The Colfax County Senior Citizens Center put a spin on its regular Monday night dinner, hosting 130 veterans and their families this week for a special veterans recognition event.
Senior center manager Tom Healy led the crowd in prayer and thanked the group for their service to the country before Virginia Semerad, Maria Semerad and Jerry Reinsch performed patriotic music.
Keynote speaker Jim Jakub, commander of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Pawnee Chapter 20, shared information about that group and its mission of helping veterans access the benefits they've earned.
“Our DAV office in Columbus is full of a highly trained team of veterans who are here to serve other veterans,” Jakub said. “I’m speaking to you all today to lend my hand out to you if you have a time of need.”
Jakub and other trained DAV officers travel throughout Nebraska to offer anything they can to better the lives of disabled veterans and their families.
“Since our office has been at its current location, we have had 160 veterans who have come to us for help,” Jakub said. “Some vets don’t think they will be able to be helped by us because maybe they aren’t part of the VFW or any other organization, but our rule is that if you took that oath to protect your country and the Constitution, then you are a veteran and are among those we serve.”
Jakub, a U.S. Army veteran, went on to explain just what the DAV does.
“Families of veterans have come to us for help with transportation, whether they need a new vehicle, or housing issues,” he said. “We also want to emphasize that female veterans are helped just as much as the men are. They are all taken care of no matter the reason.”
He encouraged disabled veterans and their family members not to hesitate to contact the DAV office for assistance.
“We all want to thank our veterans in any way that we can,” Jakub said. “This is exactly what we at the DAV do and why we do it. It’s all up to them to get involved with us, and it’s such a great honor to be able to do so.”
Four years ago, Christ United Methodist Church recognized a need for coats and other winter clothing in the community.
The Schuyler Ministerial Association responded to this need by creating the Coat Closet, a collection drive that continues today.
The local effort collects winter coats, hats, gloves, scarves, mittens and any other warm clothing for community members who are in need.
Sheri Balak, a volunteer for the project, said the Coat Closet has a specific purpose.
“We know that not everyone in Schuyler is able to get coats when the temperatures drop,” Balak said. “So we just want to make sure we keep Schuyler nice and warm through the winter.”
La Iglesia Principe de Paz and the Schuyler Ministerial Association have been working alongside Christ United to host the Coat Closet since its start.
“There has been a huge community effort with this,” Balak said. “I know the hospital has a collection box, and the Lutheran and Catholic churches are accepting donations through the season. We all just want everyone to be comfortable and warm.”
Coat Closet volunteer Eleanor Pacas said she's already seen an uptick in donations this year.
“Pastor Denny (Wheeler) has only been with us for a year, but he has really helped us to get a lot of coats,” Pacas said. “There are so many more coats than last year. We’re going to get more as time passes, I just know it. The United Methodist Women donated $200 to us. We can get about 10 coats with that.”
The Coat Closet, located at 1922 Colfax St., is open through Jan. 31, or as long as donations last. Hours are 9-11 a.m. Mondays, 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4-6 p.m. Wednesdays and 1-3 p.m. Fridays.
Another important mission during the holiday season is ensuring local families have enough food.
The Schuyler Food and Toy Drive helps in that area.
When Saul Soltero served as a diversion officer in Colfax County, he saw firsthand how many families in Schuyler did not have sufficient food.
Soltero partnered with the Colfax County Attorney's Office to start the annual project, which is in its eighth year.
“Our biggest concern is the kids,” said Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl, who helps run the food and toy drive along with Soltero and her staff. “Many of our residents are working, single parents who don’t have the money for food for their children. When kids are in school, they are fed sometimes three times per day during the school year, but they may not get much to eat when they are home. Christmas break is the longest time school doesn’t serve food.”
Kracl recognizes the high poverty rate in Schuyler and works to keep donations and resources available, especially around the holidays.
The week before Christmas is when the food and toy drive is set in motion. A team of volunteers comes together to deliver food, toys and hygiene products to area families in need.
“In order for a family to qualify for this food and toy drive, a professional in the community needs to have contact with these individuals in order to assess that there is a significant need,” Kracl said. “This can be a police officer, probation officer, diversion officer, Health and Human Services workers, too. These workers must have been in the home and recognized and certified that the need for food and other products is significant.”
Last year, the food and toy drive delivered items to 34 families and 117 children up to age 18.
While food, toys and hygiene items are welcomed as donations, money is also accepted. Monetary donations are used to buy food in bulk and other items. Kracl said the most important food items are those that children can prepare for themselves while their parents are at work.
Nonperishable food, toys, hygiene products and other items can be donated to the Colfax County Attorney’s Office at 412 E. 11th St. before Dec. 20.
Every donated item, except for food, will be wrapped in decorative Christmas paper before being delivered. Each child will receive a stocking filled with goodies and every family member gets their own gift.
“The least I can do is make someone’s Christmas better,” Kracl said.
Schuyler Elementary School was treated to a performance by The Fabulous Chinese Acrobats last week.
The acrobats showed off their physical prowess Nov. 8 during two different performances. Amazed students and staff were able to watch juggling, a contortionist and balancing routine that involved a stack of chairs that nearly reached the gymnasium ceiling.
The Fabulous Chinese Acrobats chaperone, Penny Trautman, explained to the students just how hard the performers must work to perfect their acts.
“Our guests have been practicing these routines and all acrobatic areas since they were about 3 years old,” Trautman said. “When they were old enough to go to school they would practice six hours per day. Three hours were put in before school and three hours were practiced after school.”
The Fabulous Chinese Acrobats are sponsored by the Bureau of Lecturers and Concert Artists based in Lawrence, Kansas. The bureau brings Chinese acrobats to perform 250 shows in the United States. Once the company has balanced its last act, members return home to China. Another group of acrobats is then selected to continue the routine.
The bureau has offered this unique experience to schools across the United States and Canada for 18 years.
A Colfax County District Court judge told the driver in a June 2016 crash that killed a 15-year-old Schuyler girl that his words of apology and sorrow rang hollow before sentencing the man to prison for manslaughter.
Judge Mary C. Gilbride sentenced 23-year-old Angel Lopez to 12 to 20 years for the Class 2A felony during last week's hearing.
“Your apology, thoughts and prayers are not enough,” Gilbride told the defendant while making eye contact with about 10 family members of Isabella Brandt, a passenger in the 2005 Honda Accord driven by Lopez that slammed into a tree along West Sixth Street in Schuyler around 11 p.m. on June 15, 2016.
Brandt was pronounced dead shortly after the crash and a 15-year-old boy who was also inside the Honda required 14 staples to close a gash on his head.
“Nothing can bring back your loved one,” Gilbride told the family members in the courtroom gallery. “It’s so tragic.”
The judge gave Lopez, who pleaded no contest to the charge, credit for 209 days already served in the Platte County Detention Facility while awaiting the outcome of the 18-month-old case.
In exchange for Lopez’s plea, the prosecution dismissed charges of driving under the influence resulting in serious bodily injury, second-offense DUI, second-offense reckless driving and operating a motor vehicle during revocation.
During last week's 30-minute sentencing hearing, Special Prosecutor Edward Vierk of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office described the late-spring night that ended with Lopez's vehicle jumping a curb and going airborne before crashing into a tree.
“There was no reason for Mr. Lopez to be driving that night,” Vierk told the judge. “Isabella never got to see her 16th birthday. All her dreams were cut short by Mr. Lopez.”
According to court documents, Lopez and the teens were parked in the picnic area near the Oak Ballroom when a Schuyler Police officer attempted to make contact to notify them of the park curfew.
The vehicle drove away, and the officer attempted to initiate a traffic stop, which led to a brief pursuit before the officer ended the chase. The crash happened minutes later.
An affidavit supporting his arrest says Lopez told an emergency room nurse at the Schuyler hospital he had “like 10 beers” that night. Officers also found a half-empty bottle of tequila inside his vehicle, court documents state.
Lopez was arrested in Schuyler the week before the fatal accident for DUI, driving during revocation and procuring alcohol to a minor following a traffic stop that involved the same teenage boy injured in the crash.
Three months earlier, the Schuyler man was convicted of DUI in Platte County and had his license revoked for one year.
He also has previous convictions in Nebraska for reckless driving in 2014, driving under suspension twice in 2013 and driving under revocation in 2014 and May 2016, according to court documents.