On a somewhat chilly afternoon earlier this week Vanessa Oceguera made her way through Frankfort Square picking up litter she found on the sidewalk and in the grass.
It wasn’t something she had sought out to do, but rather did instinctively during a trip to her next destination. This month marks her nine-year anniversary as executive director of Keep Columbus Beautiful, a nonprofit that prides itself on providing education and programs on litter reduction and recycling for the beautification of the community. In some ways, serving in the role is a bit humorous to Oceguera when she thinks about her childhood.
“When I was younger I actually used to litter a lot and it drove my mom insane,” she recalled. “She would yell at me ‘don’t throw that in the street,’ ‘don’t throw that in the roadway. People have to clean that up.’ And I never really got it. But then in my own home as I got older, I started to realize just how much trash we accumulate. I thought there has got to be a better way.”
Oceguera is passionate about environmental issues like recycling, but equally important is her love for the community she has called home for 30 years and her family. The two go hand-in-hand and continue to be reasons she strives to help Columbus grow.
FROM THE SOUTH TO THE NORTH
Oceguera was born in Tyler, Texas, considered by many as “the Rose Capital of the World” due to its long history of rose production, cultivation and processing.
“It’s so beautiful there,” she said. “I have a lot of family still there.”
But when she was 5, her parents decided to follow in the footsteps of some close friends of theirs and relocate their family to Columbus for better job opportunities at the time. Oceguera first attended school district nine south and north through her early school years, but she transitioned to Columbus Middle School in eighth grade after her family moved into a house in the city limits. She said it was somewhat awkward living in Columbus at first as she felt a little out of place at times.
“I was the only Hispanic kid in class,” she said. “So that was a little difficult when I was younger.”
But she made friends and went on to graduate from Columbus High School before taking some classes at Central Community College-Columbus for a bit. She did not finish with a degree, but her interest in the environment continued to grow.
FINDING HER CALLING
In 2010, she happened to come across a Facebook post for an opening with KCB and decided to apply. Oceguera ended up being one of the final interviews of the day when she went in to meet with officials, and she said after overhearing some of those conversations she felt good about her chances.
It’s still surreal for Oceguera that it has been almost a decade since she got the job.
“It really doesn’t feel like it because it’s just something I’m passionate about. It’s really a fun job,” she said. “There are definitely some moments that make you break down in tears, but for the most part, it’s a great position. You get to interact with people all across the scope. Every day is different.”
KCB has accomplished a lot under her leadership. Among the highlights has been the free-of-charge tire recycling event, as well as firework and litter cleanups.
“We did one the other day and a kid found $20. He was so excited,” she said of a trash collection effort. “I mean who wouldn’t be? You’re picking up trash and you find $20.”
The nonprofit in the past also awarded area homeowners modest-sized grants to help them get rid of debris, as well as support landscaping, roofing and more.
“It basically was about beautifying the outside of your home,” Oceguera said. “It made a huge impact on families. I was really proud of that.”
Earlier this week, KCB hosted a community movie night at The Friedhof Building in downtown Columbus where it screened “The Lorax” and provided some treats free of charge.
“She has done a lot of good things for our organization. She has a lot of great ideas and is able to coordinate a range of events,” KCB board member Doug Rieger said. “She has been able to pull all of these things off and sometimes it amazes me how she is able to do it all.”
He said he has always been impressed by Oceguera’s ability to work so well with volunteers, including her kids.
“She is somebody who cares about her community and where her kids are raised,” he said. “She’s a caring, community-minded person who only wants the very best thing for Columbus.”
FAMILY AND SUPERHEROES
As busy as Oceguera is with Keep Columbus Beautiful efforts, she loves spending time with her family and participating in other initiatives she said she hopes will better Columbus. She has three children: Rachel, 19; Amos, 17; and 2-year-old Londyn.
“There is a large gap between them, but honestly, it’s a really good gap,” she said, noting her children get along really well. “My 2-year-old is very opinionated.”
She often brings her little one with her to different events and functions. Her two older children also have helped out with KCB and other nonprofit efforts locally and beyond, and she said they’ve both even received honors for their volunteerism. Seeing who her children are becoming makes her feel good, she noted.
“They’re great people,” she said of her three kiddos.
When Oceguera and her children aren’t volunteering and working, they do plenty of things to have fun. She herself grew up a big fan of superheroes and comics thanks to her older brother. The self-proclaimed superhero fanatic said Batman is her all-time favorite, noting she has Dark Knight pajamas, shoes, T-shirts and more.
“Batman is definitely my hero. He’s rich and he’s smart. That’s a lethal combination,” she said, with a smile. “I have all kinds of galore. I find Batman fascinating."
Her love for superheroes rubbed off on her kids. Oceguera, her two older children and nephew recently went to go see “Avengers: Endgame.” They continued on what has now become a tradition among the mom and her two children of going together on opening night to see any Marvel or DC movie that comes out.
“It was the ending of an era,” she said of ‘Avengers.’ “I always had the obsession whether it was DC or Marvel.”
Their love for superheroes doesn’t stop with watching movies, though. The family dressed up as Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” for Halloween one year.
Oceguera is engaged to Steven Jenny of RE/MAX Total Realty, who she called “a great guy.” The two are in the process of planning their wedding.
A big part of Oceguera’s life is community service. She serves as a TeamMate mentor, noting she has enjoyed getting to know the senior student she has mentored and hopes to continue on with that person moving forward.
She has also been involved with numerous boards and nonprofit efforts throughout the years, such as with the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce’s beautification committee that is helping revamp the landscaping along 23rd Street.
Katie Oceguera, a good friend and former sister-in-law, praised the Keep Columbus Beautiful executive director.
“Vanessa is a giver, not a taker. She is kind of like a hero,” she said. “She is always willing to help anybody and everybody, her volunteer work is incredible. I cannot compare it to anybody. She is just very passionate about getting children involved in volunteering and community service, all of that.”
Oceguera herself said she is encouraged by Columbus’ evolution in the three decades she has called it home.
“It has really grown a lot. There has been a huge change in the last 30 years. I think it’s a lot more diverse than it used to be,” she said. “There are good schools, academics. There are plenty of fun things for kids to do.”
If she had to nitpick, it might be the weather. But, she said that could be because of her Texas background.
“I would love somewhere that had maybe a bit milder climate and not such a drastic change by the day because sometimes you can have all four seasons in a day and that’s just a little ridiculous,” she said, laughing. “My skin never made it from the south to the north so I am always cold. I’m the person who doubles up on pants and socks.”
Columbus is undoubtedly home and her heart is planted in Nebraska, except when it comes to sports. Nobody will make her give up her support for her Texas Longhorns in favor of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. She proudly bleeds burnt orange and white.
“They’ve all tried,” she said of local Husker fans trying to convert her. “I get a ton of grief about that and that’s OK. I will just never wear the red Husker shirt, but that doesn’t mean I won’t support them. I hope they do well. Just not against my Longhorns, which will only happen if they’re playing for a National Championship.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.