Nebraska Children Celebrates 25 Years of Positive Change, Special Guests, and Generous Supporters at Changemakers Luncheon 

On Tuesday, October 25, Nebraska Children hosted Changemakers, our yearly celebration of people who positively transform children’s lives. We had many people, organizations, and entities to thank.  

What makes Changemakers so unique, however, is the fact that Nebraska Children has officially been working to strengthen families for 25 years. In honor of this anniversary, we had much to reflect on and plan our future work.  

With nearly 400 guests in attendance, we thank our sponsors who made this success possible, especially our sponsors: the Sunny Durham Family Foundation, Nomi Health, the Parsen Foundation, Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and many others.  

We were honored to host First Lady Susanne Shore, as she’s long been our partner and prevention champion. Several other elected officials joined us who have long supported our efforts to create a better Nebraska. We’re grateful to our board member, Joyce Davis, for serving as our emcee.  

Among other instrumental attendees was Senator Ben Nelson. As Nebraska’s governor in the mid-1990s when funds were given to states through the Family Preservation and Support Act, we’re indebted to Senator Nelson for placing a priority on improving the well-being of children and families through prevention. With his leadership and the vision and hard work of many Nebraska leaders and regular folks, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation was created.

One of the event’s highlights included when our CEO and President, Mary Jo Pankoke, provided updates on all the critical work happening throughout Nebraska. Among those key players who create positive change for families.  

“I’m grateful to all of those involved in Bring Up Nebraska, especially our state and national partners that come together to support community-based efforts through the collaboratives,” said Mary Jo.  

Mary Jo added that these state and national partners take intentional steps to address communities’ needs according to strategic, tailored decisions.  

“Before joining the organization, I spent many years working with and for children and families involved in the child welfare system,” said Mary Jo. “Despite the challenges people experienced, I saw that positive outcomes tend to stem from children and families who have supportive resources in their lives.” 

Thanks to Bring Up Nebraska’s community resources, this year alone, our partners and collaboratives have made some impressive impacts on Nebraska children, young people, and families. 

As Mary Jo reiterated, In the past year, initiatives like Beyond School Bells have included more girls of color in STEM expanded learning opportunities. Our Camp Catch-Up program has been busy reuniting siblings separated by foster care placements.  

Meanwhile, our communities and early childhood teams are working at the frontlines to confront Nebraska’s childcare crises by creating centers and supporting childcare providers. Rooted in Relationships continues to work hands-on with teachers and families to decrease challenging classroom behaviors and enhance healthy relationships. And, thanks to Sixpence, infants and toddlers receive support from early childhood experts.  

(left to right): DHHS CEO Dannette Smith, Grace Abbott Award honoree Bill Stanton of Casey Family Programs, Nebraska Children Senior VP Jennifer Skala, Nebraska Children President and CEO Mary Jo Pankoke, and keynote speaker Dr. Jerry Milner.

Other special guests included two remarkable young women from our Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) program, Mauriauna Clift and Nyaruot Teng. These two young leaders shared how they partnered with CYI programs to change the trajectory of their lives. 

A Nebraska Children initiative for youth and young adults 14-26 who experienced foster care and other challenges, CYI boasts some impressive young leaders.  

Mauriana said that she experienced the foster care system until she attended college. Mauriana said that CYI coaches were instrumental in helping her transition into adulthood.  

“After CYI staff helped me obtain my driver’s license, I was then connected with a CYI coach,” she said.  

Despite dealing with bouts of homelessness, Mauriana remained strong and continued to work alongside her CYI coach, who helped her leverage the Opportunity Passport program.  

Opportunity Passport is a CYI program that teaches young people financial literacy, savings, and goal setting. One benefit of the program is that young people are eligible for asset matches as they save for cars, homes, debt payments, and other necessities. 

Mauriana said her participation in CYI has led to leadership opportunities and personal growth.  

“After being offered and participating in multiple leadership opportunities by my coaches…has allowed me to break out of my introverted shell, and I’ve been able to decipher how I see my life,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Nyaruot said that she was pleasantly surprised by the level of support she received from CYI.  

“When I started, I thought Connected Youth Initiative was just another program that I was involved in that I would have to do meetings and talk to a mentor, but it is so much more,” she said.  

A Social Work major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Nyaruot said she’d found great power in using her voice.  

“I recently was part of a panel at the Connected Youth convening, and I was quoted as saying, ‘I am not my circumstances. I am my possibilities,’” she said. “Connected Youth Initiative staff and the service providers like Central Plains Center for Services understand that our circumstances were not and are not the greatest, but they don’t see that. They see human beings with potential and goals,” she said. 

We were also excited to present the Grace Abbott Award to Bill Stanton. This recognition is reserved for people like Bill, who, like the historical figure herself, has long advocated for child well-being.  

As a Senior Director of Strategic Consulting at our partner Casey Family Programs for the past 11 years, Bill long accompanied and inspired Nebraska in creating numerous system improvements.  

Mary Jo introduced Bill, paying tribute to his long list of accomplishments.  

“He’s helped to keep us moving forward in improving the well-being of children involved in our child welfare and juvenile justice systems by sharing where we’ve been, where we are at, and where we need to be,” said Mary Jo. 

“He allowed us to use Casey Family Programs’ data and helped us to reflect and talk about areas we need to focus on,” she said. 

Mary Jo said Bill had been an invaluable supporter of the Statewide Plan for Community Well-Being.  

“As a national partner for the Thriving Families; Safer Children work, his efforts allow Nebraska to lead the way in developing the most robust Community Well-Being Model in the nation,” she said. 

Upon acceptance of the award, Bill shared his experiences as a longtime Nebraska colleague, companion, and maker of change. 

“I’ve been fortunate to work with Nebraska for 11 years,” he said. “This state has seen its struggles. But the progress has been remarkable. Just last week, I spoke with a colleague at Casey Family Programs who asked me to set up a peer-to-peer learning between Nebraska and his folks in Michigan. He wasn’t the first,” he said. 

“As I stand before you today, it is an honor to work in the state of Nebraska,” he said. “I love doing the work here.” 

Bill said, “Over the years, I have developed so many friendships and I am impressed on a daily basis with their ‘can do’ attitude…being recognized today is truly one of the highlights of my career.” 

Lastly, we were honored to host longtime Bring Up Nebraska and child well-being advocate Dr. Jerry Milner as our keynote speaker.  

CEO Dannette Smith from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services introduced Jerry, paying warm homage to her friend and colleague.  

Dr. Milner has long worked at the front lines of child welfare reform. From 2017 to 2021, he led the U.S. Children’s Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services and, for most of that time,  

Currently, he is Director, Family Integrity and Justice Works at Public Knowledge. As head of this child welfare consulting firm, Dr. Milner has long admired Bring Up Nebraska’s prevention model. A former social worker, Dr. Milner, worked firsthand with teenagers who experienced foster care and has witnessed some of the traumatic side effects resulting from the traumatic separation of families.  

Dr. Milner continues to champion the community response model, as it mitigates families’ shame when they experience crisis. Unfortunately, as stated in his keynote, when families cannot meet their basic needs, parents are often faced with the trauma of being reported, then having their children taken away.  

And all too often, hotline reports of abuse are, according to Dr. Milner, ones of perceived neglect. Families that struggle to meet their basic needs are not necessarily neglectful. And yet, as a result, children may endure the ongoing trauma of being placed in foster care.  

We were honored by Dr. Milner’s references to the Bring Up Nebraska statewide prevention partnership as a blueprint for thriving communities.  

Dr. Jerry Milner

“To move forward ourselves, I think that is part of the beauty of Bring Up Nebraska and your community prevention system,” said Dr. Milner. “You’re not waiting on the system to change. You led that change yourself, and you’re doing it in a way that we all get to look to it as an example.”  

Dr. Milner mentioned that proactivity is key to creating family well-being, and that forming this prevention model has required a great deal of introspection.  

“Doing that has required for many of you a close examination of your personal values, your personal principles…of how you want families who live in your communities to receive support,” he said. 

According to Dr. Milner, families function best when their basic needs are met, they stay together, and they aren’t wracked with shame in being unable to provide for their children. This reason is why we fervently agree with him and continue to work toward prevention. 

We couldn’t agree more, and thanks to you, this year’s Changemakers was an incredible success.  

To continue being a changemaker for families in Nebraska, visit  

Thank you to our generous event sponsors:

Nebraska Children's mission is to maximize the potential of Nebraska’s children, youth, and families through collaboration and community-centered impact.

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