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June 4



Yates Illuminates anchored by strong educational partnership with MCC

The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association’s (GPNA) community-building efforts can be traced back nearly 40 years, when the group started a neighborhood watch program to improve safety. Grassroots initiatives continue today in the midtown Omaha enclave spanning Cuming to Dodge streets, from the interstate to 37th St. 

For instance, the 33rd Street market, featuring goods from local producers, will begin on Friday evenings in June and run through September. Activities and events like community garden potlucks, Porchfest, a host of youth sports camps and much more are always happening in Gifford Park, all made possible by the volunteer spirit of its residents. 

Now even more is possible in Gifford Park than ever before thanks to the recent completion of a renovation and restoration project to one of Omaha’s oldest educational sites — the former home of Henry Yates Public School on 32nd and Davenport streets, a building with a history of providing services, support and resources for new Americans. 

Constructed in 1888 as a castle-like residence the Yates family called “Hillside,” half of the stone edifice property was sold to the Omaha school district for $1 in 1915 to transition to a school. Today, the John McDonald-designed building — the same architect of the Joslyn Castle about six blocks to the west — is the new home to Yates Illuminates.

Yates Illuminates is an umbrella organization to a group of small, culturally focused nonprofits. Each entity has its own mission, but to rent the shared offices at Yates Illuminates, tenants must also buy into the overarching mission of the collective — serving the community by offering social, cultural and educational resources to create an inclusive environment that uplifts every person’s potential.

Marie Hélène André, Yates Illuminates’ executive director, said she functions like an adhesive between organizations. André is a world citizen. She was born in Rwanda and also lived in Belgium and Brazil before moving to Omaha in 2013, when she and husband Adrian Petrescu, Ph.D., found a home in Gifford Park. A speaker of five languages, André is a former Metropoloitan Community College ESL instructor and corporate trainer. 

Gifford Park is also home to the College’s latest express center, MCC at Yates Illuminates. Situated in one of the state’s most diverse census tracts (more than 55% of area residents identify as non-white, according to 2020 U.S. Census data), it is a hub for MCC Adult Education programs and a wide variety of Community and Workforce Education camps and workshops, serving children to seniors.

The building has been renovated and upgraded, with its large double-hung windows and hardwood floors restored. Its interior features an auditorium, boardroom and a commercial kitchen, all shared by tenants and available by reservation for activities. In front of its brick exterior facing Davenport Street is the MCC Freight Farm. The high-tech, indoor garden is the centerpiece of a vibrant courtyard with several benches for gathering. Surrounding lush, inviting landscaping funnels passersby into the courtyard’s common areas and walkways. A playground sits on the north side of the building.

As the rededicated space neared its April grand opening, leaders of the project said the College’s commitment to be the on-site, educational anchor tenant has been a key component to its viability. Having an educational purpose was written into the building’s deed more than a century ago.

Many organizations with a unifying educational mission

Yates Illuminates’ service-learning model is similar to the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Weitz Center for Community Engagement but on a smaller scale.

Katie Weitz, Ph.D., president of Weitz Family Foundation, was engaged with the project after attending a community meeting about the future of the former school and OPS-run community center. OPS designated the structure surplus in October 2019. That’s when GPNA started rallying around the idea to build on the location’s legacy as a site for community education and a welcoming place for new Americans.

In the beginning stages of GPNA community organizing efforts, a real estate firm commissioned by OPS put the building on the market, drawing a $630,000 bid from a developer to turn it into an assisted living community. It was the second such GPNA campaign to #SaveYates in four years, the first stemming from the building being considered to be torn down and replaced by a new elementary school on the current site. Public input shifted the location for Gifford Park Elementary School to instead be built at 32nd and Burt streets. André served as a leading organizer of both successful campaigns.

André said the Weitz Family Foundation’s decision to support the vision for Yates Illuminates during the 2020 campaign, and the OPS Board of Education’s decision to sell the property at a discount, enabled the building to remain a center for education. 

“About 60 people showed up,” Weitz said, referring to the 2020 meeting. “It was just so interesting to have young families and older people, small businesses and policymakers, in one space talking and dreaming about what Yates could be if it was community-owned. That was one of the through lines that was really appealing to the [Weitz Family] Foundation.

After the school board’s 6-1 vote to sell the property to GPNA for $100,000 with Weitz Family Foundation’s additional backing of $900,000 to renovate the property, they #SavedYates.

“Gifford Park is truly a model of what a neighborhood association can be. It’s a tremendously civically engaged group of folks that care about economic development, families in need, extracurriculars and keeping it clean,” Weitz said. “The project had some scary times, but we had faith that the Omaha Public School Board was going to honor the location’s history and see the value of the education.”

The MCC ‘turning point’

Weitz and André both said MCC committing to the project gave it momentum and tangibility through periods when seeing the finish line was difficult. Most of the concept and planning phases occurred during the pandemic, with supply chain interruptions, inflated construction costs and the timing for having public gatherings again uncertain.

“Metropolitan Community College being an anchor tenant was one of the most important turning points for Yates. It first and foremost demonstrated the commitment to education,” Weitz said. “MCC brings the whole spectrum of education, from practical workforce development to becoming educated citizens of the world.”

The MCC Freight Farm is a source of some of the College’s most innovative programming. Within the confines of a converted shipping container, and with the help of solar power, hydroponics and specialized LED lights, it offers community education on horticulture, entrepreneurship and sustainability. It introduces an alternative food production method suitable to urban settings and food deserts, with the capacity to produce multiple tons of produce year-round. 

A pilot food security program for students funded by the MCC Foundation launched at Yates. The intercampus, collaborative initiative highlights how MCC uses the sum of its parts, the breadth of its expertise and creativity to offer resources to students colleges aren’t necessarily expected to provide.

Salad greens grown in the Freight Farm (through noncredit classes) are put together at the Institute for the Culinary Arts by the culinary, hospitality and horticulture department (credit programs) on the Fort Omaha Campus. MCC Facilities Department staff deliver the finished product to each of the College’s main campuses, where students who need them can pick up a free salad every Tuesday. The program continues to evolve.

In addition to the Freight Farm, the College rents three classrooms on the second floor of the building for additional programming. 

“There’s a wide variety of learning experiences and unique ways we deliver our programming at Yates,” said Gary Girard, vice president for MCC Community and Workforce Education. “There’s a robust adult education and ESL program here, as well as senior programming.” 

During winter break, while many working parents have a far shorter break than their children, MCC collaborated with after-school provider Collective for Youth to offer a three-day robotics camp at Yates attended by around 15 elementary school children at no cost. Students built their own robot and learned coding to program it to play music, move, light up, sense walls and more.

“With all our youth programming, our intent is to have a [science, technology, engineering and math] focus,” Girard said. 

Daphne Cook, MCC director of Community Education, said MCC youth programs at Yates are designed to create connection to the entire lifecycle of things that are often taken for granted. A visit to a Metropolitan Utilities District water treatment plant provided an experiential learning opportunity.

“You turn on the water, but where does it come from, and how does it get cleaned? Having those experiences is impactful because it connects you to your community. Our students get excited when they learn about the interconnectedness of things. These aren’t the kinds of experiences [people from my generation] had when they were kids,” Cook said.

See what’s germinating at Yates Illuminates

Inside Yates Illuminates, a couple paces after passing through the entrance, a sign with “welcome” written in dozens of languages forms the shape of a heart to greet visitors. 

During the 2023-24 year, MCC Adult Education, which includes the College’s no cost noncredit GED and ESL programs, served more than 1,400 community members through 30 instructional courses, 16 Transitional Learning Community classes and information sessions at Yates.

MCC Community Education has hosted 87 courses at Yates to date, serving an enrollment approaching 500. An additional 58 students have participated in MCC College for Kids and College for Teens programs at the new location. This summer, MCC at Yates Illuminates will offer courses that cover a wide range of interests and age groups, including 3D Pen Art for Seniors, alternative energy and food production, Black American culture, digital photography, entrepreneurship, fashion design boot camps for kids and teens, marketing, meditation, Native American beading and many more learning experiences.

While MCC has an anchoring role at Yates Illuminates, the College’s offering is a fraction of the full array of cultural experiences, services, education and community engagement that takes place between Yates’ “green walls.”

Decorative but 100% alive-and-real moss grows on the walls within Yates’ interior corridors. Seemingly everything at Yates — from the Freight Farm to drywall and dreams — germinates.

People who have lived in the Omaha area their whole lives can find community and multicultural experiences they have never had right at home. Through evolving, community-responsive and nimble programming, people from any community can get to know this one better.

Bluebird Cultural Initiative hosts native dance performances and other free programs. André joined a class to make her own moccasins. An amateur radio program helped students contact people manning airwaves in Toronto and England.

Omaha Chamber Music Society and OPS partnered to offer a free music camp to 35 refugee children. For two weeks, they learned to play African drums every afternoon and presented a concert at the conclusion.

“Each child got the opportunity to learn how to drum and then to perform, and each left with a free musical instrument,” André said. 

André said Yates Illuminates tries to offer free programs whenever possible. Great Plains Theater Commons’ performances are free, as are violin classes and a science club for kids.

The people who come to Yates Illuminates get to know one another. The aim is for the kids who attend programs to develop a bond with one another and their neighborhood, André said.

“You keep them away from the street. You get them involved in the neighborhood. They get to know each other and grow together, and they want the neighborhood to stay nice. And when they see one another on the street, they see their friend,” André said.

André said with the building now full of nonprofit tenants and the renovation complete, she is excited for the broader community to experience the programming and provide input on what else they would like to see offered.

“Everybody is welcome. They should come see us, ask us questions and give us suggestions. If they have ideas, we can always have a conversation and see what we can do,” André said.

André said looking back, it is incredible how far the project has come since the first community meeting, when Yates Illuminates was only a dream.

“I am lucky to have people who believe in this project,” André said. “I think MCC wants to be in the community, and this is a special project in a special neighborhood.”

Visit for more information on MCC Community and Workforce Education courses offered at MCC at Yates Illuminates. Check out to learn more about Yates Illuminates.