Schuyler woman finds belonging and purpose in community involvement

By EMILY CASE | Norfolk Daily News

SCHUYLER – Nina Lanuza thought she’d live in Schuyler for only six months.

She moved there with her husband, Jesus Lopez, from Mexico after a family member living in Nebraska said the town had a lot of opportunities. But the next day, she experienced something she’d never encountered before. A tornado warning.

“I was freaking out . . . I remember telling my husband we’d already done the expense to come here and we have everything figured out, but let’s save up for six months and we’ll move,” she said. “Wherever you want to go, but I want a place where there are no tornadoes.”

That was in May 2011, and she joked that the nearly nine years they’ve lived in Nebraska with their son, Eduardo, have been the longest six months of her life.

Lopez is still working at the same place that they first came to Schuyler for, Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus, a 20-minute commute away. And Lanuza’s found belonging and purpose in Schuyler as a community organizer with Heartland Workers Center.

In that time, her perspective has totally changed of the town, which had a population of 6,212 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. She’s felt more at home as her parents, sisters and other family members moved to the area.

“Some family members moved from Illinois to here just because I told them, ‘It’s a nice place, you should come.’ They came because we’ve always been a very united family,” she said. “So I started feeling like Schuyler was home.”

Another reason she feels connected to the city is that she got involved in causes and groups she cares about. She started volunteering at the school, was an adult education mentor and got involved at a local Catholic church.

“Being active in the community and getting to know a lot of people and their stories is what makes me feel like this was my place to be,” she said. “Since I was little, I remember that I was always involved in everything . . . So seeing that opportunity for me here in this town and seeing … that people are connected is what makes me feel that I was part of something good.”

She’s since become a board member of the local chamber of commerce, school board and Centro Hispano Comunitario de Nebraska in Columbus. Between her community involvement and job, Lanuza said she’s always busy.

Lanuza was hired at Heartland Workers after volunteering with the group, and her role is to work with local leaders and community members to improve Schuyler. She’s seen the organization help implement a dual language program and more bus transportation since she started.

“We found out it was a big necessity to have transportation from the trailer court area to the schools because there was a lot of kids and a lot of necessity,” she said. “Talking to parents, we organized this action. They talked to the school board, they organized themselves, they collect money, they pay the school, and I just helped them organize it.”

Empowering Schuylerites is one of Lanuza’s main duties at Heartland Workers, which involves initiatives like voting campaigns. She also helps organize community events, such as the Latino holiday Día del Niño, or Children’s Day. The organization has put on the festival for four years.

“It’s a holiday in Latin American countries. Just as we have Mother’s Day (and) Father’s Day, we celebrate the children,” Lanuza said. “So I think that’s a way to bring a holiday from the Latino culture to Schuyler, but not only for the Latino but show the rest of the cultures something about our culture.”

Events like Día del Niño are important in that they help unify people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Schuyler’s population is 72% Latino and 23% white, according to U.S. government data presented on Refugee Processing Center reports also show that the city has resettled refugees from Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), Ethiopia and Cuba.

Lanuza sees this diversity as a uniqueness and a strength, citing Schuyler’s growth and diversity in local leadership as an outlier in Nebraska cities.

“In general, I feel that our community works well,” she said. “I think the people who live here are used to the diversity that we have been exposed for so long that for us it’s normal . . .  The people who live here, it’s welcome and open to diversity because it’s our reality.

“It’s what makes Schuyler different, it’s what makes Schuyler unique.”

This openness and welcoming attitude is something Lanuza said she immediately saw when she came to the city eight years ago.

She’s gotten to witness the community grow and develop through the years, and she is optimistic to see more apartment complexes, houses and businesses, as well as more people interested in local issues.

Lanuza acknowledged that Schuyler’s not perfect but said she’s proud to call the community her home.

“I’m very proud to be part of Schuyler and I’m proud to say that my kid is growing here and we’re not going anywhere,” she said.

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