For Josh Dotzler, this was his shot.
Coming to play basketball at Creighton University and getting his education was, he thought, the beginning of a new chapter in his life — an opportunity to leave behind the oft-troubled streets of his North Omaha neighborhood and start anew.
But, he says, God had other plans for him. Plans that called him back to the neighborhood — to live, to serve and to mentor others.
Dotzler, his wife, Jen, and their three children are at home in North Omaha, where he is the executive pastor for Bridge Church and CEO of Abide, an inner-city nonprofit founded by his parents, Ron and Twany Dotzler.
Josh was 2 years old in 1989 when his family sold their suburban Omaha home and took up what they thought was “temporary” residence in a former Immanuel Hospital boiler facility in North Omaha while Ron, a chemical engineer, and Twany looked into missionary work overseas.
Josh says his parents found themselves living in a world of violence and brokenness like they had never before known.
They also found their calling.
“Many people have questioned and wondered why my parents would move our family to an area like North Omaha and work with a forgotten community,” says Dotzler. “The simple explanation is they have lived out what they’ve communicated: The most dangerous place to live is outside the center of God’s will.”
Josh says their house — a fixer-upper in dire need of repairs — remained untouched by frequent drive-by shootings. But he was shaken — and forever changed — when he learned of the murders of two young neighbor girls.
The murders weighed heavily on Josh, and, over the years, he became more determined to find a way out.
The murders had an opposite effect on his father, Ron, who became more committed to saving children and to being a part of the solution.
As the Dotzlers worked to fix up their own home, they also brought their neighbors together to beautify the community. Slowly but surely, what once had been identified by police as the worst neighborhood in Omaha was transformed into one of community and of opportunities. Abide has been recognized by both Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Josh’s experiences and fears had him wanting to leave North Omaha, but that changed in 2007, when the murder of a neighborhood friend — another life cut short by violence — steeled his resolve to be a voice for change.
“I started asking myself about how I could be part of the solution,” says Dotzler. “At the end of the day, we all have decisions to make. The forces and fears that were causing me to want to leave were not founded on the right truths. God gave me a change of heart and led me to the community.”
In 2007, Abide began partnering with police to identify and target “sore spots” in the community. In 2009 – the same year Dotzler graduated from Creighton – a strategic plan was set in place to move forward with every effort to transform each of North Omaha’s 700 neighborhoods. Neighbors rallied together to restore the dilapidated houses and to beautify common spaces.
Through its focus on community building, family and student support programs, housing and partnerships, Abide has adopted more than 100 neighborhoods and established numerous “Lighthouses” — abandoned homes that are fixed up as family dwellings. Dotzler says that when neighbors rally together and learn one another’s stories, they find that nearly all want the same positive opportunities for their families.
Abide’s Better Together Basketball program (established in 2011) provides a positive outlet for more than 100 inner-city youth, from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Abide also provides academic mentoring and other programs. In all, more than 7,000 volunteers and a diverse staff of more than 30 individuals make up the Abide team.
Other volunteers and supporters provide financial support by purchasing, rehabbing, and donating homes and adopting neighborhoods. Abide works in three community centers and hosts numerous events annually.
From 2010 to 2014, the number of people participating in Abide-sponsored events grew from fewer than 3,000 to more than 13,000. An annual block party is one example of an event that brings the community together to engage and interact.
Dotzler says that his Jesuit education taught him the importance of community, and being a part of Abide allows him to serve alongside others as agents of change in North Omaha.
“Abide has changed who I am,” says Dotzler. “What I have seen and experienced has impacted who I am today. All of my experiences, good and bad, have created a sense of humility and a desire to give back.”