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Brian Podwinski


Brian Podwinski pointed to an old stone wall in the basement of his brewery.

“That wall is probably about 116 years old,” he said, describing the history behind Robber’s Cave, the location of Blue Blood Brewing Company.

Five years ago, Brian could not have imagined standing in the basement of a historic brewery. After all, 10 years ago he was starting a government desk job and nearly 15 years ago he was putting on a Lincoln Police Department uniform for the first time.

“It’s been one crazy ride,” he said with a laugh, and you can tell by his face that he’s not kidding.

There’s a strong sense of pride and a fair share of exhaustion weaved in to Brian’s story. And while it’s not one he would have mapped out himself, it’s one he owns every day.

“Things happen for a reason, right?” he said with a shrug.

In college, Brian was on the path to medical school. He enrolled in biology and chemistry classes, but soon realized the medical field was not his calling. He took an interest in criminal justice and did an internship with the Lincoln Police Department before signing on as an officer in 2000.

Brian loved his job as a police officer. It was a great way to serve his community, and the camaraderie he built with his fellow officers was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. Sure, the job was tough, he said, but he was proud of the work he was doing and thankful for a job he loved.

After just a few years on the force, Brian was badly injured during a training exercise. Over the next year, he had three shoulder surgeries and underwent physical therapy before retiring from the Department.

“Now what?” he thought.

Brian had gone from having a job he loved to questioning his next steps. He was angry, frustrated and confused about what to do next. He ended up working a government desk job for the next few years, buying himself some time to establish a plan.

It was during this season that Brian started experimenting with home brewing. He jokes that his desk job increased his alcohol consumption, but the truth is he was just spending more time making beer than drinking the mainstream brews.

Home brewing involved creativity and a certain amount of science, he said. The process fascinated him and the end result of his work was 110 percent worth the effort. He started to wonder if just maybe brewing beer could be his full-time gig.

After working a desk job, Brian said he loved the thought of running his own business. He also loved the idea of brewing beer every day… for a living. So, over the next year or so he spent his free time working up a business plan and perfecting his brewing methods.

And in December 2011 he opened Blue Blood Brewing Company.

From the start there was a lot of momentum behind the brewery. It had been a while since a local brewing company had opened in Lincoln, and people were anxious to see what Blue Blood had to offer.

His goal was two-fold  – start his own business and keep the ingredients and talent local. He wanted to give back to the community, which sounds cliche, he said, but it was true. Brian said he was tired of hearing the big players in the beer market boast about their local ties, but their actual community impact was minimal.

“I wanted the money to stay in town, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Currently, Blue Blood employs 70 full-time and part-time employees. That number has jumped significantly over the past few years as Brian has grown his operation and moved to a new taproom and brewing facility located above Lincoln’s historic Robber’s Cave.

It’s a big responsibility to employ that many people, he said, and it’s an even bigger job to serve his employees well. He wants to run Blue Blood with the same kind of camaraderie that he felt when he was part of the police force. Sure, the experiences are vastly different, but at the end of the day, he does his best to make his employees feel like family.

Opening a local brewery seemed like a no-brainer for Brian. It merged his passion and his talent, but it was also risky. He’d never run a business, let alone a brewery, and figuring out how to brew larger batches and manage distribution methods were entirely new territory, but he was convinced he could make it work – and he has.

What’s interesting about Brian’s story is that he used his whole story, not just the good parts, to shape his future. He could have avoided his past as an officer and stayed angry about his injury, but he didn’t. He combined his love of brewing with his devotion to the police force and found a new story, maybe even a better one.

If Brian hadn’t been injured, he’d probably still be a police officer, but he also wouldn’t own and run a brewery. The fact is, there’s no way to judge which path is better, which one would have been easier or which one would have made Brian happier.

It’s just like he said, “Everything happens for a reason, right?”

Ashley Carr


Ashley Carr is best known by over 2,000 refugees and immigrants in Lincoln as “Ashley Dina Har.”

In English, this translates to ‘very crazy Ashley.’

As a refugee resettlement case manager, Ashley’s days are a lot like her nickname – crazy. She drives her clients to doctor appointments and school, teaches them how to ride the bus, helps them apply for jobs or takes them shopping at a local thrift store.

Her job is to help shoulder the burden for people who are coming to the United States for the first time, she said, and it’s humbling work. 

So many of her clients refer to her as ‘very crazy Ashley’ because she loves to make people laugh. Whether she’s cranking up country music as she drives around town or stumbling over phrases in another language, Ashely does it all with a smile that welcomes and invites people to settle in to Lincoln.

Her job is what she dreamed of doing, even though it’s so different than what she expected.

Ashley said it was during a study abroad trip to Italy that she really started to understand her love of different cultures. She was immediately fascinated by the Italian culture and wanted to immerse herself in the everyday life of the people – but there was a problem, she didn’t know the language. It was frustrating to want to enter into another culture, but not be able to because there were so many barriers. This experience is what sparked her interest in refugees and immigrants.

While she laughs now about that fact that her temporary discomfort during her study abroad trip opened her eyes to the experience of refugees and immigrants, it stirred up a passion for people that is so evident in her work.

Ashley started out as an intern at the Lincoln Literacy Council, where she eventually received a full-time job, before becoming a case manager with Catholic Social Services.

During her work, Ashley said her eyes have been opened to the heartbreaking stories of people escaping difficult situations with the hope of finding safety and a renewed sense of home. Many of them come to Lincoln with few possessions and little knowledge about American culture, other than what they’ve seen on TV or heard from family and friends.

During the refugee resettlement process, refugees take culture orientation classes in their homeland before they come to the United States. But Ashley said the reality of what they experience is so different than what they’ve learned during their classes. Things like running water, ovens, vacuum cleaners and how to take a shower are anomalies to many refugees, depending on their country of origin. There’s a huge learning curve, Ashley said, but she’s been so impressed with the resilience of her clients.

After two years as a refugee resettlement case manager, Ashley said it’s hard not to become numb to the traumatic stories that she hears. She said the initial intake meeting is often highly emotional. They tell her stories of what or who they’ve lost during their resettlement process and Ashley sits and listens.

She said it’s difficult not to dwell on these stories when she’s away from work, however, she also wants to remember the special moments of each case. One of those moments is when she meets a family at the airport for the first time.

Ashley is at the airport all the time, but these trips are special.

For many refugees, driving in a car is a big adjustment, so being in an airplane can be extremely overwhelming. She said they often get off the plane tired from days of travel, confused and nervous about their new home. They’re greeted by other family members or friends who have been in their shoes before… and then there’s Ashley, smiling and ready to hug them or shake their hand, welcoming them to their new home.

She said that no matter how many airport runs she’s done, she always tries to treat each airport reception like it’s the first one. She never wants to do it because it’s just part of her job, she wants to welcome people to Lincoln because she’s excited they’re here.

During one of her first meetings with a new client, Ashley said she likes to explain that she’s there to help them find resources and adjust to their new surroundings, but most importantly, she reassures them that they’re safe.

She looks them in the eyes, understanding as much as she can about their story, and says: “Your suffering is done.”

She explains that life won’t be easy, but they don’t have to live in fear anymore, and this is a welcomed and surprising sentiment for most refugees to hear.

“Their countries have disregarded them, so this is a big turning point,” Ashley said. “I feel grateful to be able to tell them that.”

For Ashley, her work has become more than clocking in and out of the office everyday.

Her clients have become her friends. They invite her over for meals, holiday gatherings and birthdays. Ashley has become an extension of so many families and cultures in Lincoln over the past two years, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ashley has helped restore dignity and hope to people by making Lincoln a home, not just a destination.

It’s not an easy job. It’s heavy and oftentimes overwhelming. The hours can be long and every family has a unique set of challenging needs, but Ashley said she can’t give it up. Her work has become a place where her passion and greatest joy align. It’s where she’s learned the most about herself and her city, about cultures and people who she never could have imagined meeting.

Her clients have taught her to see what matters, to value what matters and to see and hear the stories of people who matter.

Kat Scholl


Things have finally started to make sense for Kat Scholl.

Now, that doesn’t mean her life is perfect or that she has everything completely mapped out, but for the first time in a long time, she’s starting to understand her own journey.

During the day, Kat is a public information specialist at Lincoln Parks & Recreation. On the side, she and her husband raise bees. It may sound like the two jobs work together in perfect harmony, but that’s not always the way Kat has felt about her work life.

After growing up in a farmhouse in Seward, Nebraska, Kat went to Concordia University to get her degree in studio art. She’d always been creative and her parents encouraged this talent.

Kat grew up watching Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” with her grandmother. Her parents gave her blank sheets of paper instead of defined coloring books to spur on her creativity, so pursuing an art degree seemed natural.

And yet, Kat felt like she needed a backup plan. Not only was art somewhat of a loose career path, but she is also blind in one eye. Kat feared losing her sight entirely, so she also got a massage therapy degree as a fallback career.

Kat said she struggled through college, wrestling with her beliefs, schoolwork and a lack of confidence in her own abilities. After she graduated, she job hopped for about 15 years, going from one position to the next. She felt unsettled and nothing felt like the ‘right’ job. It was during this time that she met her husband, Dustin.

The couple met online after Kat swore off the chaotic bar scene and Dustin was too shy to even consider meeting someone at a bar. Dustin sent the introductory message, Kat responded and the rest is history.

But shortly after they met, Dustin had a random idea.

“Hey, what if we took this beekeeper class?” he asked Kat one night, pointing to a list of classes offered at Southeast Community College.

“Are you serious? You’ve never mentioned anything about bees before…”

Dustin went on to explain how he’d always been interested in beekeeping and he’d hoped to someday make it his “old man” hobby.

“That’s cute,” Kat said with a laugh, and she moved on.

But Dustin kept at it. Leaving the class description in strategic places and dropping in a fact here or there about beekeeping, until Kat agreed to attend the first class.

Much like their dating experience, after one class, they were hooked. A year later they were harvesting their first batch of honey and planning their future honey business.

This was back in 2011, now, Kat and Dustin are the proud owners of K&D Honey Bees. This year they harvested nearly 400 pounds of honey and produced products like lip balm, lotion bars and hand cream with the beeswax.

Working as weekend beekeepers was a fun hobby, but Kat started to realize she loved it because of her family roots. She’d grown up in a family where stewardship of the land was important, and so had Dustin. Their families were both involved in efforts to care for the environment and educate others about habitat conservation.

In turn, much of Kat and Dustin’s bee work has a heavy educational emphasis. They invite customers out to watch them harvest honey, teach people what plants are helpful for bees and educate others on what role bees play in the environment.

This natural shift in thinking about her hobby also translated to her work life. Kat started doing some part-time work at Lincoln Parks & Recreation and eventually was offered a full-time position. Now her days are spent in area parks taking photos for their website and social media pages and helping people understand the role of the Department in the community.

She and Dustin have a few dozen hives out at her family farm in Seward. They dream about one day buying the house she grew up in, raising their kids in the country and maybe trying to make the bee thing a full-time gig, but for now, Kat’s thankful for where her story is at.

Her hobby and day job go hand-in-hand, and she’s excited about what’s next. She’s found a hobby, a way to help others and confidence in her work for the first time in a long time.

Pat Leach


Some days, Pat Leach wishes she could just call in ‘sick.’ Not because she doesn’t like her job, but because she wants to finish the latest book that’s grabbed her attention.

It’s funny, she said, the thing that keeps her from reading most often is her job to help others read. Pat is the Director of Lincoln City Libraries. 

She’s worked at the Bennett Martin Public Library for most of the past 40 years, and it’s hard for her to imagine having a different job.

Her job at the library is to engage the community, encouraging reading, literacy and education and inviting everyone into the libraries across the city. It’s a job that fits Pat, because of her deep love of reading and her passion for sharing that love with others. 

But it’s also a job that nearly 10 years ago, she wasn’t sure she wanted anymore.

Here’s why.

After almost 30 years of working in the library, Pat had a thought one day, ‘Maybe I should be doing something different…’

It wasn’t that she didn’t like her job, or it didn’t fit her skills, actually, it did both. Pat just wanted to be sure she was in the right career, so, she called a career counselor.

Up to that point, the Bennett Martin Public Library had been Pat’s place. It was where she worked during college, the place she met her late husband and how she interacted with people from the community. She’d worked in various areas of the library system and had seen the library grow and change over the years.

But a question still lingered in her head, “Was there something else out there I should do?”

When Pat met with the career counselor, they talked about her strengths and weaknesses, her likes and dislikes, and worked to determine what career field might fit her best. At the end of the evaluation it came time to look at the list of potential career options.

Pat held her breath and looked at the list – at the top was ‘librarian.’

Go figure.

If she hadn’t been sure before, she was then, working in the library was the right place for Pat. She remembers the career counselor making a comment like, ‘Well, it looks like you landed in the right place from the start…’

It was true. Pat’s life wasn’t consumed with the library, but so much of her personal and careers passions worked perfectly together.

After meeting with the career counselor she felt confident that her job at the library wasn’t just an easy fit, it was the right fit. Since then, Pat has leaned in more and more to her role at the library.

In 2008, she became the Library Director, a job that oversees the workings of all the public libraries in Lincoln. She also hosts a weekly radio show on NET called ‘All About Books’ and frequently speaks at events and to students about the importance of reading and literature.

She lived a pretty “charmed” life, up until three years ago when her beloved husband, Jerry Johnston, was diagnosed with cancer. He died just seven weeks after the diagnosis.

Pat remembers people telling her how strong she was, saying they could never go through losing a spouse, but Pat didn’t think of herself as extraordinarily strong – she just did what she had to do. Something many people do every day in difficult circumstances.

She made it through the deep sadness and loss, and she values life more because of losing her husband. Pat doesn’t immediately talk about the loss of her husband because she doesn’t want that one moment to define her story.

To be honest, Pat said she isn’t sure what moment does define her story. Things like her childhood, her job at the library or even her husband are all part of it, but none of them seem to sum it all up. Maybe that’s just it.

Sometimes the best stories aren’t flashy or overly dramatic, they’re consistent and real.

Pat is kind and focused, determined and open-minded. Her story is about doing the next thing, being herself and enjoying each moment, no matter how big or small they may seem.

Justin Jones


When Justin and Jennifer Jones stepped off the plane in Nebraska for the first time, they were wearing shorts and sandals – it was March.

And while they were highly unprepared for the snowy weather, the southern-born couple came ready for a new adventure and lots of hard work.

They came to open Nebraska’s first Raising Cane’s restaurant.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Justin is the owner of five Raising Cane’s locations in Nebraska, but his story starts with a lot of self doubt and a complete lack of clarity.

Back in 1996 Justin was a college student at Louisiana State University who had no clue what to do.

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Justin put himself through college working construction jobs, fitting pipes, delivering home appliances and loading up 18-wheelers at night. He changed his major five or six times until he decided to graduate with a degree in general studies.

A few months before graduation, Justin attended a college fair. He wandered from booth to booth, talking with recruiters and asking about potential jobs. Then he saw the Raising Cane’s booth, so he marched up to the recruiter and asked, ‘So, how could I own one of these restaurants?’

It was a pretty bold question for a kid who had no direction, but after the recruiter told Justin more about the company’s values and goals, Justin submitted a job application and at the end of the month he was training for the position of store manager.

Honestly, Justin said, he took the job to give his resume a boost. He thought having ‘management’ on his list would be more impressive and lead to a better job down the road.

But not everyone understood his job choice. Justin had just spent seven years pursuing a college degree and he ended up in the food service industry? It became a bit of a joke, but Justin didn’t care.

He was quickly starting to see that his job at Raising Cane’s was more than just a resume booster. For the next three years, Justin helped manage, launch, grow and sustain both new and veteran restaurants in Louisiana. He traveled like crazy and slept in small increments. It was insane, but oddly normal to Justin.

For the first time in his life Justin said he felt like he was doing something that mattered. He was creating something new, helping his team succeed and enjoying every minute of the craziness.

And then in 2006, Justin got the call he’d been waiting for – a chance to run his own franchise.

That’s when he and his wife uprooted their lives and moved to Lincoln – a place with no family and nothing familiar, just Raising Cane’s.

The launch of their first location at 48th and R streets received an overwhelming amount of attention and support during the first few months of business, but things eventually slowed down. Justin remembers talking with Jennifer during their first Christmas in Nebraska about how they could really give back to the community, to show people that they weren’t just another restaurant in the community, but the community’s restaurant. 

In the coming months they instituted coat and food drives and began donating a part of their proceeds to Lincoln as a whole. People started to notice that not only was the food tasty and a quality product, but what Justin and Jennifer were doing was real.

It’s with this mindset that Justin has successfully opened a total of five Raising Cane’s locations in Nebraska.

These days, Justin doesn’t have to wear as many hats around the office as he used to. He’s no longer the accountant, IT guy, facilities manager, developer and store operator. He can delegate these roles to his team, he can look at the big picture and see what’s on the horizon for Raising Cane’s – he’s stepping back, but not stepping away.

Justin said it’s so strange to think back to being a clueless 18-year-old college freshman. He would have never dreamed of being a Raising Cane’s owner, or working his way up and making five locations his own…never.

But that’s just the point, he said. It’s what he often talks about when he speaks to college students. He reminds them to pursue what they love instead of a paycheck, because that’s where his story has shaped him the most.

Making $9/hour as a college grad wasn’t his plan, it wasn’t ideal, it was probably the worst plan he could have devised for himself, but it’s where his story came to life.

Some people might be bashful about being clueless or working at a fried chicken joint, but that’s not Justin. He’s proud of his story, he’s proud of his work and when he heads home at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Jay Wilkinson


For Jay Wilkinson, it’s pretty normal to get quoted in nonprofit circles, retweeted by marketing gurus and interviewed on local or national TV…all in one day.

Back in college he started four businesses. Yes, four. One of which went-big and prompted a move to New York City post-graduation.

In 1992, he sold the company that took him to the big city and came back to his home-state of Nebraska.

Upon his return, Jay bought a printing franchise that he eventually turned into Cornerstone Printing and Marketing, which has since become Firespring.

Those big steps, and the little ones in between, are all important milestones in Jay’s story. He’s a well-known entrepreneur, nonprofit activist, community builder and webinar facilitator in Lincoln, but he admittedly has spent a big chunk of his life trying to be someone he’s not – his father.

“He’s my vision of what it’s like to live a life rather than have life happen to you,” Jay said.

Now, it’s not wrong to want to be like your parent, but Jay put a lot of pressure on himself to not only be like his dad, but to be his dad. And much of Jay’s striving to be his father has shaped his own story.

Gilbert (Gil) Wilkinson is a scrappy hustler with a strong work-ethic, a present mindset and a wise spirit. Gil showed up and participated. He was at every practice and football game and he led Jay’s Boy Scout troop, guiding eight boys to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout.

Having a parent like this is amazing, Jay said, but it’s also extremely frustrating. Jay was constantly working to measure up to this incredible man, but nothing he did ever seemed like enough.

This pressure was 100 percent self-inflicted. Jay said his dad never compared their careers, work ethic or abilities. He’d probably hate that Jay has spent so much of his life feeling like he’d come up short. But it’s all part of Jay’s story.

As he grew older and more successful, Jay decided that saving his money and using it to build a massive homage to his father could be his way of paying back his dad for every example and bit of wisdom he’d sewn into Jay’s character.

But if you’re looking for a hospital wing or collegiate library named after Gilbert Wilkinson, you won’t find one. A few years ago, Jay realized that dedicating a building to his father wasn’t where he should be investing his energy.

Jay pulled a piece of off-white paper out of a folder and handed it to me. It’s a quote that he took from an impactful leadership training he attended as a 16-year-old.

“I’ve carried it with me ever since,” Jay said, going on to read the quote.

“ ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’ ”

Jay said he’s read this Stephan Grellet quote over and over again, but a few years ago the words ‘do it now’ jumped off the page.

Do it now.

Jay realized that in his constant striving to be his dad or pay him back, he’d been waiting to live out the quote that he’d theoretically structured his life around.

He realized he would never be his dad, and that was ok. He also realized he needed to stop waiting.

So that’s what Jay did.

He changed Firespring’s mission statement to reflect his decision do good in the present, not just the future.

In 2014 Firespring became the first and only certified B-Corp in the state, holding to a high-level of third-party accountability and transparency. It’s a label that requires a company to hold up to its promised giving, not bend to the whims of a good or bad fiscal year.

Jay said this is usually the part in his story where people tend to nod off. After all, everyone has heard about companies ‘giving back’ or incentivising their employees to volunteer and donate. Blah, blah, blah. Right?

But Jay is actually doing this. He’s living up to the bold letters and almost cheesy sayings that are painted on the walls at Firespring.  He’s giving, empowering, motivating and teaching as an outpouring of his personal beliefs, not because of the way it looks.

A few years back, Jay probably would have said he was doing all this good for his dad, which would have been okay, but now, he’s doing it because he thinks it’s what matters.

It’s part of his story and his legacy.

Jay can’t be his dad, and that doesn’t bother him anymore.

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