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Roaring in Harmony

Pavilion Area Lions Club | Project Harmony

Papillion Area Lions Club: We Serve

For 13 consecutive years, the Papillion Area Lions Club has presented a fun beer-tasting and food event that benefits an organization whose work is very serious.

Hops for Harmony, which most recently took place this past June at Werner Park baseball park in Papillion, featured more than 35 beer vendors and 11 food vendors serving more than 900 attendees on a pleasant summer evening. Papillion Area Lions Club coordinates the event, with proceeds benefiting Project Harmony, the local child advocacy center that provides support to children who are victims or suspected victims of neglect and abuse. 

“The success of the event is really the willingness of our food and beer partners to participate, our corporate sponsors (see ad in this magazine on page ##), and we have a great committee with the Papillion Area Lions Club,” said Bob Frederick, who co-chairs the event with fellow Lion Mike Knier and counts on 50 other Lions to help out on event day. “It’s an outdoor event and people enjoy it because it’s low-key, you can mingle, so it’s like a big patio party,” he added, explaining that although it’s a rain-or-shine event, “We’ve lucked out with the weather every year.”

Hops for Harmony started out as the Omaha Beer Fest hosted by the Nebraska Stroke Foundation from 2001 to 2005 with volunteer support from Papillion Lions. After the Nebraska Stroke Foundation discontinued the event, the Papillion Area Lions Club took the helm under the new name and with a new beneficiary. “I think we were the very first beer-tasting event in Omaha,” Frederick said. “From 2007 through this year, every year the Papillion Area Lions Club does all the organization and puts it on as a benefit for Project Harmony.” 

Frederick, who has been with the Papillion Area Lions Club 40 years and served in several leadership roles locally and beyond, said Hops for Harmony is just one of many activities the Papillion Lions engage in throughout the year and one of hundreds of ways they’ve contributed to the community since the club was chartered in 1976.

 

Decades of service

Lions Clubs International is an international service organization started in Chicago in 1917 by Melvin Jones and headquartered today in Oak Brook, Illinois. There are more than 1.7 million members, called Lions, in more than 200 countries.

Ken Molzer is a charter member of the Papillion Area Lions Club and has held numerous roles with the organization. 

“Our club has grown from its infancy to probably one of the most active clubs you’ll find in the state,” he said. Today, the club is around 150 members strong, more than five times the number it started with. Over 43 years, its members have raised around $1.4 million ($72,000 last year alone) and contributed countless hours to support causes both close to home and around the world. 

“Our international motto is ‘We Serve,’ and that pretty well sums it up. I feel humbled just to be part of an organization that wants to serve others. I don’t think pride has anything to do with it,” Molzer said. He added, with a chuckle, “The only way I would use the word ‘pride’ is that when you have a group of lions, it’s a ‘pride’ of lions.”

Lions have long been associated with work for the blind and visually impaired, beginning when Helen Keller addressed the Lions’ international convention in 1925 and charged them to serve as “knights for the blind.” The Papillion club has been collecting glasses and hearing aids from its beginning, and since 1987 has been working with the Papillion-La Vista school district to provide vision screenings and assistance for children to obtain eye exams and glasses. The club has expanded beyond Lions KidSight USA Foundation’s international program, which focuses on children age 6 months to 6 years, to include screenings for schoolchildren, said John Willoz, current Secretary and 32-year member, who leads these efforts for the Papillion club. 

“We do eye screenings for area schools and pre-schools. The numbers are amazing,” he said. “It quickly evolved to us screening 6,000 kids per year. If we can catch things like strabismus, ‘lazy eye’, early, it can be corrected so it’s not a permanent lifetime problem.” 

He estimates that as many as 600 local children per year are identified as having impaired vision through the screenings, which involve approximately 40 Lions volunteering hundreds of hours every year. Other vision-related activities for the club include assisting individuals with low vision through the Weigel-Williamson Center for Visual Rehabilitation, supporting Radio Talking Book Service, and assisting Special Olympics’ Opening Eyes project that serves visually challenged athletes.

 

Doing good in the community

Lions Clubs are able to choose projects unique to their communities. Tom Vitamvas, who joined Papillion Area Lions Club in 1988 and has served in many leadership positions, said, “We see what the community needs are and try to involve ourselves in those needs, whatever they may be. If you look at the international scene, there are eight areas Lions Club International is focusing on: vision, youth, disaster relief, humanitarian causes, diabetes, hunger, childhood cancer and environment. As a club we take our lead from International and find things we can work with in the Papillion area that hone in on those focused areas.” 

A new event called Stepping Up for Vets will take place on October 19 to raise funds for veterans’ needs in the community. Another very recent cause was flood relief. A sampling of activities and projects specific to the Papillion area have included the annual Graduate Safe lock-in celebration for high school seniors, a popular yearly spaghetti dinner fund-raiser, start-up funding for SumTur Amphitheater, maintenance for Halleck and Veterans Memorial Parks, Walnut Creek Lake-area road cleanup, holiday assistance for Sarpy County families, and coat/hat/scarf/mitten drives for children. 

Scholarships are awarded every year to Papillion-La Vista graduating seniors. The Papillion Area Lions Club also sponsors and supports student service organizations called Leo Clubs at the two high schools and two of the middle schools in the district, and also annually recognizes service-minded youth ages 12-18 through International Lions Young Leaders in Service Awards. In addition, the club has been actively involved in the local TeamMates Program, providing mentoring, financial support and leadership. Since 2011, Papillion and La Vista fifth-graders in the public schools and St. Columbkille Catholic School receive a keepsake paper copy of the text of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, courtesy of the club.

“If you just look at the history of what we’ve done in the community, whether it’s scholarships for students, whether it’s the eye screenings, whether it’s working Halleck Park or Veterans Park, or setting up handicap ramps where there was a need; most all of that shows the importance of what we do and that we’re viable,” Vitamvas said. 

“One of the key things I like about Lions is that it is totally nonpolitical. We focus on the community,” Willoz said. “We support lots of different causes but far and away the bulk of what we do is local to our area. I think we’ve been fairly successful at that.” 

Most of the ideas for projects come from the Lions themselves. 

“If there is a need that is seen but is not being addressed, that one or two Lions recognize, we look at what we can do to help,” Knier said. 

“It’s what we’ve given back to the community but also what we’ve given to members,” Frederick said. “We’re large enough that they can hone in on what their interests are; there are so many different areas to get involved in so they can make a difference, not only to the Papillion area but for the state and international.”

 

Grrreat things happen

The Papillion Area Lions Club meets the third Thursday of each month, and board members attend an additional monthly meeting. Members make sure they have some social time at each meeting in addition to several holiday-related social events each year, and Lions like to make meetings enjoyable occasions, Molzer said. He’s the current “Tail Twister” for the club—something like a sergeant-at-arms but with a spirit of fun. Molzer is also the person who introduced the club mascot SNOIL (“Lions” spelled backward and an acronym for Serving Never Overwhelms Interested Lions), a large stuffed toy lion who’s been to various district, state and international conventions and carries many mementos of its adventures over several decades. 

“It’s been kidnapped by other clubs for ransom. It’s had so many tokens put on it that we had to put another knapsack on it,” Molzer said. 

The club’s banner highlights the fact that the word “lion” is naturally imbedded in the community of Papillion’s name, a coincidence that is nonetheless particularly fitting.

“I am most proud of being part of an organization that is so focused on community service. It feels good but there’s also great fellowship, we’re all together doing great things for people in the community,” Knier said. 

“We’re all one club…we’re all Lions,” Molzer said. 

“I always tell people that when Lions roar, ‘grrreat’ things happen!” Vitamvas said.

 

“I have served as the Superintendent of the Papillion La Vista Community Schools since 2013, and I am also a proud member of the Papillion Lions Club. The partnership between our school district and our local Lions Club is simply outstanding. We’ve partnered on projects ranging from vision screening for students to winter coat and glove drives for needy families. I couldn’t be prouder of the relationship we have with the Lions. We couldn’t do our job without them. ‘Grrrr!’”

 

“Our Papillion Area Lions Club has done a terrific job leading the charge and working with other organization like our Papillion La Vista Schools Foundation to address important needs of our community as well as tackling some national issues like hearing, diabetes, environment, pediatric cancer, youth development and more. Our Lions membership live the Lions mission ‘We Serve’ in every part of their daily lives and I am proud to be a member.” 

 

“I am very appreciative of the Papillion Area Lions Club. They are one of our critically important civic organizations that help create ‘community.’ People find a natural connection to build strong relationships in Lions for the benefit of the community. Besides what Lions typically do, the Papillion Lions have also adopted our Veterans Park, a special place that honors all Sarpy County Veterans. Additionally, their annual Hops for Harmony event supports local business while raising funds for Project Harmony which helps children in our community that are victims of abuse. Papillion is a better place because of the Papillion Area Lions Club’s focus on serving the community and meeting needs of those less fortunate.” 

 

Project Harmony: A New Path to Healing

“Project Harmony was very small when I started. I was employee number five. It was still an idea at the time and had just started taking some big steps forward in bringing more agencies into the collaboration,” said Executive Director Gene Klein, now in his 18th year with the organization. 

It all looks very different now. 

“Today we have about 280 professionals that work on our campus. We are a child advocacy center that was established to provide a response to child abuse victims as they are making their outcry. We have a collaborative team of professionals from across multiple agencies that coordinate that response and ensure the victims and their families are supported through the investigative process,” Klein said. “We also have significant effort on early intervention and the prevention of child abuse and neglect and have programs and services in the community in partnership with the schools and behavioral health and social services agencies across the community.”

Project Harmony is now one of five largest child advocacy centers in the nation. “We share what we’re doing and we borrow from others so we’re constantly learning and evolving and innovating,” Klein said. And now Project Harmony is held up as a positive role model to similar organizations. 

“Gene Klein and Project Harmony are the gold standard,” Lisa Mizell, CEO and executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Kansas City, has said. “They are the cutting edge, setting the pace for the rest of us.”

Bryan Boeskin, senior director of the National Children’s Alliance in Washington, D.C., expressed similar praise: “Project Harmony is one of the most progressive and innovative Children’s Advocacy Centers in the country…they are demonstrating what a world-class children’s advocacy center should look like.” 

 

A better solution

It all started in the 1990s when a group of community professionals and advocates recognized the need to find a better solution for how the system managed child abuse and neglect cases. 

“I think most would agree that the systems weren’t coordinated. Each did their own investigations requiring children to go from agency to agency repeating their abuse outcry. Families really were stressed going through that process,” Klein said. “Or it didn’t happen; the handoff from agency to agency wasn’t occurring and families or children would get lost in the process. So the goal here was really to create a whole new system for how we work across government agencies and nonprofits to ensure that victims of child abuse get the best from all the organizations.” 

Legislative Bill 1184 was introduced in 1992, facilitating the creation of multidisciplinary teams to investigate investigation and treatment of child abuse and neglect. Project Harmony launched in 1996. 

“The history of Project Harmony is amazing, how the initial board had a vision for what they wanted to accomplish and how that’s developed over the last 23 years,” Bob Frederick, a member of the Papillion Area Lions Club, said. His Club supports the organization through an annual fundraiser, Hops for Harmony.

“From where we were at a little over 20 years ago now, it’s a tremendous difference. The level of talent and professionalism of all involved—collaborating together—allows us to move cases forward easier,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “Which, in turn, has helped bring justice to a lot more families.”

“Project Harmony has done an incredible job,” said Project Harmony Board Chairman Erin Owen, who’s been a board member since 2015 but was familiar with the organization through her father Jim Fogarty’s involvement as a communications consultant in the earliest days. “The work is hard and heavy, but there are many success stories and I feel that kids and families in Omaha have access to one of the best child advocacy centers in the country.”

A team of law enforcement, social services, medical and referral professionals work together to provide response services in the several areas. The Triage Center, a partnership between Child Saving Institute and Project Harmony, provides children in crisis with food, clothing and other items needed—all in a supportive, safe environment until a caregiver is secured. Secondly, case coordination is managed by specialists who support collaboration between individuals and agencies involved in abuse and neglect investigations and monitor subsequent treatment and safety plans. A third area, children and family services, encompasses a host of assistive activity including forensic interviews, medical exams, family advocacy, mental health support, and services for missing youth. 

“We don’t like it, but every day in communities across the country, children are victims of abuse and neglect. We know it happens and we are trying to stop it from happening, but in the meantime those children and families need support,” Owen said. “And when crimes happen, children need a safe place to go where they will have people dedicated to their well-being and healing.”

 

Prevention and recognition

As Project Harmony has grown, a new objective has emerged: preventing child abuse and neglect. 

“In 2007, the board added to the mission statement that we’re here to also end child abuse and neglect. We’re not just an organization that’s responding and coordinating the system, but it’s with a goal toward ending child abuse and neglect,” Klein said. “That’s a pretty bold statement and it did change a lot of the programming that we offer today. At one time 100 percent of the families we were serving were making an outcry of abuse or neglect. Today it’s 50 percent. The other 50 percent are in a prevention or early- intervention focus, before something’s happened. 

“I think the feeling was, ‘How are we ever going to get ahead of this if we don’t get creative about how we can get upstream with some of these families, before there’s been abuse or neglect?’”

The organization was originally housed in a warehouse building at 71st and F Streets. In 2010, everything moved west to a more suitable and flexible facility. 

“When we moved to the current property on 120th and Q, immediately the expansion started. We went maybe from 100 people at that other building to 200 at this building, and throughout the last 10 years we’ve just been continually adding to the mix. I would say the growth has been drastic,” Klein said. “The volume of cases that we’re serving has also been growing. In 2002 we were serving 300 children a year. Last year, it was 5,700 children. Many will ask, ‘Is there more abuse? Why is there such an increase?’ Well, the number served includes prevention.” 

More cases are also being reported, he added. 

“We believe they were always there, but the culture has changed around reporting. We’ve done a tremendous amount of training around schools and social services agencies and investigators and responders to know what to look for and to be as competent as we can in responding to a child who may have been abused or neglected. I think our system is much stronger today than it was.”

The “it’s none of my business, let the family work it out” response of the past is diminishing as people recognize the horror of abuse and neglect, Klein said. 

“The culture isn’t hiding that message anymore; when that culture says ‘that’s not okay’ enough, children are also empowered to come forward and share what’s going on,” he said. “We’ve seen the impact that keeping this in the dark has had on people and it can be lifelong. We believe that if we can get the help to the family and a child quickly and early in the process and the extent of the abuse isn’t so severe, the resiliency and the recovery is much, much greater. People heal when they’ve seen a good response and they’re connected to the right resources.” 

Ideally, however, abuse and neglect would not happen in the first place, he said. “We still have work to do.”

“Abuse follows a child into adulthood. Even people who get the help they need through Project Harmony can still have lingering issues. I think about the kids that don’t have Project Harmony and didn’t get the help, didn’t get a chance to step forward and say ‘something happened to me,’” Owen said.

There are still future goals to achieve, Klein said. 

“Continuing to get to children and families before maltreatment may have occurred and to make sure our nonprofit and human services community is able to serve those in the least restrictive manner possible is critical,” he said. “We’ve also invested more in data and research and technology to get us to be more efficient and more precise in the work that we do.”

The people who work for the organization also need continuing support, he added. 

“We also believe that our work is impossible without really great employees who are trained and engage and empowered to do their jobs every day, so we put a lot of emphasis on employee development and helping our staff manage their own reactions to what they see every day,” Klein said. “It can take a toll on those who do this work, so significant emphasis is placed on the wellness and health of our own employees so they have the resilience to serve families the next day.” 

 

Bringing our best 

Despite all the growth, the fundamentals behind Project Harmony’s founding remain the same as they did in 1996, Klein said. 

“We have three culture statements that have been there since the beginning. The first is, ‘We’re all Project Harmony.’ So even though there are multiple agencies, governmental and nonprofits that work under one campus, we’re all in this together. The second culture statement is, ‘When it comes to children, we don’t compromise.’ We do everything we can to make sure they get the best from everyone. And the last statement is, ‘We bring our best every day.’” 

Owen emphasized that community members can support Project Harmony in multiple ways: direct donations; attending fundraising events throughout the year like Hops for Harmony (summer), the Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day golf tournament (fall), and the Speaking of Children Luncheon & Conference (spring); or joining the organization’s service league. More information is available on the website at projectharmony.com. It’s also important that people recognize and report suspected abuse or neglect, she added.

“Project Harmony cannot do this alone,” she said. “Even though we have received wonderful support from the community, we still need more people to be aware of the problem.”

Klein agreed that Project Harmony needs the support of the community.

There are public partners we don’t exist without, from local law enforcement and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ child protective services division to the county attorneys’ offices—they are critical to the processing of these cases and really are the backbone of what we do,” he said. “We’re also fortunate to live in Omaha and be part of a community which is incredibly philanthropic and generous. From the Papillion Area Lions Club—I would call them out; they’ve embraced the mission and work of Project Harmony, as have many service-related clubs—to the many families and individuals who support our events and annual appeals to make sure nothing falls through the cracks for the children who are coming through these doors. 

“On any given day we have about 20 children who are walking through the doors with their families, who are going through probably one of the darkest days that they’ve had so far. We are grateful that the community supports and believes in this, so their day when they walk out is a little bit brighter and they’re on a new path to healing.”

 

“When it comes to children, we don’t compromise. We do everything we can to make sure they get the best from everyone.”

 

 

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