On a Mission to Revitalize North Omaha
Feb 14, 2019 08:49AM
By J.D. Avant
Wes and Candy Zollicoffer are not your average neighbors. Instead of plopping down in front of the television after a full day’s work, the Zollicoffers would rather pick up trash along the street or organize a neighborhood barbecue. They hold strong to small gestures like a friendly wave or an unexpected smile—things that can go a long way in maintaining a healthy community.
Longing for resources and a mission to guide those who share their outlook, the couple were happy to partner with Josh Dotzler, CEO of Abide. For more than 30 years, the nonprofit organization has strived to revitalize North Omaha. The enthusiastic couple joined Abide’s burgeoning Lighthouse Leadership Program, and the Zollicoffers found themselves surrounded by like-minded people eager to spread a positive message of kinship.
“My husband and I joined 34 other families acting as Lighthouse Leaders, or Urban Missionaries,” Candy explains. A University of Nebraska-Omaha alumna, she is native to Brewton, Alabama, and reminisces of the strong community ties of her childhood in the South.
“Everybody in my hometown knows everybody, and you can fall asleep with your back door unlocked,” Candy recalls. “I moved from Alabama to Omaha in high school, and the neighborhoods around here are lacking that sense of fellowship. The Lighthouse Leadership Program allows us to live in homes throughout North Omaha rehabbed by partners like Habitat for Humanity. It’s so rewarding to see the change an Urban Missionary’s family can bring to an area, and my three young children are thriving in the environment.”
On any given day you can find the Zollicoffers outside and involved in activities to strengthen the community. With their small children in tow, simple tasks—such as planting flowers around the neighborhood or going door to door singing Christmas carols during the holidays—give them opportunities to interact with their neighbors. Their children also learn the importance of camaraderie, something Candy holds onto when they are shoveling neighborhood driveways after a big snowstorm.
“I definitely appreciate the outdoor activities more during nicer weather,” she admits. “But if someone in my neighborhood needs help, then we are there!”
Abide’s CEO and his family have been transforming neighborhoods dating back to 1988, when Dotzler’s parents—Ron and Twany—moved their 14 children to North Omaha near 33rd and Fowler streets. When the warm weather was abundant, the Dotzlers extended the ultimate olive-branch to their new neighbors with the first of many neighborhood grill-outs. The turnout was huge. More importantly, it gave people a chance to get out of their homes and eat good food while bonding on a personal level.
Dotzler’s parents continued to feel the positive effects their gathering had on the community long after the party ended. The Omaha Police Department eventually acknowledged the family, observing that violent crime in the area had dropped significantly since their arrival. That one-time grill-out expanded into an annual block-party that continues to this day, and Ron and Twany went on to establish the Abide Network in 1989.
Twenty years later, Abide’s Lighthouse Leadership Neighborhood Strategy took shape with the rehabilitation of the first Lighthouse starting in 2009. The Zollicoffers came along not long after, joining the program and moving their family to 33rd and Fowler streets as official Lighthouse Leaders around 2013.
“As Urban Missionaries, we focus on ‘The Three C’s’ to help make everyone proud to be part of our community,” Candy says. “‘Connection’ is important, so we make it a point to have neighborhood events so that everyone can commune and get to know each other. ‘Caring’ about our neighbors and issues within our community is essential to our wellbeing. Finally, we believe that everyone has a ‘calling,’ so we encourage each person to meet their potential.”
After four years, the Zollicoffers saw a significant change in their neighborhood. They had advocated for families dealing with slumlords, and helped decrease gang activity in the area by engaging with their community. Wes and Candy decided to continue their mission and moved their growing family to their current Lighthouse in 2018.
Wes works part-time at Wheatfields downtown and as a personal trainer, and he recently interned at the Boiler Room as part of the No More Empty Pots’ Culinary Workforce Training Program. Candy is employed with Abide in the Development Office.
“We want to keep bringing hope and effective change to the community we live in,” Wes says. “Before the Lighthouse Leadership Program, I’d never known anyone that had been shot. But I saw my family become a beacon of hope after such a tragedy affected our old neighborhood. I ran with a bad crowd back in my days at Central High School, so I am proud to be a testament to our mission and live up to my own God-given potential.”
Abide partners with companies such as Thrasher, Pacific Life, Westin Foods, and many others to provide their Urban Missionaries with a steady stream of resources for nearby residents in need. Combine that with the Better Together Campus established in 2016, and the Zollicoffers have the backing they need to revitalize the North Side, one neighborhood at a time.
“Sponsored programs like the Better Together Children’s Basketball, Second Saturday Serves, and the Bridge Church located on the Better Together Campus are great assets,” Candy says. “We even put our slogan on a T-shirt: ‘We are Better Together.’”
Visit abideomaha.org for more information.This article was printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.