Growing up in Lincoln in the 1990s, Bill Michener never imagined he would graduate from college at all, much less twice in four years to receive both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Arts in Counseling. Now, Michener is the executive director of Lighthouse, a Lincoln-based after-school program, and uses his experiences to help Nebraska youth discover their potential and to train local schools and law enforcement on restorative practices instead of punishments.
Michener at one point had dropped out of high school. But after a couple friends said they enjoyed going to Lighthouse, he joined them. And found a completely different path, and mentors who not only cared for him but believed in him.
The staff at Lighthouse were — and are, to this day — dedicated to helping young people like him experience healthy love, establish boundaries, and learn skills that will benefit them into adulthood.
“Once I learned that I was smart, and that my choices really guided the reason to why I dropped out of school in the first place, I really just wanted to continue to improve myself,” Michener said. “One of those ways was clearly to get a degree and start understanding the world in a different way.”
Michener began taking psychology courses at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, but didn’t connect with the larger campus and classes. He finished his undergraduate degree in 2002 at Doane’s Lincoln campus, which had a more familial atmosphere similar to what he experienced at Lighthouse.
“I felt like a number [at UNL], where at Doane, I felt like family.” he said.
He joined the Masters of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program several years later, graduating in 2006.
“One thing that made it feel like a family going to Doane were the incredible instructors and professors that were a part of both programs,” Michener said. “I became very close and still remain very close to many of them to this day in my professional career.”
Michener said he felt like the faculty at Doane were invested in making connections with their students, and providing them with opportunities to learn from the world around them. Getting his degrees has been a major help in his work at Lighthouse, too, in listening to people.
He’s now been part of the Lighthouse family for 26 years, as a participant in the non-profit’s services, then as family manager and volunteer coordinator, and for the past 14.5 years, as executive director.
Lighthouse as a whole celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020. While the aims of the organization haven’t changed, its operations and programming has morphed to meet the needs of current students, technology and education.
“You think, 30 years ago, afterschool programs were just unheard of,” Michener said. “When I first started, when I was coming here, we were really a drop-in teen center. We didn’t have a lot of programming.”
Now, Lighthouse has honed its programming to help participants “progress through the stormy waters of teenage years,” he said. There’s a food program that provides an afternoon snack and a hot, homemade evening meal.
During the pandemic, these services migrated to provide Lighthouse’s young people and their families with meals. As schools transitioned to online learning, the organization opened its doors to provide a safe place with stable internet and support from staff, as well as breakfasts and lunches. This way, no one was left behind, Michener said.
“For non-profits, the challenge is learning to stick to what you’re the expert at, not chasing grant dollars for programs but really staying on track,” Michener said. “We decided to be the best at being an after school program. I think that’s what made us successful and continue to grow.”
Through online services, Lighthouse is also able to reach students outside of Lincoln, and across Nebraska.
Its extensive programming is one reason that Lighthouse is different from other afterschool programs in the state. Another reason is the organization’s emphasis on providing a family-like environment.
“We say that our change agent is ‘love’ here because we want our young people to experience love from healthy, caring adults and have healthy boundaries, so they can learn to flourish,” Michener said.
Additionally, the use of restorative practices is a large part of Lighthouse’s operations. For example, an alternative suspension program provides students a place to go outside of school instead of an empty home. Staff work with the student to identify harm that was caused to or by them, how to learn, and how to heal from it. Homework is sent to Lighthouse so students won’t fall behind, with support from loving, caring adults.
Michener has provided training on restorative practices to school resource officers, and is now leading trainings for the Lincoln Police Department. It changes the mindset that small crimes all need to be processed through the traditional justice system, and helps officers respond to issues in ways that help young people learn from errors rather than be punished for them.
The next step, he says, is training young people in restorative practices, as well, so they can lead peer groups and be proactive in changing the community.
“I want us to continue to climb mountains, and be a leader for other non-profits,” Michener said. “The future of Lighthouse is to help systems change to better serve our young people.”
“We can’t live within our own little bubble and think that our kids have a better shot in the world,” he said, and by enacting changes in Lincoln, hopes that Lighthouse and the young people who have walked through its doors will create wider change, as well.