Changemakers Spotlight: Victor Rivas Rivers


Victor Rivas Rivers

We’re eagerly anticipating this year’s Changemakers luncheon, not least because this year’s keynote speaker is author, social activist, and actor Victor Rivas Rivers! Learn a little more about Victor below, then be sure to join us September 12 to hear his whole story.

Nebraska Children: Why is a strong community so important to a child?

Victor Rivas Rivers: I grew up in a home where violence took place on the level of torture by my father, at a time where there were no shelters or hotlines that my mother could turn to for help. Domestic violence and child abuse training for law enforcement was almost non-existent. Educators and school administrations didn’t get involved in personal family issues. But there were exceptions in my personal journey: a teacher who secretly paid for a school cafeteria meal ticket when my father was starving me; a Little League coach who gave me the confidence to excel in athletics; a vice principal who chose a tough-love approach instead of expelling me; the numerous families who opened their homes to a troubled, violent kid. I’m the end result of a coordinated response by a loving, protective, and humane community, [and] there are a lot of children like me in all of our communities – even the most affluent – who need to be rescued, redirected, and given the chance to reclaim their lives.

NC: Do you think people still view abuse as “a private family matter”? How can communities change that perception?

VRR: Yes and no. We have come a long way to further the conversation on domestic violence/abuse so that it’s not seen as “a private family matter.” There’s training for law enforcement and healthcare providers [as well as] public awareness campaigns. That’s the good news! The bad news is that domestic violence/abuse continues to be the most underreported crime. It’s often called “the quiet crime” because it thrives in an atmosphere of silence, denial, and shame. I also think there’s still a reluctance to get involved in somebody’s business, especially family issues. [But] abuse, on any level, is not “a private family matter” because it will impact the whole community. So we all have to get involved in creating a more humane and peaceful world.

NC: What lessons did you learn during your time on the football field that you’ve applied to your advocacy?

VRR: [In] college football history, Nebraska is [recognized] for its National Championships, coaches, and players. Over the past 40 years, Florida State University has [joined Nebraska in] the conversation of storied teams, legendary coaches, and exceptional players. I was fortunate to be a starting offensive guard on Bobby Bowden’s first team at FSU. I learned so much from Coach Bowden about team unity, preparation, dedication, and what it takes to be a winner – but it was my first three seasons where I learned about life. You see, Coach Bowden was my third head coach – [because] we stunk! My freshman year, we went 0-11. By my senior year, only a handful of us had stuck it out. I learned that sports, like life, doesn’t always go your way and you learn as much, if not more, from adversity. In my advocate/activist journey, I’ve learned the odds are usually stacked against the victims and survivors – [and that] the domestic violence and child abuse advocates that work in the trenches approach their work with same dedication, preparation, and unity that I learned on the gridiron. They are the true heroes in the movement to end all abuse.

NC: What do you hope Changemakers attendees take away from your talk?

VRR: My ultimate goal whenever I speak is that I will have inspired one person to look at the issues of family violence differently, to help someone break their own silence, to encourage someone to get involved locally, or if they’re able, to write a generous check. I hope that I represent the “end result” of the life-changing and life-saving work that organizations like Nebraska Children and Families Foundation are doing all across America. My high school community saved and rescued a homicidal, suicidal gang member: ME. Your community needs to know that they can and will make a difference.

NC: What’s been your favorite role as an actor?

VRR: I’ve been in a lot of fun and memorable films, but the film that changed me in so many ways was “Blood In/Blood Out.” It’s a Taylor Hackford film that follows the lives of three Chicano boys from East L.A. One of the boys takes the wrong path and ends up in San Quentin, the maximum security prison in Northern California. The prison scenes were shot in San Quentin in the prison population. We were not protected or guarded. The men in the scenes with us are the real convicts serving their time. As I walked around San Quentin, I realized “there but for the grace of God.” That could have and should have been me! The overwhelming majority of the men incarcerated in our prison systems started out as witnesses and victims of family violence. The other common denominator is literacy; 7 out of 10 inmates have trouble reading and writing. That’s why we need to reach these men and women before they get there, like my community did with me.

Register now to save your seat at Changemakers on Sept. 12.

Beyond School Bells, part 6: Community partnerships

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016In my final installment as guest blogger, I will focus on what Beyond School Bells has found to be the heart of high-quality Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs: strong school-community partnerships.

Nebraska is blessed with a strong tradition of support for public schools – and rightfully so. With one of the nation’s highest graduation rates, above-average ACT scores, and off-the-chart satisfaction rates from parents, Nebraska citizens take pride in their intergenerational investment in our state’s high-quality public schools. We can also be proud of the high level of participation and civic engagement that characterizes Nebraskans from Sidney to Omaha and all points in between.

ELO programs bring together these two Nebraska strengths. Built on learning opportunities taking place after hours in school buildings across our state, ELO programs create a platform for involved citizens and organizations to provide meaningful learning opportunities and support for the next generation of Nebraska citizens and leaders.

As I outlined in previous blogs, these partnerships are helping to provide the hands-on, engaging STEM learning experiences that our young people need to grow Nebraska’s future prosperity. Increasingly, these programs are also providing opportunities for local businesses to expose youth to career opportunities that await them in every Nebraska community. These collaborations are also strengthening the time-honored bonds that unite our public schools and the communities they serve.

The final video in our series outlines the role that community partnerships play in strengthening the capacity of ELO programs to provide all Nebraska youth, especially youth from our state’s most challenging educational environments, with the additional learning opportunities they need to be successful in school, in careers, and in life.

Although the blog series has come to an end, we encourage you to check in with Beyond School Bells to see what’s new with ELO programs in Nebraska. Thanks for following along!


A day dedicated to youth employment success

More than 40 people attended the 2nd Annual Youth Employment Community Capacity Building Event on June 16 at the Lincoln Community Foundation. Together, the group spent the day taking an honest look at the successes, barriers, and possibilities surrounding employment and employment retention for unconnected youth.

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Organized by the Lincoln Education/Employment Committee and facilitated by CommonAction Consulting, the work of the day built on the previous year’s event, which laid out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of our system of support for young people around employment. Recognizing that human services support agencies could not address the issue of youth employment alone, the group brought business and human resource representatives to the table, along with youth themselves, for this new discussion to determine how the community can work together.

Collaboration is key

Prosper Lincoln Employment Skills Developer Bryan Seck called the group to action and collaboration and facilitated a panel of employers to highlight the perspective of the business world. Sharing this perspective not only showcased the efforts of employers in Lincoln but served to begin an open and focused dialogue between businesses and those who may have a better understanding of the barriers faced by unconnected youth. The group had honest conversations about how simple things like having the correct legal documentation can be a significant barrier to employment for unconnected youth. These discussions helped move the effort forward, with business and human services agencies outlining ways to support one another on behalf of the youth.

Building on these informative conversations, the group worked together across systems to identify specific next steps, lay out tasks to accomplish these steps, and hold each other accountable by determining dates for completion. These next steps, tasks, and action dates will be taken to the Lincoln Transition Team and Education/Employment Committee to be carried out over the next year. Business and human resource representatives have joined these teams to continue the partnership across systems.

Although we don’t yet have the perfect solution for helping unconnected youth find employment success, the connections made across systems and the shared dedication to these young people and to improving Lincoln’s workforce allowed the Lincoln community to take a significant step forward toward the greater good.



Beyond School Bells, part 5: A QuESTT

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016My previous posts have focused on Beyond School Bells’ role in supporting and developing high-quality, school-based, community-powered afterschool and summer programs – what we call Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs).

In this post, I’m going to change things up and focus on a development at the Nebraska Department of Education that could potentially have a huge impact on ELO programs in every school across our state: the Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow system, or A QuESTT.

One of the most far-reaching educational developments in Nebraska in recent years, A QuESTT was launched in 2015 and represents the future of state-level accountability for Nebraska’s schools, districts, and communities. In a break with the last 15 years of national practice, namely the recently repealed No Child Left Behind Act, A QuESTT is a Nebraska approach recognizing that learning is a dynamic process that cannot be captured in a single test.

In place of a sole reliance on high-stakes testing, A QuESTT creates a process for evaluating and measuring diverse components of a quality education. And in A QuESTT, school-community partnerships providing high-quality ELO programs for students are considered an important piece of the puzzle. This development codifies what common sense tells us – that learning taking place during the afterschool hours and over the summer months plays a critical role in the education of all Nebraska youth.

This recognition, and the corresponding development of an accountability framework in A QuESTT that incentivizes and rewards school-community partnerships, represents a huge opportunity for ELOs. A QuESTT encourages schools and districts across the state to think about developing more ELO partnerships to support key tenets of A QuESTT, like expanded learning, easing transitions, and supporting career exploration, among others.

In this week’s video, we turned to Nebraska’s state and local administrators to explain A QuESTT and the potential it has to elevate the role school-community partnerships can play in supporting the education of all young people in Nebraska.

If you’d like to learn more about A QuESTT, on our video page you can download a PDF of an editorial I wrote in the Nebraska Association of School Administrators Spring 2016 newsletter.

CYI panel members represent Nebraska well

For many, turning 22 means relaxing and having fun with friends. But for Rosetta Judd, a member of the Connected Youth Initiative Citizen Review Panel, it meant a trip to Arizona with fellow CYI-CRP members Raevin Bigelow, 21, and Lacey Combs, 20, to represent Nebraska at the 2016 National Citizen Review Panel Conference. Together, these young women spent three days listening to presentations on data and policy change, voicing their opinions on how to improve child welfare, and networking with professionals and community advocates from across the country.

Tackling important issues together

CRPs exist due to a federal bill called the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which gives states dollars to prevent child abuse and neglect and strengthen the systems that serve those who have been affected. In order to receive these dollars, states must have at least three CRPs, and Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services decided one of these should consist entirely of youth with current or former involvement in Nebraska’s system. Enter the CYI-CRP.

The group meets four times a year in person and as needed virtually to review and make recommendations for DHHS policies on youth in child welfare. They also offer ideas for improving practices to help ensure these policies are implemented in effective and meaningful ways. And they don’t shy away from the tough discussions, either: CYI-CRP members have tackled issues from normalcy to foster parent training to youth missing from foster care. Each year, they cap off their work by sitting down with DHHS representatives to share their recommendations and discuss how to make them a reality.

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Paving the way to a better future

For all their hard work in Nebraska, the CYI-CRP was selected to present at the conference. Their presentation, “Youth Voices in Action: Strategies for Engaging Older Youth with System Involvement in CRPs,” captured more than 40 attendees and offered tips for pulling in youth as CRP members. It was amazing to watch each of them let their personalities shine as they laughed and learned with so many others. After the presentation, they were practically celebrities. Lines of people waited to talk, ask questions, and take selfies – and one even asked, “Can we fly you to Connecticut?”

As their adult supporter, I was really along for the ride. Their fire burned via questions during keynote presentations and long discussions by the hotel pool with other youth CRP members from various states. They took notes. They exchanged strategies. They hugged and offered support. In those three days, I watched as three young adults who had once walked onto CYI youth councils as alumni overcoming trauma and looking for connections stepped up to become advocates ready to lead policy change that would never benefit them. They want more for their siblings and others who might struggle through state systems as they did, and they’re making it happen.

Perhaps the most powerful thing for me, though, was the responses they gave when asked about why they do what they do. Raevin said, “When labels are put on you, your world becomes limited. We have stepped up and became more than our limits.” Rosetta said, “I’m advocating for part of the world that raised me, and now I get to be part of the rapid change.” And I think Lacey spoke for us all: “What they said!”

About the author: Cassy Blakely, MA, PLMHP, is the Assistant Vice President of Youth Policy at Nebraska Children. Cassy has served in a number of capacities, all focusing on expanding youth voice and engagement at all levels. Her current focus is on helping to influence policies concerning the needs of young people by collaborating with state partners, committees, and policy makers.

Beyond School Bells, part 4: Environmental education

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016In addition to supporting a wide variety of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programming in Nebraska’s afterschool and summer programs, a topic I explored in my last post, Beyond School Bells (BSB) is also very excited to support the rise of environmental education opportunities.

From Sidney to Omaha, environmental concepts and student-centered projects are finding fertile ground within Nebraska’s growing array of school-based and community-powered Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs.

Thanks to partnerships between school-based afterschool programs and strong community partners such as the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Audubon Society, Nebraskans for Civic Reform, and others, participating youth in many Nebraska communities are able to participate in hands-on learning projects that empower them to become engaged and inspired environmental problem solvers.

Through these environmental education programs, participating youth also have new opportunities to interact with environmental professionals who love their work and share their passion for environmental inquiry and problem-solving — helping youth develop their identities as future STEM problem solvers. Getting the chance to expand their horizons and explore career paths in the environmental sector is an important component of these programs.

In the this week’s video, we tried to capture some of the energy that environmental education is bringing to ELO programs and illustrate the types of partnerships that are powering these important learning opportunities across Nebraska.

Beyond School Bells, part 3: STEM learning

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016One of the most exciting developments in the world of afterschool and summer programming – what we call Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs – is the rise of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programming, commonly referred to as the STEM fields.

Over the past four years, Beyond School Bells (BSB) has been working with partners across our great state to help spread the word that ELOs and STEM learning are a perfect match. To gain fluency in STEM fields and begin to develop and identify as STEM learners, young people need exposure to STEM concepts outside of the classroom. Through engaging, hands-on STEM experiences, young people in Nebraska’s ELO programs are becoming the excited, inspired STEM learners we need to create the jobs that will fuel our future prosperity.

BSB also promotes the belief that everyone has a role to play in helping Nebraska’s youth develop STEM skills. To this end, we support STEM programming in all of our Coalition communities that builds local capacity and collaborations with STEM-rich institutions. This support has included funding for environmental science projects, robotics, DNA testing, information technology, gardening, and career exploration clubs, among many others. We also work closely with our partners at UNL’s 4-H Click2SciencePD to provide professional development opportunities for afterschool educators interested in providing high-quality programming to participating youth.

With the growth of these partnerships and exciting, high-quality STEM programs, BSB sees afterschool and summer programs across Nebraska becoming important community “charging stations” where youth can become excited about the STEM concepts and see opportunities to apply them in their own homes and communities.

In this week’s companion video, we explore the many facets of ELO STEM and encourage STEM professionals in every community to partner with their afterschool and summer program to provide the next generation with exposure to the STEM fields that will play such a critical role in their success and our collective prosperity.

Truck Brigade delivers more than just furniture

It all started about two years ago, when Adam Gaines toured the Youth Mart donation center at Omaha Home for Boys and noticed items that had been tagged for pickup months before but had been left behind. He learned that young people transitioning out of foster care needed those items but often lacked a way to get things – especially larger furniture – from point A to point B. And thus, the Truck Brigade was born.

“The idea was to create a volunteer group whose mission was to serve the youth of Project Everlast by delivering furniture and household itemas as well as collecting donations from around the Omaha Metro for the Youth Mart,” Gaines says. “[Co-creators] Keenan Page and Jim Hubbard had dreamed of having a delivery system, so the concept of the Truck Brigade took form and we were off and running – or driving, as it were!”

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From there, Gaines says, Page and Hubbard worked on promoting the Truck Brigade to other local agencies while Gaines recruited volunteers, and in November 2014, the Truck Brigade went on its inaugural run. Since then, the group makes at least one run per month, often making multiple donation pickups and deliveries – meaning youth typically wait less than a few weeks for their items.

Be a part of the Brigade

If you’re interested in helping the Truck Brigade’s mission, they welcome volunteers on an as-needed or as-available schedule. They typically make a run on the second Friday of each month, but will occasionally operate on other days. Volunteers don’t need a truck; the group coordinates volunteers and often an SUV, crossover, van, or minivan works fine.

“The youth served by Truck Brigade are always so gracious and appreciative of the volunteers and thrilled to get their items to their home,” Gaines says. “The volunteers are also filled with the joy of giving these youngsters a hand and showing them they are cared for!”

If you have items to donate or would like to volunteer, contact Adam Gaines at or call the Youth Mart at 402-457-7002.

Beyond School Bells, part 2: The Coalition

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016In my last post, I told you about Beyond School Bells and our mission to strengthen and empower Nebraska communities to provide more youth with opportunities to participate in high-quality afterschool and summer programs – what we call Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs).

One of the ways we do this is by educating policymakers about the benefits of ELO programs and the important role these frequently overlooked “hours of opportunity” can play in supporting learning and positive development.

Another way BSB supports this work is through our statewide Coalition of established community-wide ELO systems in Omaha, Fremont, Lincoln, Crete, Columbus, Kearney, Lexington, North Platte, Chadron, and Sidney. The Coalition allows us to provide direct support and technical assistance in key areas such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and Arts programming; outreach and communications; and professional development of afterschool staff.

Coalition communities serve thousands of rural and urban youth across our state, but rarely do they get the attention they deserve. To help shine a light on their important work, Beyond School Bells has put together a collection of outreach materials, including a series of videos for community champions to use to educate potential partners on the impact school-based, community-powered ELOs can have on participating youth, their families, and the entire community.

I encourage you to spend a little time touring the state through these video snapshots and exploring the engaging, hands-on learning that is taking place in communities across Nebraska through Expanded Learning Opportunity programs.

Watch more Coalition videos

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