barrientos said. “It was really just a matter of thinking strategically about how to do something as a group to help several organizations.”

“In being more mindful and organized, RTG Medical staff members have made great contributions in Fremont – where its headquarters are located – and Metro Omaha, in excess of $30,000 in the year alone,” she said.

In addition to gifts of money and volunteer hours, staff also took great pride in providing sponsored, matching jerseys for Special Olympics athletes in Fremont to wear during competitions.


The gesture was so successful and well-received that RTG Medical employees learned athletes wore their new jerseys for several days following a basketball tournament earlier this year.

“It’s when you hear stories like that – or interact and engage with the people or animals being impacted – that you truly begin to realize how much giving back helps,” Barrientos said.

To learn more about, and better understand, the impact of their gifts on these organizations, RTG Medical revamped a tradition last November by hosting the RTG Annual Day of Thanks at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in La Vista.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, representatives from nonprofits were invited to enjoy a full-course holiday meal with staff members and explain opportunities to give or volunteer with their organizations. RTG staff members were able to learn how their gifts could help the organizations in the coming year.

Barrientos said an added bonus to the Community Partnership Program has materialized that few in the company saw coming.

Despite the company’s continued growth, the program has unified employees in a way that other company events and gatherings haven’t.

“Working together to help others has brought our staff together and created strong bonds as they’ve learned more about one another,” Barrientos said. “Over half of them volunteered to help organizations over the past year, and that has definitely made us a stronger, more unified team and company.”


Posted in We Care |

We Are O.NE. Jason Feldman

We Are O.NE. Series. Let’s make this a place where I get to be me and you get to be you. Let’s make this a place where together, we are O.NE. Put your hands in the middle and share your story.

I’m love when I can be a connector and an activator. It’s like a drug! It fills my cup when someone I’ve met with gets after that Big Hairy Audacious Goal of theirs and goes on to become a Change Maker in our community!

I’ve found you’re never more than 1 or 2 degrees of separation away from most of the movers and shakers in this community.

As long as you’re willing to put in the work and live authentically, people will go out of their way to help you!

How do you make a difference in this community? 

I’m grateful that it’s only taken me 3 decades to learn the value of leaning into your strengths. As a connector and activator, I love using those traits to organize events that bring people together and inspire positive change in our community like Open Coffee, Omaha SOUP and 1 Million Cups!

Posted in We Live |

Field Trip Friday: Omaha Storm Chasers

The Greater Omaha Chamber marketing team is on the move – experiencing the sights, sounds, creativity and tastes that typify our region. We’re exploring our community and encourage you to check out these Greater Omaha gems – because best-kept secrets are best uncovered.

It’s Friday night, and it smells like baseball.

Sure, you can spot the stadium from sixty yards back, and buzz of the crowd is unmistakable, but it’s the sweet-spicy-savory smell of ballpark food that seems to set off smiles and hasten the pace of the crowd ushering into Papillion’s Werner Park near southwest Omaha.

And, this faction of Storm Chasers fans is ready to play ball.

From the hundreds of Boy Scouts invited to the spend the night at the $36-million-dollar stadium, to the pre-gaming with baseball legend Harold Reynolds, the Greater Omaha Chamber’s marketing team was there, making the Chasers vs. Oklahoma City a stellar summer evening for the memory books.

Celebrating the franchise’s 50th year, the Storm Chasers, a minor league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, has shared a long, loyal history with Eastern Nebraska, beginning when the team first took the mound as the “Omaha Royals” in 1969 – a history chronicled by a vibrant, sweeping mural greeting game-goers at the ballpark’s main entrance.

The Royals transitioned to the “Golden Spikes” in 1999, returned to the “Royals” in 2002 and came out hitting, following an online fan-naming contest in 2011, as the “Storm Chasers.”

The night we marveled at baseball’s continued magic, the familiar Storm Chasers were spending an anniversary “Flashback Friday” in their newly minted (vintage-style) Golden Spikes jerseys.

Our first stop was Harold Reynolds’ meet-n-greet, an intimate soiree where the affable sports analyst, and former second baseman of the Baltimore Orioles, California Angels and Seattle Mariners, shook hands, introduced his family and shared his regional ties: Reynold’s wife is originally from Omaha, with parents still living in the area.

Once Reynolds’ wrapped his pre-game party, the player was off to an autograph session with fans, and Chamber marketing was on the move.

As players filtered from locker rooms to the dirt, the we watched the stadium fill from a dugout’s-eye-view, where catchers, hitters, fielders and more dusted their hands on their pants, adjusted their caps and warmed up on a well-groomed field ready for sliders, ground balls and homeruns

From kissing babies (their own and others’) held over the rails, to toeing the dirt with cleated shoes, the Storm Chasers moved through this minor league baseball’s pregame routine with gregarious ease.

After the game was in full swing, we answered the aroma of the ballpark’s cuisine call to the tune of hotdogs, cheese fries, funnel cakes and ice cream, then caught the game from the team’s media booth, where announcers wrangled multiple screens aimed at capturing big plays for Werner Park’s big screen.

The game’s biggest news the night of our visit: another win for The Storm Chasers, followed by celebratory fireworks.

No doubt about it, as the Chasers circled bases, the region’s “no coasting” rule was roundly applauded. If there’s something about a ballgame, then there’s nothing quite like a Storm Chasers’ victory.

Posted in We Explore |