Kenny and Felicia (Lisa) Merritt may not own the titles that go with conventional leadership, but their heart for family and community make them leaders just the same.
The Omaha married couple have opened their home to many children over the years, acting as guardians in some cases and eventually adopting ten (10) children into their care. Counting their biological son and daughter, the Merritt household was once home to twelve (12) children. Seventeen (17) youths in all have come under their charge at one time or another.
The couple did all this while working demanding full-time jobs. She served twenty-one (21) years as a law enforcement officer with the Omaha Police Department, most of her career as a School Resource Officer (SRO). Students called her “Mama Lisa.” She previously worked in county corrections and before that, served as a military (Air Force) law enforcement officer.
He was a long-time machine operator at the South Omaha Kellogg plant but once worked in sales for a hip hop radio station. In 2021, he and Kellogg workmates took to the picket line in a national strike. He was quoted by local media about the need for solidarity in the ranks. The union eventually won concessions from management and he and fellow workers returned to the job.
Both Kenny and Felicia were forced to miss time from work when the Coronavirus took its toll on the Merritt family. Everyone got sick, especially Kenny, who ended up hospitalized for eleven 11 days.
“Having an entire household sick was tough,” she said. “Knowing I could have lost my husband was the scariest of it all for me and our children. You never know until it hits your doorstep. It would disappoint me when I would hear people say that it (COVID-19) wasn’t real or that vaccinations weren’t important because it is, and they are.”
The couple used public platforms to encourage people to take recommended precautions. She helped promote a community event to get North Omaha residents vaccinated. Both shared with local media their family’s personal struggles with COVID-19 and the need for people to take the virus seriously.
Advocating for her community is what led her into law enforcement in the first place.
“Our community is not so trusting of law enforcement. Proven why. We’ve seen what has happened. I wanted to be the difference and I knew we needed to see those that look like us to make it happen. My mission was to reach young people. Servant leadership for me has always been something I’ve had deep within. I love my community.
“I enjoyed being a law enforcement officer. I worked hard at it. I did it with integrity, and honesty. I didn’t lose my way. I didn’t let power go to my head. Even if I had to make an arrest, I would make it, knowing that I left you whole. I offered you a resource. It wasn’t personal. Nine times out of ten they would admit what they did, and I would say, okay, this is the consequence. I would explain it to them in its entirety. That was my role.”
SROs have gotten a bad name in some schools, for using excessive force, but in her experience good communication defuses most situations.
“I never had to use physical force. I just knew how to talk to people. I would meet you where you’re at, going in heartfelt, wanting it to be a good outcome. Most satisfying to me was getting my kiddos to trust in me, allowing me to speak value into their lives to get them to graduate. It meant everything if I could reach one and teach one.”
More than once, ex-students she mentored, have thanked her for the concern she showed them. One such affirmation stands out.
“Kenny and I were out eating dinner when a young lady came to the table. She was in tears. I didn’t quite recognize her at first. She said, ‘Mama Lisa. I don’t know if you remember me, but you pulled me often into your office and had conversations with me and I want you to know that I’m one that made it. I’m married, I have one child, and I’m almost finished with my college degree. I would never have gotten there if you hadn’t touched me. “I received that, and we cried and hugged, and Kenny posted a picture of me and the young lady on Facebook.”
The same heart Felicia gave to the community, she gives to her children, and she appreciates that Kenny shares that same heart for children.
“People know my heart; they know my desire to see young people in our community move in a different way. I give Kenny a lot of respect because not only did I ask him to help raise our own children, but I also asked him to help raise fifteen (15) additional. Some were nieces and nephews, others we took guardianship of, and others we adopted. He stepped up to stand in the gap with me.”
The more children the Merritt’s nurtured, the more the state child welfare system saw them as a preferred placement option.
“They liked the way we did things,” Kenny said. “The system put out the word we have a great family and a nurturing home. The truth about bringing kids into your home is that, first you’ve got to want their best wellbeing at heart. You have to love them, you’ve got to make sure they’re fed, you’ve got to make sure they’re cared for and safe.
“Most children want permanency. Our thing was if we’re going to have these children in our home, let’s not have them shuffled from home to home, but give them a sense of permanency where they have a father and a mother. If they see us in that way, then we can talk about adopting. My wife and I talked about it. We sat down with officials and said, hey, instead of us going through this every six month and getting re-certified, we’re just going to move to adopting all the children. That’s when our family grew from four (4) to twelve (12).”
Kenny grew up in a more-the-merrier family where everyone was welcome at his grandmother’s and mother’s house. Meanwhile, Felicia was raised by her father after her parents separated and she regretted not having a mother close in her life.
“I always felt I was missing a key component and if I could, I wanted to fulfill that for a child in need. I knew exactly what that felt like. If I could be in position for a child that way, it meant something to me. I would always tell them, I’m not here to replace your mother, but I’m here for the long haul.”
Consistency, she said, means everything to children.
“If you want them to respect you and follow you and believe in you, then you can’t ask for what you’re not willing to give and present.”
Stability is what she and Kenny have provided to their children.
“They don’t want you to give up on them just because you see signs of desperation or challenging issues arise,” she said. “The one thing they want to know is that you’re going to be that foundation and that stability is going to continue to be there as you push through with them.”
Three children still live at home with the couple, which makes it a bit easier for the Merritt to run the northwest Omaha nightclub they opened in 2020, The Strut (the name is her idea), at the height of the pandemic. Branded as a place for “grown folks,” the Merritt saw a need for a night spot serving their own age demographic and free of the drama of youth-oriented venues. The Strut, Felicia said, is for patrons “willing to come together in harmony mingle, partake in music and fun.” The venue features a mix of live music and DJs.
Music is a shared passion of the couple.
“Music is what brought us together,” she recalled.
“He was a hip hop head. When I found that out and wanted to date him, I pulled up in my car playing hip hop. I would say hip hop is what consummated the relationship. Our love for it. We shared it. That’s where we started from.”
Keeping The Strut alive in these challenging times hasn’t been easy, but the Merritt are used to challenges. They started the venue when she was still on the force and just as COVID-19 made life difficult for restaurants, clubs, et cetera.
“There were times I wanted to give up because I just didn’t see the sustainability in this economy,” she said. “My husband is resilient. He bounced back and he dug his feet in and he worked hard.”
Still, it’s been a struggle.
“COVID-19 changed nightlife tremendously,” Felicia said. “People have learned how to celebrate at home. They’re making it work because they’re afraid to come in a crowd.”
The couple has also found it hard to find and keep bartenders, kitchen, and wait staff. A management team is working with them to stabilize operations and produce steady revenue.
“We’re trying to keep our business open. But to sustain our business I had to go back to working full-time, this time as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines.”
The Merritt make a resilient team in the face of change and challenge.
“We started off young,” Felicia said, “so we experienced any and everything. For us, it’s always that willingness to come back and have a conversation. We make mistakes. We have bumps in the road. We’re not perfect, by far. We questioned whether staying together would work.”
Kenny said, their foundation as friends has gotten them through whatever came up.
“We were friends before we were ever boyfriend-girlfriend,” he said, “and we were boyfriend-girlfriend before we were husband and wife. We always fall back to being friends before things get out of whack.”
“We were best friends, like we told each other everything,” Felicia said. “It wasn’t like we just jumped into this thing.”
Going through their COVID-19 crisis, they knew they had each other’s back. Coming out, the other side has given them a fresh perspective on things.
Said Felicia, “Until you have to actually look death in the face you don’t really think about it. It changed me. It made me value every day we have. We’re more spontaneous now. If we feel like doing something, we do it.”
Kenny said there’s no more taking anything for granted. “Whatever it is you want to do, you better do it now because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You just don’t know.”
“Nothing’s promised,” added Felicia, who said she and Kenny share a strong faith life that puts God first ahead of everything.
Kenny likes where he and Felicia are at. “We’re two people over fifty (50) who have children, full-time jobs, own a club and are living life to the fullest.”
They don’t necessarily expect anyone to consider them leaders, but they accept the flowers.
“I used to underestimate myself. People called me a leader but I didn’t own it. Now I do. When you’re genuine with people that just comes back two-fold. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. Being genuine is something I do all the time.”
Before the couple started a family, a pastor discerned Kenny would be a leader of children. Kenny didn’t know what to make of that prophecy then, but he knows now he found his calling.
“If I’m ever seen as a leader in anyone’s eyes, I try to let them feel it’s warranted. If I lead, I lead with my heart. We both do. We’re both welcoming people.”
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