Tag Archive | westside

Hoops For Hope

Be Great.

That was the Westside Warriors motto from day one of winter sports practice. Their coach asked them, what is your goal this season? The girls varsity team answered collectively: they wanted to be great. ‘What does that mean?’ Coach Clark responded.

I reached out to Coach Clark in November to see if some of his girls would be willing to visit Westside elementary schools for assemblies or guest opportunities; they had already been doing it for several weeks. They even volunteered at the District Kindness Retreat, mentoring students one on one. Their message: don’t make excuses, and don’t place blame. Love each other.

It was around this time these student athletes were also forced to practice what they preached; they’d suffered a tough loss to a top team in Class A, and lost their #2 and #3 players to season-ending injuries. They told each other and classroom after classroom, we won’t be defined by our challenges. We don’t make excuses. We don’t place blame. We love each other.

Every game day, the Warriors gathered together as a team for breakfast to reconnect and focus. After select home games, they ate pizza with a younger team, invited as their special guests. Their message when things got hard and when things started going right: no matter what happens, we won’t make excuses. We won’t place blame. We love each other.

District Champs

January – Westside won the Metro Holiday Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

February – Westside won the District Championship and a ticket to State.

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March – Westside won the NSAA Class A State Championship for just the 3rd time since Girls Basketball became a sanctioned sport in Nebraska. Their 28 wins in the 2017-2018 season set a new school record.

Monday night, less than 48 hours after their victory.. these players attended the 8th grade league championship, to support the younger girls they had invited to one of their games weeks earlier.

8th grade

Michael Jordan once said, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

The Westside Warriors seemed to understand early on that to Be Great was so much more than taking the top prize at the end of the season; it was about meeting every challenge, and sharing what they learned with others along the way.

Jessica Shultis gets it, too… both the game, and the message.


She was a multi-sport high school athlete who went on to play collegiate basketball for Doane University. She had barely begun.. when everything in her world changed.

“During my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer,” Jessica told me. “I [now] speak to students about what it takes to overcome obstacles, whether it is bullying, academic struggles or terminal illness.”



At 23 years old, Jessica found a way to open more doors to share her story ,when she was crowned Miss Kearney and qualified to compete for the title of Miss Nebraska 2017. She finished as 2nd runner-up. Just months ago, Jessica was crowned Miss Lincoln.

“People are far more receptive to having Miss Lincoln come speak as opposed to simply Jessica Shultis. The title gives me an excellent platform to talk about issues that are important to me as well as make a difference in my community,” said Jessica. “Thanks to my connections in the basketball community, I am able to host fundamental camps free of any expense to myself, called Hoops for Hope. Due to the generous donations of others, all proceeds raised directly benefit Children’s Hospital in Omaha.”

But once again, Jessica faced challenges in her journey. At the ‘ripe old age’ of 24, Jessica was past the ‘age cutoff’ for women who hope to compete for Miss America and their state title, and didn’t think she’d be able to get a second chance to represent the state where she’s been her entire life.


“I fell in love with the job of Miss Kearney and was devastated that I only had one opportunity to compete at Miss Nebraska,” said Jessica. “Even though I didn’t walk away with the crown last year, I walked away with thousands of dollars in scholarships that I was able to apply to my educational endeavors. As someone who has completed her Bachelor’s degree and is about to complete a Master’s degree, I cannot emphasize the importance of scholarships enough.”

Then in January, the Miss America Organization announced a historic decision allowing women up to 25 years old to compete. It was the chance Jessica had been watching and waiting for.

“The week before the Miss Lincoln Pageant was a roller coaster waiting for confirmation,” said Jessica. “Friday night before the Saturday pageant, at 11pm, I received a text from Miss Nebraska Executive Director Rachel Daly that I was cleared to compete. I could hardly sleep that night, so I competed on pure adrenaline that stemmed from my excitement to step onstage again.”

Jessica Shultis is a woman who has set goals for herself her entire life. This summer, she will transition into the role of Human Resources Manager with that new Master’s Degree. She plans to earn her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She wants to continue advocating for equality across all social classes, races, and sexes, inspired by women like Oprah Winfrey and the other titleholders she’s gotten to know through the Miss Nebraska program.

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Just like her basketball sisters 50 miles east, Jessica wants to be great. Her state championship trophy is the Miss Nebraska crown.

“I want to walk away knowing that I did everything I could to prepare,” said Jessica. “These ladies know the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in all aspects of life.”

Don’t make excuses. Don’t place blame. Love each other.

Be Great.

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Photo courtesy Olivia Washburn for Westside Journalism

“Love always wins. Love conquers fear. Love is what makes a team. I can whole-hearted say I love my team like sisters. We are truly better together.” – Elizabeth Robinson, Westside Warriors Basketball Player

“I’ve had the opportunity to share my message about the importance of never losing hope. While I hope I’ve had an impact on the kids in attendance, I leave a better person because of each of them.” – Miss Lincoln, Jessica Shultis.

Jessica final

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography


To follow Miss Lincoln Jessica Shultis on Facebook, click here.


CLICK HERE * 2017 * The Chameleon Queen

For more information about the Miss Lincoln/Miss Star City Pageant or to become a contestant, CLICK HERE to visit their site on Facebook.  You can also email Director Christy Merritt at Christy.Merritt@TheWaterFord.net.


The Miss Nebraska Scholarship Competition takes place June 7-9 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Facebook

CLICK HERE to follow the Miss Nebraska Organization on Twitter


PREVIOUS.. Miss Fur Trade Days Outstanding Teen Gabriella Wagner

NEXT.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen Chloe Blumanthal

Love, Learn, Kindergarten

This is a tough time to be an educator.

I’ve always had deep respect for teachers; mine throughout the years at Papio had a profound impact on my life. Ms. Blase, Mr. McCaw, Mrs. Gess… and the high school teachers who were also my mentors and now, friends: Mrs. Ruff, ‘Nien’, Ms. Kollars, and Mr. Johnston.

To be a teacher is to believe in someone, to make them feel like they are something special and that you want to take the time to help them do everything they want and more in this world.

My friend Matt, a phenomenal educator now at Creighton Prep, told me once, ‘anytime you get discouraged, just go to a school.’ Best. Advice. Ever. When I walk into the doors of any of Westside’s 13 schools, I see hope. I see joy in learning. I see happiness.

Perfect example: Mr. Carlson’s Kindergarten class at Rockbrook Elementary.


Every time I walk into Dustin’s classroom, he is on the floor or at a table with his students. They are engaged and laughing. On the day I stopped by last week, Mr. Carlson and his students were making robots – he is a leader in STEM and coding, making this ever-important skill FUN for kids as young as 5 and 6 years old. He is teaching them educational and life skills, things that become the building blocks for a lifetime of learning… but to these children, Mr. Carlson is their buddy and a guy they look forward to seeing and spending time with everyday. Click here to check out Mr. Carlson’s Kindergarten website, and click here to follow Mr. Carlson’s Kindergarten class on Twitter!

From his principal (another incredible educator) Garret Higginbotham: “Mr. Carlson is a teacher often remembered by his former students and visited years later as well.  He keeps the caring and character that has made Kindergarten such a special place while infusing skills such as coding and robotics.  Few Kindergarten students are concerned with their teacher’s professional credentials, though his include being an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Nationally Board Certified Teacher, but students have certainly benefited from his professional commitment.  More importantly, Mr. Carlson does what makes our most memorable teachers so… well… memorable.  They know their students, they care about them, and they make learning an adventure.  The love of teaching shines through in a love of learning and in the commitment to see each and every child grow, learn, and succeed.”

A commitment to children. Making a difference in young people’s lives. Those are the same things that are pulling a young, future teacher to this wonderful world of Kindergarten education.

Kiera final

“To me, service is most important,” says Kiera Rhodes, Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen 2018. “Being able to go out and help others can also teach you many valuable lessons.”



Kiera, a 17-year old from North Platte, has wanted to positively influence lives since she was impacted as a little girl, a Little Sister in the Miss Nebraska Organization and mentored by Miss Douglas County Mindy Schreiber (click here to read more!). That desire to lead and teach was reinforced again last year, when Kiera herself  was a titleholder in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program.

Kiera and Lianna

“Last year I was Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s OT, and my ‘big sister’ was Lianna Prill,” said Kiera. “She has become a huge role model to me; she’s so selfless and genuine and she taught me so many things this past year.”

Kiera wants to pay it forward, hoping to become Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen this April. Already, she’s visiting children’s groups and elementary schools with a message: Turning Setbacks Into Comebacks.


“[I] focus on doing just that, turning the challenges we face into something positive,” said Kiera. “I make it known that there are always people to talk to about your challenges. I love going to classrooms. I want to teach Kindergarten and I think this is absolutely helping me. Through this organization I’ve learned how to talk to people in a way that all people can understand.”


Look at those smiles.. a clear measure of the impact one person can have on the world and the people in it.

“I think that if we really push that being yourself is ‘the thing’ to do, then more people would just be happy with who they are, which is how it should be!’ said Kiera.

The average life span of an American is 79 years. Think of everything we do in those eight decades. At just five years old, Kindergarten often becomes the foundation for it all.

“Kindergarten is a magical moment in the life of a child,” said Garret Higginbotham. “For many children, it is the first full day experience they have with school. Countless memories are made and nearly all of us can recall the name of our own Kindergarten teacher.”

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Hundreds of children will remember Mr. Carlson. Dozens more educators are inspired by his work, hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Kiera Rhodes hopes to make a difference, too – as an educator, and possibly, as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

Kiera official

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography


To follow Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen Kiera Rhodes on Facebook, click here.


CLICK HERE * 2017 * It Takes A Village

For more information about the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program or to become a contestant, CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook, or CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Twitter. You can also contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at KaliNicoleTV@gmail.com.


The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Competition takes place April 28 in North Omaha, Nebraska.


PREVIOUS.. Miss Fur Trade Days Tristen Wecker

NEXT.. Miss Kool-Aid Days Nikki Catrina Anderson

Finding Our Purpose

Westside Superintendent Dr. Blane McCann delivered a BRILLIANT speech at our District’s commencement ceremony last weekend. His theme: purpose. In front of thousands of graduates, parents, family members and educators, he said in part..

Purpose is the little flame that keeps you going. Your challenge after today is to find that flame: your purpose. It is something that your parents can’t find for you; you have to look for it. It’s not always easy to find. Every, single one of you has a unique purpose to fulfill.

Every single one of us is here for a reason.

Think about that.

My friend Lisa recently told me something that I have thought about off and on ever since. Her husband is Brian Duensing, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Brian and Lisa

Brian was one of the best pitchers the University of Nebraska – Lincoln has ever produced. He’s an Olympian, representing the United States on the 2008 US Baseball team in Beijing. He was a starter for the Minnesota Twins for years, and now plays for the World Champions in Chicago. He and Lisa could do anything, enjoying his success and living a life few only dream of. Instead, these happily married parents of three devote every, waking hour to their passions: family and doing everything in their power to ensure happiness for other families.

As Brian’s fame grew, he and Lisa started receiving T-shirts in the mail, asking him to share support for pediatric cancer patients across his popular social media accounts. The Duensings embraced the challenge; every day of every September, Brian sports a new shirt and shares information about that child and their cause. He and Lisa started the Brian Duensing Foundation, a non-profit organization taking these fundraising efforts to an even higher level. Every game, as players wives sit in the stands, Lisa sits in the family lounge and works for hours on Foundation plans and ideas, like their now annual fundraiser bringing baseball’s biggest names to Omaha to raise money for pediatric cancer-related causes.


The Brian Duensing Foundation Event in 2015 at Ralston Arena. I was honored to emcee the fundraiser and VIP Q&A session with World Series Champion Alex Gordon, Duensing, future Hall of Famer Joe Mauer and the MLB’s first ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte.

The Duensings have raised HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for Nebraska based causes that help families battling cancer. That text I mentioned that Lisa sent me?

“These are the reasons God made Brian a baseball player. I know it.”

This year, Brian and Lisa Duensing will focus their purpose on a little boy named Sammy.


At four years old, Sammy Nahorny was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a solid tumor that begins on immature nerve cells, and is very difficult to treat. Many cases of Neuroblastoma begin in the abdomen, and commonly affect the adrenal glands. Within days of his diagnosis, Sammy had surgery; doctors told his parents his cancer was Stage 4 and high risk. His mom, Erin and dad, Chris, immediately started researching options.. and found few. Their quest for hope was far-reaching and relentless, not just for Sammy, but for every other child facing this terrible disease. Their community in Columbus rallied, drawing the support of not only the Duensings, but of Miss Nebraska USA 2014 Amanda Soltero, Olympic Gold Medalist Curt Tomasevicz, music superstar Jason Derulo and more. They all united to become Sammy’s Superheroes… and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and counting for research, assistance and more. Just as importantly, they have become a voice, loud and clear, for all children and families regarding legislation, funding and awareness.

This superhero squad has grown yet again in recent months.

Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

“This is a great organization that started in my hometown!” Alayna told me recently. “Sammy’s Superheroes raises awareness to pediatric cancer and has helped many families who are affected by this. I’ve had many family members fight this hard battle and I’m happy that I am able to help this cause.”

Alayna Wilson is a recent graduate of Scotus Central Catholic, a cheerleader for both her school and her entire hometown of Columbus, Nebraska. A girl with a constant smile and self-described ‘bubbly and happy’ personality, she was looking for a way to make a bigger difference advocating for causes like Sammy’s Superheroes.

awi miss gering

She found it when crowned Miss Gering 2017 in February.

“I love the stage and helping others,” Alayna said. “I wanted to spread my platform and this was the best way possible. I perfected my paperwork, platform and talent and drove to North Platte for one of the best weekends of my life.”

And a BUSY one at that, much like every other weekend in Alayna’s jam-packed senior year. She’s a competitive dancer, and a member of the All-American team by the National Cheer Association. The same day she met her fellow titleholders at Miss Nebraska Orientation, she immediately left to head back to Columbus for a major competition.

Still, to Alayna, this new title meant responsibility; to serve others. She’s volunteered for fundraisers in Columbus, Lincoln and Omaha, even using her Senior Skip Day to travel to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center to deliver care packages for the Miss Nebraska Serves project.

“My favorite part of this organization is the volunteer work!” said Alayna. “I love how each contestant has multiple hours of volunteer work under their belt. It’s so humbling to be among the amazing Miss Nebraska Class of 2017! There’s nothing that makes me happier than helping others.”

awi little sister

And meeting others is part of what has made this journey so memorable for Alayna.

“It is an honor to be part of this organization. I love every minute of it,” said Alayna. “I have 15 new sisters, a sister queen and a little sister. This is a family. We are a family that supports and encourages each other. This gives me motivation when I need that extra push.”

I’m guessing the Nahorny’s would say the same thing about their network of superheroes. The strangers and neighbors, the celebrities and friends, the Duensings and Alayna Wilson… they are all part of a supportive and encouraging squad of strength who love Sammy like family.

AWI with Sammy

Sammy IS a superhero. This fall, just months after passing the 5th anniversary of his diagnosis, he’ll join us own personal Justice League to fight the evil that threatens so many innocent children just like him. We will find a way to beat cancer, allowing Sammy to find his purpose, just like his Superheroes Brian and Lisa Duensing have.

Alayna Wilson hopes to follow in their footsteps.

awi europe

“Each day is a new day for laughter and spreading happiness,” said Alayna. “I obviously hope to be Miss Nebraska whether that time is this year, or the next, or the next. I know that that is somewhere along my path. Overall, I hope to do my best and meet and influence people along the journey. My mission is to spread the name of Sammy’s Superheroes and spread love, happiness and encouragement as well.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Sammy’s Superheroes

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Brian Duensing Foundation


Click here to follow Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson on Facebook!

Alayna 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.


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.


PREVIOUS.. Miss Douglas County 2017 Kogan Murphy

NEXT.. Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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!

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

I was that kid who walked home from school with her nose in a book.  Well, as far as my nose could get with my big glasses.  <blink, blink>  I still remember trying to read my Babysitters Club books in my bed long after the lights had been turned off, and eventually my Mom walking past my room and saying ‘Brandi, book down! Sleep!’  I even started ‘testing’ myself to see how many pages I could read out loud without making a mistake.

I had friends as a child.  I swear.

My Grandpa still loves to share the story of how, at 3 years old, I stood behind him while he read the paper, and I sounded out the words in the headline.  A love of reading has simply been in my soul from a very early age..


..and still is.. at a much older age.  When Westside’s Oakdale Elementary asked me to come in for Read Across America week, I eagerly accepted.  This was the HIGHLIGHT of my Tuesday (my Fox in Socks game is ON POINT!)  Anytime a school asks me to read, I try to make it happen.  I just love seeing children excited to read or be read to, and I hope to foster that same passion for reading in other kids (especially my own!)  So does an Omaha teenager, who likely draws a few more ‘wows’ and smiles than I do every time she walks into a classroom.

Miss Eastern Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Naomi Turner

“Most children and teens have simply forgotten what a great book does to your attitude and mind,” Naomi told me recently.  “I wanted my platform to involve reading because I feel as if many do not fully understand the importance of reading in the world of technology we’re living in.”

Naomi does, because reading hasn’t always come easily for her.  She grew up with dyslexia.

“Reading was always a challenge for me, no matter the book,” said Naomi.  “Although I did not want to read much, with help from family and friends I grew a love for reading because when I read more, my dyslexia (I refer to it as ‘fighting words’) was not as prominent as before when I would read less.  It might seem a bit odd for a dyslexic individual to say ‘read more!’ but reading really improves a person’s mindset, attitude and overall lifestyle.”

As she faced these challenges, Naomi also explored other ways to express herself through music and photography.  She plays the cello, one of the reasons she was drawn to compete in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program.


“With various orchestra activities like All-City Orchestra, Pit Orchestra and my Honors Orchestra class at school, I work with a  large group of individuals to help showcase all of our talents and how we can sound incredible when working together,” said Naomi.  “In the talent competition, I am able to deviate from the usual and showcase my own talent without other helping me.  I love playing in an orchestra, but playing solo is also a great challenge!”

And Naomi is used to being in the spotlight; she also models in the Omaha area for businesses including the Winning Crown Dress Boutique and Lady Beverly Cosmetics.

All photos courtesy Marc Longbrake Photography

Naomi is also interested in what goes on behind the camera, taking part in broadcasting at Omaha Burke High School and learning all she can from local professionals.


“At Skills USA, I compete in short films challenges,” said Naomi, who is the President of her Chapter at Burke.  “I’m also an active volunteer for the Omaha Film Festival each year and I attend their academy for teens that brings in professional actors and filmmakers to hold workshops.  I have already taken college courses in film and plan to continue to pursue my passion for it.”

Naomi is ready for those job interviews and grant proposals, crediting public speaking skills to her time as a titleholder within the National American Miss Organization and as Miss Nebraska High School 2015.


“Preparing for and competing in pageants teaches important life skills!” said Naomi.  “I feel interview prep especially has benefitted me.  My parents always taught me to look adults in the eye and speak up.  Pageants reinforce this with the interview portion of competition; it is a great chance to practice speaking to people you don’t know and being confident in yourself.  I have paid close attention to what is going on in my community, state, and world to be prepared to speak about important issues.  [These] are important for my future, wherever that may take me.”

Throughout the years, Naomi has also used her titles and exposure to take part in a variety of events advocating for numerous causes, often connecting her to other young women with the same goals and interests.

“I remember all of the friends I made while I competed, and I wanted to meet even more inspiring young women from around our state,” said Naomi.

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. – Dr. Seuss.

Miss Eastern Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Naomi Turner IS one of those inspiring young women.  This self described vivacious leader has displayed ambition and drive from her own classrooms, to those of younger students all over the Omaha area.  For her, reading is not simply a lesson in school; it’s a pathway that leads to countless experiences and opportunities throughout life.  She hopes to continue sharing that message on a larger scale as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.


“Being a leader means looking out for others around you, not just yourself,” said Naomi.  “With Read Across America, I hope to restore children and teens’ love for reading by reintroducing the concept of reading for fun back into their minds and lives.  I also want to empower those who are struggling with dyslexia.  I want to inspire as many kids and teens as possible to read more and help them to understand the many benefits they can gain from it!”


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.


PREVIOUS.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Kiera Rhodes

NEXT.. Miss Kool-Aid Days 2017 Krista Hinrichs

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!

It Takes a Village

For the first time in 16 years, Westside High School won a gold medal at the NSAA State Wrestling Championships this year.  In fact, TWO Warriors made it to the top of the podium.


Josh Jansa and Darlondo Hill worked tirelessly all season and for years prior to earn this achievement.  So did a handful of men working nonstop behind the scenes.. their coaches. These student athletes are Head Coach Mike Jernigan’s FIRST state champions.

“Getting your first state champion makes a coach feel that ‘I finally did it.  I do know what I am doing!’” Jernigan told me. “Getting two in the same tournament is even better! I finally felt like I belonged to the coaching fraternity. To finally have a state champion to call our own is a great feeling. I know my assistant coaches haven’t stopped talking about it yet.”

Behind every star is a support network.  Oscar winners thank their agents, Olympic athletes thank their coaches, EVERYONE thanks the family members who cheered them on every step of the way.  The Miss Nebraska Organization is no different; behind every charismatic, stunning, role model.. there is a village.  Executive Director Rachel Daly spends countless hours preparing our titleholders to be the best they can be for Miss America and for their entire year of service.  President Janet Heinzle has volunteered for DECADES to constantly strengthen the program’s support network in North Platte, Nebraska and beyond.  Scholarship Director Megan Doughty spends time every day securing new financial opportunities with countless business partners and universities.  And Board Member Carol Halley has dedicated the last 25+ years to a group known as the Miss Nebraska Little Sisters.


Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

The Little Sister’s program was started as a good will gesture between girls in the community and Miss Nebraska contestants. They meet at orientation and spend much of Miss Nebraska week together, including time on stage during the pageant itself. These friendships often last for many years and create a lasting bond between the big sister and little sister; it’s a direct connection between outstanding role models and little girls who absolutely adore their ‘big sisters’. Carol organizes ALL of this, and the impact is during that week of competition and for years after is simply immeasurable.

Here’s proof:

Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Kiera Rhodes

“When I was 10, I was a Little Sister in the Miss Nebraska Pageant,” Kiera told me recently.  “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  My Big Sister was Mindy Schreiber; she was awesome.  Her talent was singing and I just looked up to her the whole time.  She got first runner up that year and I was so proud of her.  What I pulled away from that experience was the effect the girls had on my life.  I decided that I wanted to change people’s lives the way those girls did when I was younger.”

Mindy Schreiber, like so many of our contestants, is the textbook definition of ROLE MODEL.  She completed college in 3 years while working in her intended career field.  She held five local titles; a tireless advocate for her community, volunteering for the Teammates program.  She is kind, beautiful, healthy and hardworking.  And ‘little’ Kiera has emulated each and everyone of the traits she witnessed in her ‘big sister’.

“I am self motivated because I haven’t always needed someone to be telling me why and how I should do something, I just do it and I push myself to work hard for what I want,” said Kiera.  “I would like to say that I’m outgoing, I love talking and getting to know people.  I am very dedicated to the activities I am involved in; when I join something I always want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help out.”

And boy, is this girl doing that as Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen.

Kiera is literally EVERYWHERE.  She’s signed autographs at carnivals, walked in charity fashion shows and volunteered at numerous local events.  Check out this article including Kiera in the North Platte Telegraph!  This busy sophomore, a student at North Platte High School, was selected for UNK Honor Choir this year, she’s performed the national anthem several times and she’s involved in musical productions in her hometown.  Singing is one of her favorite parts of being a titleholder and competing.


Click here to hear Kiera’s recent national anthem performance at the District Basketball game in North Platte!

“I’ve always loved singing ever since I was little,” said Kiera.  “When I’m on stage singing, it’s like no one is watching and I’m just expressing my feelings.  It truly is an indescribable feeling.”

Kiera’s personal platform of service is ‘Bust A Smile – Break Down a Barrier’, encouraging others to break out of comfort zones to try something new or make a new friend.

“I really think a big problem we face today is not only the generational gaps but even the gaps within our own generations,” said Kiera. “More people need to realize that we all have a lot more in common than we think. Not only that but we can all teach each other valuable things if we would all just talk to one another more often.”

Fewer cliques, more connections.


A mission that’s only been fueled by Kiera’s participation in the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program.

“Obviously we all want to win, but only one of us can win,” said Kiera. “The girls I’ve met and competed against are girls that are very true and they are super nice and I know I’m going to have long lasting friendships with [them].”


Kiera with Miss Twin Rivers 2017 Emma Wilkinson; both were Miss Nebraska Little Sisters

Tremendous maturity and perspective from a teenager, likely credited to her parents, her sisters both by blood and by title, and the volunteers who worked behind the scenes to pave her way to success.  Thanks to the village, women like Carol Halley, little girls across Nebraska grow up with a little extra sparkle.. then as young women share that with countless generations who follow their paths.  Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen Kiera Rhodes hopes to continue that legacy.

‘Little Girls with Dreams become Women with vision!’ – Carol Halley

“My biggest goal is just that I’ve impacted at least one person’s life in a good way,” said Kiera.  “Those girls taught me to be more confident in my opinions and that it’s ok to express your opinion.  Never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.”



CLICK HERE to follow Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen Kiera Rhodes.

For more information about the Miss Harvest Moon Festival/Miss Alliance/Miss Panhandle’s Outstanding Teen Pageant and to become a contestant, email Director Melinda Cullan at maot.alliance@gmail.com.


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

For more information about the Miss Nebraska Little Sister Program CLICK HERE.


PREVIOUS.. Miss Old West Balloon Fest 2017 Tristen Wecker

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

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!

Just The Way You Are

Last fall, I had the honor of emceeing the Lighthouse Leader and Hall of Fame Gala for Westside Community Schools. This biannual event recognizes alumni and supporters who have demonstrated exemplary leadership, success and dedication to their careers and communities. All ten of our inductees are extraordinary, but one in particular caught my attention as I prepared my remarks.

Dr. Suzanne Hutchinson Verma grew up in Omaha and attended Westside High School. She’s now one of the world’s leading experts in Anaplastology; she rebuilds FACES. Patients around the world, including children, come to Suzi to reconstruct their faces after cancer, birth defects and accidents. Multiple times in her career, she’s operated for free on patients who cannot afford help.

Dr. Verma and I are about the same age. I mean, we’re basically the same person… Faux Pelini RETWEETED me once. That’s a really big deal.

WHAT?!?!?! I shook my head in disbelief as I researched this incredible woman’s accomplishments. Once in awhile, we come across people in life that have just set the bar higher, their contributions to the world are exponentially greater. It may not be their intent, but they inspire the rest of us to DO MORE, to BE BETTER. Cue 12-year old Phoenix Stanford.

Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Phoenix Stanford

She can’t get in to a rated R movie, yet this girl has already testified before the Nebraska Legislature, been a featured guest at several high profile events and spent countless hours volunteering across Sarpy County.

(Again.. we’re basically the same person. When I was 12, I set a new Tetris record on my Nintendo.)

“My parents have raised me since I was 5 years old to always be involved in giving back to the community,” Phoenix told me recently. “I believe helping out those who are less fortunate and donating your time to an event helps people to rise.”

Phoenix has touched communities around the world, literally, due to her military upbringing.

“I was raised in England and spent most of my childhood there. That was where I first started school,” said Phoenix. “All my friends were British and all the activities I was involved in were all done with the local nationals. Having to leave my childhood friends behind devastated me. It was a difficult transition when I moved. I missed my British food, I missed living in Europe and seeing medieval buildings around me. I was terrified to start school not knowing anyone around there. After having moving here, I met more military children. I’ve learned that the many who go through things like this soon give up the will to want to make new friends because they know that they are just going to move again.”


Phoenix took her own experiences and set out to help others facing the same challenges. When she became Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017, she put a name on her mission: ‘Beyond The Yellow Ribbon: Support for Military Children.’

“Because this is something I can strongly touch base with and it is an issue that kids and teens have to go through, I wanted to make a difference,” said Phoenix. “The military has blessed my family and I with incredible opportunities that most people don’t get. I am forever grateful for it. This is why I want to give back to the men and women who serve and still continue to serve. ‘Beyond the Yellow Ribbon’ is about helping kids and teens go through these difficult moves, and also spread the word to civilians to let them know that not only do their parents serve, but us as the youth serve, too.”


Phoenix is engaging her peers, her school and community members both in and outside the military. Her most recent pictures show a glimpse of all of her hard work; from the Remembering The Fallen exhibit on display at her school, to her volunteer efforts to raise money for military families.


Got to help out at Offutt Air Force Base’s Thrift Store today! The revenue that is brought in goes toward many base organizations, off base community organizations, as well as scholarships for high-school seniors and military spouses.


Proud to be a young Filipina! Performing at this year’s Santo Niño Festival was an honor! I had the pleasure of meeting our Nebraska Governor, Pete Ricketts, and Bellevue city mayor, Rita Sanders. I truly enjoyed being a part of this religious and cultural celebration!

Just last week, Phoenix did something most adults never commit the time or dedication to; she went to Lincoln to testify before members of the Nebraska Legislature.


This brave 12-year old advocated for LB88, a bill that would prompt the state to issue temporary professional licenses to military spouses during the procedural wait time it takes to secure a permanent license.   State Senator Carol Blood later posted on Facebook: “Thank you to Miss Sarpy County Outstanding Teen for her outstanding testimony on LB 88 this week. This military spouses bill is important to Nebraska, especially District 3 and 45.”


“I want civilians to be aware of what goes on behind their freedom and how military families make it happen,” said Phoenix. “I also want people to know how amazing this pageant system is and how much young women can learn from an opportunity like this.”

That’s why Phoenix decided to compete for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen this spring, to share a message and grow as a person.

“I love how this pageant is scholarship based!” she said. “School and getting a good education is everything to me. [My goal] is to make it easier for my family to pay for my education. I love music and when I found out they have a talent portion in the pageant, I thought it would be a great way to express my love for performing and music. The Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant system recognizes young women’s talent, promotes healthy living, emphasizes scholastic achievements and encourages community service.”


Ironically, the friendships that are so often part of Phoenix’s message about military children have become of one of the clearest benefits of her participation in this year’s program.

“Not only have I met some amazing people, but I get to help out the community as well,” said Phoenix. “[This organization] has taught me some great skills and how to put myself out there. I have been so blessed with this opportunity and I’m so thankful.”

What’s next for Phoenix Stanford? Turning 13 in April. Graduating from middle school and starting high school.. something she could be doing as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen. And continuing to advocate for the cause and people she believes in.

“Winning state would be a win for Sarpy County, including Offutt Air Force Base,” said Phoenix. “Winning national would be a win for Nebraska, the military community, the Filipino and German community. While it would be fantastic to win at any level, my goal is to make a difference in my community and for the people around me.”

Beyond the impressive resumes, what ultimately sticks with me about people like Suzi Verma and Phoenix Stanford are who they are beyond their titles. Those who nominated Dr. Verma for the Westside Hall of Fame didn’t focus on her extensive academia or doctoral accolades, they raved about her love for children, her kindness, and the depth of her heart. Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen Phoenix Stanford, at just 12 years old, doesn’t brag about her service or eye-opening accomplishments, she stresses the qualities she hopes to be remembered by: compassionate, perseverant and unique.


“I don’t like to give up. I believe we are all put here to help one another,” said Phoenix. “There will never, ever be a person like me and that’s what makes me special.”


CLICK HERE to follow Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen Phoenix Stanford.


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


PREVIOUS.. Miss Omaha 2017 Wellesley Michael

NEXT.. Miss Elkhorn’s Outstanding Teen Emily Lenser

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!