Each year, Civic Nebraska’s Build Up Omaha awards recognize Omahans whose work embodies the spirit of a modern, robust democracy. Among our latest honorees are community advocates, neighbors, leaders, students, and everyday Omahans. We’ll officially honor the winners at our third annual celebration Nov. 15, but before then, here’s a chance to learn a bit more about what makes them special.
Civic Nebraska honors Sara Woods, executive associate to the senior vice chancellor for community engagement at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for her inspiring leadership of the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center.
Woods has been a significant figure in Civic Nebraska’s rapid growth since 2013, when our Omaha office placed its headquarters at “the CEC,” as the on-campus building is known. Woods was involved in the creation and development of the Center, which improves community access to the university and its services, events, and resources and delivers a full range of engagement activities. The CEC fosters new generations of leaders and partnerships while strengthening university-community collaboration.
As the CEC’s leader, Woods encourages students to be engaged learners, and she supports, challenges, and inspires them to be the change they wish to see in their communities.
“Sara has led a CEC team that has provided not only a fabulous physical facility, but also a home for a diverse group of local nonprofits to collaborate, to grow, and to continually improve,” said Kent Day, Civic Nebraska’s director of Youth Civic Leadership, who nominated Woods. “Thousands of Omaha and Nebraska children benefit from the work that comes out of Sara’s building, and civic leaders from across the city, state, and country have passed through the CEC’s welcoming doors.”
Day said the CEC building itself has become “almost organic” as it facilitates civic dialogues and generates positive change. Much of that comes from Woods and the CEC team being mindful and building strong relationships with the organizations and individuals who call the space home.
“Every day in the CEC, I am able to watch my heroes – an amazing range of higher education, nonprofit, K-12, business and government sector employees and volunteers – meet, work, and collaborate to create significant, sustainable, and positive change in our community. In so many ways, these individuals demonstrate to our students the importance and value of living a civically engaged life,” Woods said.
“I am grateful for our visionary campus leadership who made the CEC a reality, our terrific staff who strive to meet the diverse needs of all our building’s stakeholders, and our awesome partners, like Civic Nebraska, that help us realize our mission and values every day.”
Woods also is an active board member of Phoenix Academy, the Community Services Fund of Nebraska, and the Omaha Community Partnership, and is a commissioner for the Nebraska Volunteer Service Commission. She is married to Kirby Woods, president of Innotech Engineering Solutions. They have two children.
Civic Nebraska honors Amanda Ponce, leader of the New Leaders Council Omaha, for her tireless community advocacy and work toward positive change in the Metro area.
Ponce has led New Leaders Council Omaha since 2017 after becoming an alumna of the leadership development program for the city’s progressive young professionals. Under her direction, NLC’s momentum has accelerated and has created new pathways for emerging local leaders.
Ponce’s work as an advocate for immigrant communities, families with incarcerated loved ones, and addressing recidivism prompted ONE Omaha Director Alexis Bromley to nominate her for this honor. At 14, Ponce assumed the role of her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and made a decision that changed the trajectory of her – and her family’s – lives. That decision was to break the cycle that, she said, kept breaking up her family. Seven of Ponce’s family members, which included both parents, had served time.
“I couldn’t let young people think they were alone on this journey. I also couldn’t accept that society labels my family as criminals,” she said. “My loved ones are not prison numbers. They are not their criminal record, despite what society stereotypes them and the stigma we face for having an incarcerated loved one. They are so much more than that, and we are so much more than that.”
Bromley said, “Amanda has a powerful story that pushed her to become a community advocate to uplift and equip the future leaders of Omaha. Her time at New Leaders Council is all volunteer-based, and her passion for creating progressive change in Omaha is worthy of celebration.”
Ponce also is an academic success navigator at Metropolitan Community College, where she guides first-generation students through the transition to, and life in, college.
“I never really enjoy sharing my story, because it’s personal, it’s raw, and pain still comes from it,” she said. “But I began sharing because I understood that I have a responsibility.”
Meet Sara Woods, Amanda Ponce, and their fellow Build Up Omaha honorees Nov. 15 at Empire Room Omaha. Get your tickets here.