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Never Forget

I’m having a hard time looking at social media today.

In the days, weeks, months and years after, we all used the phrase Never Forget. So today, 10 years removed from that overcast, frigid day in Omaha, of course countless media outlets and people are recounting where they were, what witnesses remember, and how we all feel about it now.

I guess I feel bad retweeting, sharing, posting because I was merely a storyteller that day, and not part of what happened. It’s like I don’t have the right to remind people of the anniversary. I remember the day after, Rob sitting in our story meeting and sharing what a first responder had told him… that in the hours after the massacre, standing inside of Von Maur, he could hear someone’s cell phone ringing, ringing, ringing, over and over… and he knew a victim’s loved one was on the other end. What I experienced that day was nothing.

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The shooter had been in and out of juvenile courtrooms since he was a toddler. Court files several inches thick shed light on a troubled child, talking about death and violence from an early age, threatening the very people who loved him. From all indications (noted in this article from ABC News), his father did everything he could to help him, turning to the state for more than a quarter of a million dollars in therapy and services.

We went to their home that day. I worked with legendary photojournalist Pete Soby, and together, we knocked on the shooter’s father’s door. He opened the door, he listened, he said no comment. We returned to the car, and watched one reporter after another do the same thing we had just done. I remember then seeing that father and someone else come outside to shovel snow. Every photographer got out and got video of them.. just shoveling silently.

Later that day or early the next, we returned to that house. So many questions.. what happened to this young man? WHY did he do this? There had to be reasons.. why would he unleash this terror on complete strangers?? WHY??? We went back to that house for answers. Once again, we pulled up along the curb and parked.. and I broke down. I could not force myself to get out of that car. That man had also lost a loved one in the shootings, his son, coupled with the unimaginable weight of what his child had done. I could not knock on his door again.

Soby was a journalist with a rare gift: throughout his career he found the perfect balance of aggression and compassion. He knew what our responsibility was as journalists and how to get a story, but he never forgot people are human beings first, not faceless subjects in our work. He got out of the car and knocked on that door. When Pete came back, he told me after the father told him no comment, Pete suggested he tape a sign to his door with those words.. that people would stop knocking. A simple act of kindness I hope provided maybe an ounce of respite during such a horrific nightmare.

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Every time my children and I see a firefighter or police officer, I try to make a point to encourage my boys to go up and tell them thank you, and to teach them these are people who go to work everyday to keep us safe. It deeply saddens me to say today’s current climate regarding mass shootings is more ‘common’ than it was ten years ago. Today, a mass shooting is a quick mention on CNN or nightly news, forgotten after a few days. In 2007, our city had never experienced anything like this before. When those calls started flooding 911, it was deputies, officers, and paramedics who moved in, risking their own lives and well being to help strangers. They saw the aftermath. They saw the nightmare. Once the adrenaline fades, once the threat is neutralized, how do you ever shake those images out of your memory?

I am grateful for every one of the heroes who moved in that day, not knowing what was in front of them. I am also grateful for every hero working right now in their cruiser, station or firehouse… because I know they’d move in to help me, too. And unfortunately, we all now know IT COULD HAPPEN.. to any of us.

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To this day, I’m still surprised that Micky agreed to a TV interview about what happened to her inside of Von Maur that day, but honored she trusted us to share it. Now ‘retired’ photojournalist Justin Riviera and I arrived at her apartment, beautifully decorated with figurines and family pictures. It had only been a few months since the shootings.

Micky had almost died that day.. shot point blank inside Von Maur. I asked Micky if she made eye contact with the shooter; I guess I expected her to say no, it was all a blur. Chills went down my spine as she told us that he looked her straight in the eyes, then shot her in the abdomen.

Micky later wrote a book with author June Blair.

“The only thought that came to me in that surreal moment was to lie as still as I could. He was still shooting at every living, moving target. Suddenly, there was silence and then the helpless sounds of voices pleading for help. I mustered up every drop of strength left in my body as I, too, let out a garbled ‘help’.”

Micky’s book is entitled 35 Minutes and Counting (click here for details). She was on the floor for 35 minutes as first responders ensured the shooter was dead, evacuated the store, and found Micky lying on the floor of Von Maur, alive. For the rest of her life, Micky was in physical pain from her injuries, and emotional pain from what she had been through. She wrote Justin and I a letter after Fourth of July, noting how badly the fireworks affected her. She was such a kind, strong woman who had been through incredible challenges throughout her life.. she didn’t deserve this.

Micky passed away in 2016.

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Von Maur

Photo courtesy Dailykos.com

We stood there huddled together outside Von Maur. First there was one.. then a few.. then hundreds of bouquets of flowers blanketing the steps leading up to the doors. I don’t remember why we had gathered there, but I know there were family members throughout the crowd. I remember someone speaking (or trying to speak) and softly, it began. Silent Night.

Within moments, the entire crowd… reporters, photographers, city officials and police officers, loved ones of those lost, strangers… we were all singing Silent Night together.

It was so beautiful, one of the clearest memories I have from those days. The unity of the human spirit, joined together to support one another and to hold our broken spirits together.

I’d see the snowflakes later… thousands of them, handmade and plastered all over the walls separating Von Maur from the mall itself. This would become a symbol of support for the victims’ families.. showing them they weren’t alone in this tragedy.

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I debated writing this because I don’t want to seem like I’m exploiting this anniversary, or this terrible day. But by not writing or posting anything, I fear worse.. that those most touched by this day will think I, and others, have forgotten. We will NEVER FORGET.

I will never forget the courage and bravery of our first responders.

I will never forget the strength of survivors like Micky Oldham and Fred Wilson.

Throughout my career in journalism, I never forgot about the compassion and balance I learned from my colleagues the day after and in the days that followed.

I will never forget the love that exists in all of us, even in the darkest of times.

For all of you touched by that day, especially those still suffering and hurting, my thoughts and prayers are with you today.

 

Memorial Day

Early 2003. I was a student at UNL, and planned to meet my good friend Adrian for lunch. Many of you know him as KETV’s award winning anchor & reporter Adrian Whitsett; I’ve called him ‘friend’ since our high school days at Papillion-La Vista.

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Then, Adrian was enlisted in the Marines and had spent time across the US and in Japan. I don’t remember where we were or what we were doing that day back in Papillion, but I remember at one point, him telling me that he would probably be leaving soon. He couldn’t tell me where he was going or when, but just wanted to let me know.

March 20, I was lying on the couch in my parents basement swollen like a chipmunk after having my wisdom teeth removed, when network news broke in; the United States was invading Iraq. I pointed to the TV and said ‘hey!!’ and realized that was what Adrian was talking about.. he was there.

While I attended candlelight vigils for our troops and wrote Adrian letters from the comfort of my Omaha apartment, my friend was on the front lines of a war-torn, unstable country thousands of miles away. He eventually lost hearing in one of his ears from firing high-power weapons; he cleaned himself in the 120-degree+ Iraqi heat with Wet Wipes; he saw and experienced terrible things most of us will never even think of. Adrian came home that August. Thousands of brave Americans did not.

Army Pvt. Kenny Nalley of Hamburg, Iowa. He was 19 and wanted to be police officer.

Marine Lance Cpl Shane E. Kielion of Omaha. He died the same day his son, Shane Jr., was born.

Army National Guardsman Spc. Joshua Ford of Pender, just 20. The same explosion that killed him claimed the leg of one of his fellow soldiers, a man who bravely stood to salute his fallen brother at their return ceremony.

A Nebraska woman has spent countless hours volunteering and uniting people across the state, ensuring we remember these brave men and women on Memorial Day and ever other day.

Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

“My grandfather was a Marine during the Korean War, and was very proud of the years he served his country,” Allison told me recently. “When he passed away, I knew I wanted to do something to honor him and everything he stood for. That is when I first got involved with the Nebraska Honor Flights.”

Vietnam Honor Flight (2016)

The Honor Flights are massive cooperative efforts to fly veterans to Washington DC, at no charge to them, to see the monuments and tributes built for them and the friends they have lost in war or since conflict. They are organized by Patriotic Productions; founders Bill and Evonne Williams are literally angels on earth, devoting their lives to this cause and to their traveling Remembering Our Fallen exhibit, a tribute to every single man and woman who has died serving our country since 9/11.

In 2014, Allison spearheaded efforts in her tiny hometown of Chester, Nebraska to raise $500, the cost to send one Korean veteran to DC on an Honor Flight. They raised $4,000.. and Patriotic Productions asked Allison to join them as a guardian, a trip she also talked about when I interviewed her in 2015.

Korean Honor Flight (2014)

“It was an amazing and humbling experience that truly set me on a lifelong path to honor and respect these men and women,” said Allison. “Since this first Honor Flight, I [have helped] with the Gold Star Kids Honor Flight. This was a weekend dedicated to families who have lost a loved one in combat. To hear these little kids talk about their heroes with such optimism, hope and love was something very special.”

This mission, which she dubs ‘United We Stand: Honoring Our Military’, was Allison’s personal platform of service when she held two local Miss Nebraska titles in 2014 and 2015. She didn’t compete in 2016, but never stopped focusing on this important cause.

“The year I took off I was able to raise over $14,000 for the Vietnam Honor Flight and serve as a guardian for the second time,” said Allison. “I made over 300 ‘Bracelets for the Brave’, used as a fundraiser for a Kindergarten class to raise money for our veterans.”

So why compete again for Miss Nebraska, when she was accomplishing so very much as Miss Allison Tietjen?

Miss Heartland

“This fall, I was looking through Facebook and noticed a message that was never opened,” said Allison. “It was sent May 2015. The message was from a mother who just sent her son off to the Marines. She had received one of my ‘Bracelets for the Brave’ and told me how much that meant to her. She thanked me for thinking of her and wished me well as I competed for Miss Nebraska. At that moment I realized that all of this isn’t about me. It is about those mothers who know that Miss Heartland cares about them and their sons/daughters who are going off to serve our country. It is about the veterans who smile when Miss Heartland shakes their hand and tells them they are appreciated by myself and students across Nebraska. What clicked for me is I finally understood what the ‘power of the crown’ really means, and it’s why I competed for Miss Heartland and I’m working towards Miss Nebraska.”

Allison, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, has reached out to schools across the state to spread her message of patriotism and appreciation.

“I have students write Thank You notes to our active military and veterans,” said Allison. “I sent them to a non-profit called A Million Thanks that will send them to US service members all over the world. I have collected 300 so far and my goal is 700 by June, and 20,000 as Miss Nebraska.”

Remember that last goal Allison set and crushed? She is on pace to raise 60-times that initial $500 she had hoped for.

“I sent an email out to as many elementary, middle and high school principals as I could, detailing what an Honor Flight is and how they can get involved,” said Allison. “I described what my school and community did, and with just emailing, I was able to help start eight school fundraisers that raised a total of over $14,000. This year, I sent out another mass email and have around six schools that I know of raising money. In total, schools across Nebraska have raised $30,000 for Honor Flights in the last two years!”

Allison credits the Miss Nebraska Organization for showing her another way to serve her country, as well as helping her find a purpose and passion. She also volunteers through her sorority, Alpha Phi, Girl Scouts, and her church, University Lutheran Chapel, where she plays piano.

Ihop

“I always tell students I’m speaking to, ‘find what you love, discover your talents and strengths, and ind how you can use those strengths and passions to serve others.’ Being Miss Nebraska is not alway a glamorous job. I want people to know that behind the makeup and beautiful gowns are just a bunch of strong-willed, determined women who are working to make this world a better place.”

Africa

For this woman, that won’t stop if she doesn’t win the Miss Nebraska crown. She’s proven that twice now. When the lights turned off and the crowds went home, Allison proved her power. She studied abroad in Africa. She went skydiving. She took care of her body and mind (“piano is my therapy”). She was motivated to make every day better than the last for herself and everyone around her.

Every time a man or woman signs that paper, puts on that uniform, and leaves all of our comforts to PROTECT everything we know, they are ensuring we have another beautiful day. Another opportunity to wake up in America and do anything we set our mind to.

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Adrian, an American hero, was home to sing at my wedding eight years ago. I cannot wait to watch him marry his best friend and love, Emily, this October.

We take so much for granted. We take every day for granted, we take our freedom for granted. We never say thank you enough to the men and women, and their families, who sacrifice so much to make that possible.. so we can say what we please, do as we please, and work to become whatever we want to be..

..even Miss Nebraska. And if she wins, Allison hopes to say thank you to as many service members and their families as she can.

“I am the small town farmer’s daughter, but I am able to walk into a room full of strangers, clearly speak, share my story and take control of the room,” said Allison. “I understand what it means to give back and serve others without hesitation. I know how to put your heart and soul into something and be a part of something so much bigger than yourself. I truly believe that we live in one of the greatest countries on earth and that is because of the men and women who have served for us.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Patriotic Productions, the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit and the Nebraska Honor Flights.

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Click here to follow Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALLISON?

CLICK HERE * 2015 * All-American Girl

CLICK HERE * 2014* Where The Heart Is

For more information about the Miss Nebraska State Fair/Miss Heartland Pageant or to become a contestant, email Directors Chelsey Jungck at cjungck@statefair.org or Shelley Penner at sa_penner@hotmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

NEXT.. Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Center Stage

Last week, I had one of those life experiences that reminds you of everything all at once. You’re smiling, you’re crying, you’re so happy, you’re so utterly grateful.

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Meet Ellie, the cute little brunette with the pixie cut on the left, and Kaleb, the strong, blonde gentleman in the middle. They are both elementary school students at Westside’s Sunset Hills, and when their principal, Michelle Patterson, found out they were competing in the Special Olympics for gymnastics, she scheduled a field trip so their entire 3rd and 5th grade classes could attend to cheer them on.

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They made signs. They wore Team Sunset Hills t-shirts. They exploded with cheers and rally chants every time Ellie or Kaleb stood up to compete, and they applauded just as loudly when one of the other athletes did well. Ellie stopped mid-floor routine, turned and grinned at her cheering section. I bawled behind my I-phone. CLICK HERE to watch Ellie & Kaleb’s story on KETV by Sarah Fili and Adam Ennis!

I remember another moment several months ago when tears welled up in my eyes.. watching Kindergartners in my son’s class run up to him to say hi and give him a hug. He has friends; he’s happy; he feels loved and wanted at school. It made my heart burst with pride and happiness for my sweet boy.

It’s all so much the same; we as parents have a universal wish for our children, perhaps more than anything else. We want them to be happy.

Kogan Murphy isn’t a parent, but she wants the same thing for every child she comes in contact with… so those children don’t go through what she did as a teenager.

Miss Douglas County 2017 Kogan Murphy

“I was bullied for years in middle and high school,” Kogan told me recently. “I struggled alone for nearly five years before anyone stepped in to help – they just didn’t know or couldn’t see what was happening to me. There were days I feared for my life and days I couldn’t leave the house, let alone feel safe enough to go to school.  Although I triumphed by working with people who supported and cared about me, not everyone is so lucky.”

It seems like these stories are everywhere these days, happening to people you would never predict as the target. Kogan is a gifted ballet dancer, a gorgeous blonde, a confident and mature young woman. Why would anyone bully her? It’s a question Kogan has asked for years, and one she intends to find answers to and solutions for.

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“I have spent over seven years now researching, living, visiting, speaking and gathering information on bullying,” said Kogan. “I was a victim of both harassment and physical violence. Unfortunately, as is often the case with technology, the harassment didn’t end when I got home at night. A large portion of my bully’s attacks came through online channels and social media. I have spoken to many different age groups and types of people about bullying and it continues to become a more and more important issue that is still so relevant today.”

Kogan found a powerful weapon against her bully when she was 17.. in the form of a crown. That was the first time she competed for the title of Miss Illinois.

“I still felt very lost after being bullied, “said Kogan. “What most people don’t realize is that even after the bullying stops and the problem is ‘resolved’, there is still a lot of work to be done. It took me years of trying to get my school grades up and figure out who I was again. Each time I competed, I felt like I was a little bit closer to finding myself again.”

Kogan held multiple titles within the Miss Illinois Organization, but took a year off when she moved to Omaha and joined Ballet Nebraska.

“I have been dancing for 21 years,” said Kogan, who has since performed professionally in productions including Swan Lake. “Dancing has always been a great way for me to express myself and I love getting the opportunity to perform. I also choreographed my solo for Miss Nebraska and it is very special to me.”

Kogan discovered the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County pageant in her new home, and decided to refocus on the organization that had done so much to build back up her self-confidence.

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She was crowned Miss Douglas County last fall, and was immediately surrounded with a network of people offering constant friendship and encouragement no matter life’s circumstances.

“The people you meet during your year, the people who volunteer their time and money to make this organization all that it is, and then of course, the mentoring,” said Kogan. “Over the past 6-7 years being involved in this organization I have met countless young women that I have looked up to and admired and then been able to take on that ‘big sister’ role myself with many little girls and my ‘pageant families’!”

For Kogan, this has also been an opportunity to try prevent other kids from traveling the same rough road she had to. She visits classrooms, youth groups and dance classes all over Eastern Nebraska sharing her personal platform: ‘Respect: Changing the conversation about bullying.’

“I feel so lucky that I have been given the opportunity to have a voice and share my story,” said Kogan. “Having a dramatic personal experience gives me the credibility and relevance to connect with kids and adults alike; I’ve been there. I have been hurt, afraid for my life and embarrassed. No one should feel afraid to go to school, leave their house or feel as if their life does not matter. I am proof that there is a way out and a way back to having confidence in yourself. Let’s bring RESPECT back to the conversation. Everyone deserves the right to feel loved, appreciated and wanted in this world.”

AGREED. I think that’s why I was so touched by what happened in that gym last week. My hope is that not only did Ellie and Kaleb feel loved and supported, but that all of their friends saw the value in loving and supporting others. I was only a bystander that day, but I left that gym feeling like I could conquer the world.. and that our world was an accepting, beautiful place. Love multiplied again and again that day, and I hope the lasting memory every single one of those children will have is that smile on Ellie’s face. I hope they all realize they can do that throughout their whole lives; they can impact someone’s life by simply being KIND.

It’s a message Kogan Murphy will continue to spread through her words, through dance, and she hopes, as Miss Nebraska 2017.

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“This organization has not only shaped me into the woman I want to be but it continues to encourage me to be the best version of myself,” said Kogan. “I am very much at a place where I would love to dedicate a full year and serve the wonderful state of Nebraska through this organization. My goal and mindset is to always be the very best version of myself, enjoy every moment and know that timing is everything.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Douglas County 2017 Kogan Murphy on Facebook.

For more information about the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County Pageant or to become a contestant CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook, and CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter. You can also email missomahapageant@yahoo.com, or contact Director Marianne Grubaugh at ggrubaugh@cox.net.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS..Miss Queen City of the Plains 2017 Jaicelyn Shakespaere

COMING SOON.. Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Follow The Rainbow

One of my favorite events I got to take part in during my time at KETV was Omaha Fashion Week. I know NOTHING about fashion (I’ve got a solid 5-outfit rotation and that’s it..) but I LOVE seeing it. OFW offers anything and everything you could envision, from swimwear, to children’s wear, to the most beautiful gowns to the craziest avant garde designs. CLICK HERE to read more about my adventures hosting Fashion Week while pregnant.. or about the time I became Fashion Roadkill in front of hundreds of people.

This is an event where the people are art as much as the garments. Every designer chooses different models based on that collection or their aesthetic. You will see rail-thin and plus-size women, translucent skin tones to the darkest ebony.  This showcase is a spectacular rainbow of color and life, a display of the array of beauty God created in so many different types of people.

This year, you’ll see the same thing at the 2017 Miss Nebraska Pageant.

Bags

The Class of 2017 spans from barely 5-feet to almost 6-feet tall (without heels!). We have dancers and singers, a SLAM poet and a violinist, pianists and a sign language artist.  They are young women with various backgrounds and ambitions, as different on the inside as they appear outside. It’s something one of these contestants is not just proud of, she’s made the message of diversity her mission during her time as a Miss Nebraska titleholder.

Miss Western Nebraska 2017 Devin Owens

“My platform ‘Representation Matters: The Importance in Being Present’, focuses on the importance of diverse role models/leaders/representatives in media, film, systems of government, our communities and beyond,” Devin told me recently. “With race, gender/sexuality, and religious issues being at the forefront of many of the national conversations/debates that we are having, it’s important to ensure that all are accurately, fairly and equally represented in various spaces.”

This is Devin’s first year as a Miss Nebraska titleholder, though she previously represented Nebraska in the Miss Black USA Ambassador pageant. Devin attracted media attention multiple times in that roll through her work to empower girls across the Omaha area.

“In the summer of 2015 I hosted the first ‘Queens For A Day’, which gave 20 young women from across the state the opportunity to feel like the queens they truly are,” said Devin. “Our day began at Memorial Park where we had a photo shoot with a professional photographer, and rode off to the spa in a VIP limousine. Once we arrived at the spa, each girl was able to get either a pedicure or manicure, we loaded back on the limo, and we went to decorate crowns.”

Queens for a Day 2015

CLICK HERE to read the Omaha World Herald’s story on Devin, or CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story on her event!

This was the continuation of work Devin began in 2014 when she founded Project Poise, a leadership initiative for young women in need, focusing primarily on low income/needs based areas.

“Operating out of existing nonprofits, elementary and middle schools and after-school programs, I bring tailored programming to each site and work with young ladies on developing their core strengths,” said Devin. “Everyone has leadership potential, and my goal is to help these young ladies discover, embrace and grow within in their leadership potential.  I’ve had the privilege of working with over 250 young women in the last three years, and I am looking to impact even more as we delve into 2017.”

Solomon Girls Center

Devin has studied at both the University of Nebraska Lincoln and Omaha campuses, she’s worked at 10/11 News and now at the Peter Kiewit Foundation. So why add to an already busy schedule by competing for Miss Nebraska?

Crowning 2

“Overall I was once again ready to utilize the platform to serve and lead that the Miss Nebraska Organization offered and pageantry at large offered,” said Devin. “Upon winning the title of Miss Western Nebraska, I am really eager to learn more about the western portion of Nebraska that I haven’t been able to see as much residing in Omaha and Lincoln most of my life.”

Devin hit the ground running, lining up school visits to speak to students from all areas and backgrounds. She’s also extremely active on social media, stressing not only the work she is doing, but spreading the word about Miss Nebraska Organization sponsors and opportunities.

“I want those who are skeptical to know that we work hard, really hard, and are all passionate about the communities we serve and the platforms we advocate for,” said Devin. “For many of us, we wear multiple hats; whether that’s as students, employees, entreprenuers and more. I personally balance a full time job, being a student while paying my way through school, my own nonprofit organization and pageantry, not even considering personal or social obligations. While the many roles often leave little time for a personal life, I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Example is leadership’, and therefore I recognize the grave importance of my presence and activism in my community and state.”

Elementary School Visit

And while Devin’s main objective has been to empower others, she says she herself has been empowered by the experience, and the women she’ll compete with in just over a month.

“I am overwhelmed by the immense amount of opportunities to learn and serve my state,” said Devin. “One of the most important things to me when being a participant in a pageant is being able to walk away a better person than when you started the journey.  Having the opportunity to compete in three very different pageant systems, I must admit my favorite thing about the Miss Nebraska Organization is the sense of family I get from my sister queens, volunteers and state directors. I was nervous to enter another pageant system so ‘late in the game’ as I am 22 years old, but never once did I feel alone or isolated in my journey. It’s been a blessing to be surrounded by such amazing women from across the state.”

Our goal as volunteers who recruit women to compete for Miss Nebraska is to find the best representatives of our state and reward them for their hard work, talents and service. We don’t consider race, how much money a girl has, where she’s coming from or where she’s going. We are blind to who a young woman is when she reaches out to us saying ‘I’d like to learn more’, and we are willing to help anyone and everyone to become the best versions of themselves.

Devin and girl

Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t warm my heart this year to see a rainbow of little girls look up to our titleholders, maybe thinking ‘she’s just like me… and I can be just like her when I grow up.’

Devin in class

“When I close my eyes and dream of being Miss Nebraska, it’s an opportunity that I’d be so blessed and humbled to have,” said Devin. “I think about the potential lives I could impact, and bringing awareness to my platform on a large scale, it’s kind of scary, but an opportunity of a lifetime. Each member of this Miss Nebraska class brings something so unique to the forefront when considering who will represent our state next, so in any circumstance, the outcome will be great!”

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Click here to follow Miss Western Nebraska 2017 Devin Owens on Facebook, click here to follow her blog, ‘DJ Writing Out Loud’, click here to follow her on Twitter, and click here to follow Devin on Instagram.

Devin was crowned at Crowns & Gowns 2017, Nebraska’s largest annual prom/pageant showcase.  CLICK HERE for more details about the 2018 pageant and event! You can also email Director of the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, Heather Hayes, by emailing Heather.Hayes@charter.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Hannah Miller

NEXT.. The Perfect 10: Recap of the 2017 Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Meet The Fosters

When I was a green, giggly young reporter at KETV, I was blessed with an incredible opportunity to fill in anchor for our weekday morning show.  I was so nervous.. anchoring for 2 hours straight everyday?  Would people like me?  Would I screw up the energy and chemistry that was already in place?  Little did I know, I would get to work 3am – Noon everyday with some phenomenal people.

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I guess when you work completely whackadoodle hours your form a deeper bond than most.  And those concerns I had?  They all evaporated on an early morning reading a story about the Beatles, when I accidentally said ‘Sir Rob McCartney’ instead of Paul.. and my co-anchor John Oakey stepped INTO camera view to say ‘um, excuse me.. he makes you call him SIR Rob McCartney?!?! I usually just call him Rob..’

John is one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met.  He’s HILARIOUS, talented, and incredibly devoted to his family, church and community.  I will always remember seeing the interaction between John and his wife, Kristi, and how in love they still are after 25+ years of marriage.  That love expanded 4-fold a few years ago.

Oakey

John and Kristi were the proud parents of two teenagers, but had been told many years ago they were unable to have anymore children.  For years, they considered adoption but from where? How? They began the long process of background checks and referrals from family and friends, and one day, received a phone call: a 9-month old baby girl needed a home.  They welcomed Trinity with open arms.  A few months later.. another call.. Trinity’s biological mom was pregnant again.  Hoping to keep the sisters together, the Oakeys welcomed Alivia, and began caring for two children 16 months or younger.  This happened twice more.. and each time the Oakeys welcomed another child, first Kaleb and then Kinley.  Here’s what John wrote about getting that call (again!) that Baby Kinley needed a home, too.

“Here’s the thing. How do you say No? There were countless reasons not to take her. Life was already crazy and hectic. Adding a fourth? Wow. But I was struck with the image of this girl, 18 years later, finding me and asking why I took her three siblings and not her. I did not have an answer. Except the overwhelming confirmation that we have been blessed. We are able to provide for our family. The Lord has looked after us. Now it was our time to look after this baby girl.”

This process was agonizing for the Oakey family; the fight to formally adopt was long and hard, and at one point, they were forced to return their children to their biological mother’s custody.  All four are now officially OAKEYS, enrolled in school and THRIVING thanks to the incredible parents who opened their hearts and homes to them.  (I encourage you to read more of the Oakey’s story on John’s fantastic blog Young Dad, Old Dad. CLICK HERE!)

Right now in Nebraska, several hundred children are waiting to be adopted.  Countless more are in need of foster homes.  A young woman from Gering, Nebraska is already planning her future foster family.. and encouraging others in her community to learn more.

Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Haylee Umble

“I have grown up around little kids; I LOVE kids,” Haylee told me recently.  “My aunts and uncles used to have foster kids in their homes.  I remember most of them very vividly.  They are part of the family.”

Hayley attended Community Christian School and enrolled at Gering High School last fall. As she mentally prepared for both high school and the public school setting, she wanted to find a way to become active in her community and meet the friends she would go to class with everyday.  She found those opportunities in a local pageant that also qualified her to compete for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen this April.

“I love getting out in my community,” said Haylee.  “I had never really volunteered in my community much until I got my title, and I am quite sad I didn’t start earlier, yet very glad I am realizing now what an influence I can have.  The girls and strong women involved in the pageant, whether they are competing, mentoring or organizing are and will always be a blessing.  Getting to know them has been amazing!”

“I’ve never been shy, but I’ve never really thought that I could do very much in our community at a young age,” said Haylee.  “The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant has shown me otherwise.  I have the power of making an impact on kids, which are the future of our community.  Being a good influence goes farther than I ever could have imagined.”

From schools to events to superhero fundraisers, Haylee has been all over Scotts Bluff County making the most of her title, hoping to show everyone she meets they are represented by a thoughtful, charismatic and fun-loving young woman who wants to build others up and help them succeed.

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“I love people,” said Haylee.  “I always strive to see the best in them and then bring it out so others can see it, too.  Pageants are a way for girl to build confidence in who they are and what they are capable of.  The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant is very focused on giving out as many scholarships as they can, which helps us girls have a better opportunity at a great college education and therefore a great future in which we can contribute to the world.”

Haylee is also channelling that impact into the family atmosphere that helped shape the young woman she is today.

“My platform is Fostering The Future,” said Haylee.  “It focuses on the need to support our local foster care families, foster care children, and the great people who work with these families and children at our Department of Health and Human Services.  I want kids in foster care to be part of a family, too.  I want my community to support our foster care families so the families can focus on loving the foster children in their homes.”

Families like the Oakeys, who are now raising three, little princesses who I hope grow up watching Miss America and maybe someday, walk across the Miss Nebraska stage with their proud parents in the crowd.

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John, if your little girls need a royal role model, Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen Haylee Umble is your gal.

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“My main goal at the pageant is not necessarily to win, but to do my very best,” said Haylee.  “I want to build lasting friendships with all the girls as well.  In the future, I wish to impact children as a teacher.  I want to make the lasting statement on them that they matter, are special and are loved.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Haylee Umble on Facebook!

For more information about the Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen Pageant or how you can become a contestant, CLICK HERE to visit their website, or CLICK HERE to follow on Facebook!  You can also email Director Cheryl Engelhaupt by emailing cengelhaupt@fnbnp.com.

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook. For more information about becoming a contestant, email Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska State Fair 2017 Jenni Wahonick

NEXT.. Miss Kearney’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Carsyn Long

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

The Meaning Of Life

Guys, I’m pooped.  Not enough coffee in my house and not enough creativity in my head.  I’ve been sitting here, grasping for inspiration, and a moment outside caught my attention.. a little boy doing backflips on his trampoline.  Do you remember that?  Boundless energy.  No fear.  The adrenaline rush of trying something like a flip and boom–just doing it.  That little guy isn’t thinking about everything on his to-do list, or how nice a nap sounds right now.. he is enjoying every second of springing backward without a care in the world.

As adults, we take every moment for granted.  We don’t just jump.. we dwell on all of the reasons why we can’t; we don’t have time, we should be working, we could get hurt. But then I see things like this:

At 10:10 am on March 3, 2017, in his mamma’s arms, Trucker took his last breath here and went home to be with Jesus.💔💔💔  We prayed that his passing (and I say passing because we have hope of seeing him again in Heaven) would be peaceful, not painful and with ohana there.

This brave child, just 3 years old, died Friday after a valiant battle with cancer.  This morning, I just stared at my boys for a few seconds.  How do I ever take for granted each precious second God has given me with them? How do I think of anything but how blessed we are that we have two happy, healthy boys?

The simple answer is.. because we subconsciously have an ‘invincible’ mentality.  ‘This is so sad.. but it could never happen to me.’  We get busy with work and drama and what we think is so important, and we forget the everyday beauty that life truly is all about.  Even after 15 years of covering terrible things that DID happen to us, right here in Nebraska.. it takes moments like this to wake me up. To remind me to celebrate everything special we have and to never, ever assume the next day will happen.

“Life is too short to go one second without a smile,” I heard recently. “Whether I am having the most stressful day of my life or I am having one of the most exciting days of my life I always remember to stay positive and smile through it all.”

Miss Kool-Aid Days 2017 Krista Hinrichs

Krista is a brand new titleholder in the Miss Nebraska Organization, showcasing her own ‘live for the moment’ mantra when she signed up to compete for Miss Kool-Aid Days last summer.

“Before 2016 I don’t think I could ever picture myself gliding across a stage in a formal gown or speaking in front of hundreds people,” said Krista.  “One of my close friends, Chelsea Arnold (Miss Kool-Aid Days 2016, click here to read more) asked me if I would be interested in participating.  I always followed her journey and I thought it looked like an amazing experience.  I told myself to just go for it and see what would happen.  I was overjoyed to hear my name called as the new titleholder and it is a moment I will never forget.”

And since that night, Krista has graciously accepted and embraced every life experience that crown and sash have offered her.

“In the past few months I have had the opportunity to go to parades and perform, speak to schools about my platform and participate in so many fun events that I will cherish forever,” said Krista.  “I have been able to volunteer throughout my community and help others in need and find out more about how others live around me.  I have learned so much about communicating with others and being able to stand up in front of others and express what is important to me.  The Miss Nebraska [program] has given me more confidence than I knew I was capable of.”

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Krista’s Miss Kool-Aid Days winter newsletter

Krista also knows the impact she can have on children who view her as nothing less than royalty every time she enters a classroom.  She’s used that exposure to teach kids a lesson that will be important now and long after her pageant days are done.

“My platform is Distracted Driving,” said Krista.  “[This] affects all ages and everyone has a voice when it comes to protecting the ones we love.  It is important for older ages to be informed on the dangers they have on others if they are driving while distracted.  It is also important for younger ages to understand that even though they are not driving they can always remind their parents or older siblings that they love them and they want everyone to arrive at the destination safely.”

Krista does all of this; speaking at schools, volunteering at events and advocating for important causes, while studying at Midland University, where she’s majoring in Psychology and Art Management and performing for the school’s award winning dance squad.

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“I always remember to set goals for myself and push myself to achieve my goals one step at a time,” said Krista.  “Whether its working towards a first place award at a dance competition, achieving a high GPA or going for Miss Nebraska, everything comes in steps and each step will bring me closer to achieving my dreams.  While balancing school, dance team, family, friends and pageant events I have learned to make the balance equal between all of these activities so I can be the best I can be in each area.”

This young woman is making the most of every day, filling her life with meaningful moments while appreciating every person and experience.  Much of that she credits to self determination, compassion for others and positivity.. traits she hopes to impress upon others throughout this special year.

“I love taking any opportunity I can get to be a role model for others,” said Krista.  “This organization has allowed me to serve in a way where younger girls can look up to me and I can offer them words of encouragement and allow them to believe in themselves.”

Krista’s goals: she wants to take the feedback she receives competing and use that to improve as a person, while also supporting her fellow contestants in anyway she can. She wants to raise as much money as possible for the Children’s Miracle Network of Hospitals, money that goes straight to our local hospitals and doctors finding ways to save little boys like Trucker.  (To date, she’s raised $1857) To everyone who meets Miss Kool-Aid Days 2017 Krista Hinrichs, whether it be a little girl at a parade or a someone simply looking for inspiration, she offers a reminder to live in the now and to be grateful for every minute.

“I would be honored and thrilled if I was crowned the next Miss Nebraska,” said Krista.  “I also hope to always continue to be a role model to others throughout my life and be there for others whenever they may need me.  My final goal is to always be happy and positive and enjoy every moment of this amazing experience.”

My sincere condolences to those who loved Trucker Dukes, especially his mom and dad.  My heart is broken for you, and your sweet boy is in my prayers.

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To follow Miss Kool-Aid Days 2017 Krista Hinrichs on Facebook, CLICK HERE.

For more information about the Miss Kool-Aid Days Pageant or to become a contestant, CLICK HERE to visit their website, or CLICK HERE to visit their site on Facebook.  You can also emails Directors Angie Trausch at angie.trausch@gmail.com or Angela Keiser at angelakeiser@gmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Eastern Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Naomi Turner

NEXT.. Miss Metro’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Jamie Chen

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Intervention

The emerging theme for many of my posts lately has been assumptions.  The descriptions and details we assume to be fact because of what we’ve heard, societal influence, whatever the case may be.  Often, part of the challenge in spreading awareness about a cause or topic is changing the misconceptions people may have about it.

For example: addiction.  What do you think of?  Someone dirty, desperate, homeless.. or an upper middle class housewife living a seemingly normal, if not perfect life?

For several years now, my former colleague and award-winning friend Julie Cornell has worked tirelessly to shed light on what many view as a prescription drug epidemic in Nebraska.  Her reports have led to public questions and changes in state law.  That work has also encouraged people to come forward and get help.. people like Claire Winkelbauer. The mother of four and minister’s wife became addicted to hydrocodone after she was prescribed the drug post-surgery.

“Without God, without my husband, without people that love you, I honestly believe in my heart that I wouldn’t be here today,” she told Julie.  CLICK HERE to see Julie’s full story as part of KETV’s year-long State Of Addiction series.

Stories like this are taking place all around us, whether we know it or not.  It’s the reason a Bellevue teenager has dedicated her year to what she calls a Message of Hope.

Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Katie Harris

“My platform is called ‘A Message of Hope: Raising Awareness to Drug and Substance Abuse.’  I chose this because I have seen what the effects of drug abuse can do to a person and the people around them,” Katie told me recently.  “Since this kind of topic has greatly affected my family, I wanted to teach young adolescents the dangers of drugs and alcohol so that they can make the right decisions on their path to their future.”

Katie is a role model to her peers at Bellevue West High School, and now to countless children across the Omaha metro area.

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Crowned Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen in October, Katie immediately used her crown and sash as an ‘in’ to speak to classes and groups.

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Katie speaking at Westside’s Loveland Elementary

She’s also spreading her message across social media and more, urging her followers to share posts and pictures advocating for drug abuse awareness.

I’ll be selling these Message of Hope shirts to raise money for my Miss Omahas Outstanding Teen platform called “A Message of Hope: Raising Awareness to Drug and Substance Abuse”. All proceeds with go to the Omaha Valley Hope Association. They are a non-profit organization for people who are in the process of recovering from addiction. They are $15!! Please message me if interested!!

When a young woman is crowned a Miss So&So, they are not required to take part in community service.  They aren’t forced to give countless hours of their time, their evenings and weekends, to promote a cause.  Katie does all of this in addition to her studies at Bellevue West High School, where she is a member of the Varsity Cheer Squad, and competitive baton twirling as a member of the World Champion Stepper-Ettes Baton and Dance.

Katie, and women like her, give their time to others because they are determined to make a difference.  It’s why Katie decided to compete in a pageant in the first place.

“I care about others!” said Katie.  “I love helping people and being involved in the lives of others, which explains why I want to pursue a career in the medical field!  [I am] hard working because you get out the amount of work you put in.  I truly believe that working hard now will pay off later in life.  And finally, [I am] kind because kindness is key! A simple compliment or ‘hello’ to someone could make their day.  Plus, who doesn’t love to see someone smile because of you?”

These are all of the qualities Katie hopes to show a panel of judges when she competes to become Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“[Pageants] give girls confidence!” said Katie.  “Not everyone can go on stage and answer a question in front of lots of people and get judged on it… literally!  I think there’s a message behind pageants, also, and it’s that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.  Never give up!”

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To pageant naysayers, Katie notes the three women with her in this photo, and countless others not pictured.

“My favorite part of this competition is meeting new people! I love making friends!” said Katie.  “I have met so many people and it has given me opportunities that I never imagined I would’ve had before.  It also boosted my self esteem/confidence because I worked so hard for this and I plan on working harder for the next step.”

Which path Katie Harris takes that next step could be determined in April.  Her end goal will stay the same, regardless if she’s Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen or Katie Harris, a truly outstanding teenager.

“Other than wanting to win, my goal is to spread the message of hope to more places in Nebraska,” said Katie.  “I want to further my platform and impact the lives of young adolescents and teens.  Most of all, I want to be the reason someone said no to drugs.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen Katie Harris or to get more information about the Miss Omaha/Miss Douglas County’s Outstanding Teen Pageant!  You can also email Director Kelsey Ellis at omahadouglascountyot@gmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook. For more information about becoming a contestant, email Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Sydny Ridgeway

NEXT.. Miss Omaha 2017 Wellesley Michael

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!