JohnCarl Denkovich ends every email with these words from 19th century social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken [adults].”
The quotation is especially apt given the 2006 Hastings College graduate’s recent appointment as director of communications and program development for Holland Children’s Institute and Holland Children’s Movement of Omaha. Established by the late Richard Holland in 2013, the nonprofits strive to create in Nebraska a national beacon for economic security and opportunity for children and families.
“Richard Holland was a beloved philanthropist in Omaha and Nebraska who cared very deeply for children and families, especially the ability of families to access the ‘good life’ in Nebraska no matter their socioeconomic status,” said Denkovich, a political science and psychology graduate.
The Holland Children’s Institute facilitates research and analysis related to income disparities and equitable access for Nebraska children and families. The Holland Children’s Movement works to ensure Nebraska children and families are prioritized in budget and policy decisions through advocacy, public engagement and collaboration.
“Creating safe, healthy and economically-secure spaces for Nebraska’s children and families is my calling,” said Denkovich, who earned a master’s degree in public administration, with an emphasis in nonprofit management, from the University of Nebraska–Omaha. “When they called me about this position, I just knew it was the right fit.”
Denkovich oversees all communications for the Holland organizations while cultivating donors, writing grant proposals, developing collaborative programs with other Omaha nonprofits and cultivating story banks on issues such as paid family and medical leave, tipped minimum wage and other politically-salient policy ideas. Denkovich and other staff also assist in the writing of public opinion polls for the nonpartisan Institute, which engages third-party firms to conduct scientific polling of Nebraska residents. The staff is currently drafting the Nebraska Voters Outlook Poll for 2019 to gauge public opinion and identify socially-relevant issues for Nebraska’s children and families.
Typically, poll results show that most Nebraskans are committed to equal opportunities for all children and families, even if it means a higher tax bill, Denkovich said.
“For example, our most recent study shows that a clear majority of Nebraskans (58%) believe state government underfunds public education and that our children are not a priority, while the same poll reflects that a clear majority of Nebraskans (58%) believe that the state prioritizes tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations,” Denkovich said.
Denkovich believes that early intervention, especially for at-risk children, is key to developing capable, self-confident adults for Nebraska’s future. That means a legislature that fully funds public education and programs that help under-resourced families plan for post-high school, whether that be college, trade school or immediate workforce entry, as well as electing lawmakers who support child- and family-friendly legislation.
“We need investment on the front end. We have the ability to do that, we’re just not doing enough,” Denkovich said. “It’s so important that we spend that money on the front end because we know it returns dividends on the back end. We need to set children up for success with early childhood development because every dollar we invest, we see that return several times over later in life.”
Advocating for the marginalized, advancing public health
In 2018, the Omaha Jaycees honored Denkovich as one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans who improve the Omaha community through selfless acts of kindness while excelling in their careers.
Beyond professional commitments, Denkovich serves on the national advisory council for GLSEN, an anti-bullying organization that seeks to create safe, healthy and inclusive school communities for all students, and co-chairs the Mayor’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Board. Denkovich also volunteers with Young Jewish Omaha and serves on the governance council of Nebraska’s Institute for Holocaust Education.
Before joining the Holland organizations this year, Denkovich was for three years program coordinator at Heartland Family Service of Omaha, facilitating the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition, a tobacco prevention and control program funded by million dollar-plus state grants. The job involved coordinating the work of 11 staff across five different subcontracting agencies in Douglas County, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center and American Lung Association.
“It taught me a lot. It was really baptism by fire in many ways,” Denkovich said. “With that position, I oversaw everything from daily operations to staff management, event planning and board development as well as grant writing and reporting. It was a great run, and I found an even greater passion for public health.”
Nonprofit skills honed at Hastings College
In the first semester at Hastings College, Denkovich was miserable and lonely, even calling his parents in Lincoln and asking to come home.
“I was really struggling my first semester. I felt overwhelmed,” Denkovich said.
Finding fortitude, Denkovich ventured out of Weyer Hall and joined several campus organizations. The Student Senate. Peer Umbrella Network. Alliance. Artist Lecture Series. Student Health Advisory Council. Dorm Council. Co-founded Team Against Bias. And, eventually was named to Psi Chi and Omicron Delta Kappa honoraries. The list goes on.
Denkovich graduated four years later with networks of supportive friends and mentors, selection to Who’s Who as a campus leader and a passion for serving marginalized and vulnerable communities.
“That’s how I really developed a love for nonprofit and organizational work,” Denkovich said. “My campus involvement pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the work. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Hastings College is where I became more myself.”
Now an influential young leader in Omaha, Denkovich promotes Hastings College at every opportunity. After visiting the offices of a Holland Heroes honoree who focuses on at-risk youth and noticing Hastings was missing from a set of college pennants hanging on the wall, the dedicated graduate called the alumni office and made sure the college was represented.
“I thought, these youth have to know about Hastings College,” Denkovich said. “Some of them are learning for the first time it’s possible to attend college. Many of them are imagining what it’s like to explore New York City or see the ocean from the coast of California. Many have never traveled outside Omaha. While curiosity about the wider world is important, we want to retain that young talent in Nebraska. We want to show that all things are possible right here. They don’t know what they’re missing if they don’t at least visit Hastings College. Sometimes that jewel is right in front of you, but you miss it if you’re in a rush to leave!”