“I feel like everything I’ve done has led me to Communities In Schools,” said Shelley Henderson, state director of Communities In Schools of Nebraska and interim executive director of Communities In Schools of Omaha.
Born and raised in Omaha, Henderson had a childhood very similar to the kind that Communities In Schools students across the country experience every day. Her mother, who was a teenager when she had Henderson, struggled with poverty and mental illness.
“Her ability to engage with schools and advocate for what I needed…she couldn’t do it,” Henderson said. “I grew up in the midst of gang culture and food pantries, but I loved school. It was well lit. I was guaranteed light and water, and I could eat there. I could read there. And I figured out that opening a book could transport me to anywhere in the universe. I knew that school had to be a priority for me, and that it was going to allow me to turn my situation around.”
Upon graduating from high school, Henderson knew she wanted to help young people struggling to overcome the same barriers to success she once faced. After college, she became a teacher in the Omaha public school system, and worked hard to provide her students with both a quality education and the resources they and their families needed to survive. But doing both was exhausting, and after seven years she felt burned out.
Henderson felt torn between teaching children and supporting them, and so took a job with the University of Nebraska in Omaha as a P-16 coordinator. P-16 is a comprehensive system dedicated to linking all levels of education, from preschool to post-secondary. As a coordinator, Henderson helped the local school district and the University of Nebraska align their curricula, so that students graduating high school had a smooth academic transition into college. She also organized campus tours for students, so they could get a glimpse of post-secondary education and begin to imagine themselves with a college degree.
Henderson found the work fulfilling, but knew that she could still do more to help students succeed. It was 2008, and the youth in north Omaha were truly struggling. There were robberies and drive-by shootings, teen pregnancies and academic failures. And the community had had enough. They banded together to look for solutions when Henderson stumbled upon the Communities In Schools website. She quickly learned more about the organization, and felt it made the most sense to bring the organization’s passion for building a community of support around students to the youth of north Omaha. With the support of the Communities In Schools national office and her community, Henderson was able to build the Nebraska state office. They began serving students during the 2010-2011 school year, with Henderson at the helm as state director.
“With Communities In Schools I’ve been given license to consider ‘whatever it takes’ to usher resources into schools. It’s been the one opportunity in my professional career where I’ve been allowed to dedicate 100 percent to figuring out what it’s going to take to get kids and families to the next level. It’s been liberating.”