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Two Americas: Overcoming poverty and trauma to graduate high school

Omaha Street School helps at-risk youth
Posted at 7:00 PM, Nov 01, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Anjalene Booker and Alex Mendez were struggling in high school with personal issues that were interfering with their performance.

"Homelessness, that's really the main thing, like and just worrying about where I was going to lay my head next and where my next meal was coming from," Booker said.

"I was not going to any of my classes, and so I was about to get charged with truancy, and then I heard, then my stepmom heard about this place," Mendez said.

When they enrolled at Omaha Street School which offered small classes and more personalized learning both found the same gift: self-worth.

"I was failing everything, I would literally go to class, get my attendance and leave," Mendez said. "So coming here, you're not allowed to do that, and so I sit down, I pay attention in class and get my homework and stuff done and pass my class."

"When I came here, people were always telling me, I am proud of you, you are doing so great," Booker said. "I'm like: I am? You are? Really, I didn't know how to feel."

Omaha Street School Executive Director Linda Reimer says these stories make up their mission: offering students a fresh start.

"For these students, that's everything. They've never had that in their life, we're not good enough, what I do isn't good, I'm a bad person," Reimer said. "But when they walk in the door and they hear us say, whatever happened before, it doesn't matter. We are starting over again."

Chief Student Advocate Charles Wilson says meeting students where they're at is key to making to them successful.

"Just building that relationship piece where they trust you is a big deal," Wilson said.

"They come here and we will take this student aside, work with them one on one in math or in English and make sure they are successful, give them all the tools to make sure they are successful," Reimer said.

Reimer admits: she grew up believing everyone had the chance in America to become what they want to be, but she's realized it's not so simple considering the trauma and poverty these kids come from.

"When you have observed that education is not important, that a job is not important, that you can't make it from paycheck to paycheck, that drugs, alcohol and all those kinds of things are answers, and that's what you've grown up in, that's something you can't just shake just by saying I'm going to make myself better, that was eye-opening for us," Reimer said.

Booker and Mendez both want the public to understand the lengths they've traveled to succeed without downplaying what it took to get there.

"Imagine you are in a situation where you had no clothes or no shoes and you didn't have the money to support yourself or your parents didn't support you, it's stuff like that. I try to get people to realize, everyone has a story. Some people are quiet about their story and some people aren't," Booker said.

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