SECOND OF A 3-PART SERIES: NIKKO JENKINS' FAMILY
About the series
Sunday: The Levering family has struggled through generations of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and crime.
Today: Two Levering success stories — a young man who perseveres despite overwhelming odds, and a woman who is finding success in life far from her Omaha family.
Coming later this week: The Leverings' criminal activity creates problems for the entire community.
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Sitting in her freshly painted office in East Texas, Alicia Levering Watkins thinks about how truly blessed she is.
She and her husband, a doctor, launched an ambulance business this year. Before that she had dedicated most of her life to being a stay-at-home mom to her six children.
Her life looks nearly perfect, but it hasn't always been.
She grew up poor in north Omaha. After her parents split up, her dad wasn't in the picture much. Alicia became a mom at 16 and then had three more children out of wedlock.
Few people in Tyler, Texas, know that Alicia comes from a family troubled by crime, violence and alcohol and drug abuse.
That is fine with Alicia, who moved to Texas to give her children a better life away from her troubled family. A World-Herald examination shows that 38 relatives in her father's family have been convicted of more than 630 crimes in Omaha since 1979.
Her Texas community has no idea that one of her first cousins — Nikko Jenkins — is accused of killing four people in Omaha in August, or that five more relatives have been charged in connection with the killings.
The recent arrests brought memories of the Leverings flooding back. She said her uncles were known to get into trouble, and stole to make a living. Family gatherings usually involved heavy drinking and ended with fighting.
“Every day was a hustle and a grind. I don't have an uncle I can recall that was doing anything of substance,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There were not role models in my family.”
Alicia, 39, often wonders how she beat the odds. Then, she said, she glances down at her wrist, where her maternal grandmother's name is tattooed in black ink: Bernice.
“My grandmother was my lifeline, my world,” Alicia said. “She is the reason I am who I am today.”
Alicia's parents divorced before she was 5 years old. Her mother lived with her, but Alicia was mostly raised by her grandma, who was a member of the Pentecostal church. Bernice Livingston was a strong woman, Alicia said, who made sure her granddaughter knew right from wrong.
A religious woman, Bernice told Alicia to put her faith in God when the waters got rough.
Alicia has a distant relationship with her father, Garland Levering, who she said struggles with alcohol abuse. Garland's mother, Norma Ann Levering, abandoned him when he was a baby, Alicia said.
Garland was raised by his aunt Adeline and grew up without knowing his biological siblings, including Nikko Jenkins' mother.
Alicia said she has not met Nikko Jenkins or his siblings. But when she was young she saw many of her dad's relatives struggle with mental health and substance abuse problems, on top of living in poverty.
Bernice, she said, was instrumental in preventing her from going down the same path.
“My life could have easily been what my other family members have gone through, but it turned out drastically different than my cousins',” she said.
Even so, she had four children by the time she was 25. Bernice never educated Alicia about sex, because the topic was taboo in the church. Her grandmother helped her raise the children and taught her how to take care of a family.
But life was tough for the poor, single mom, and she acknowledged that she was wild. Alicia never got into legal trouble or abused alcohol, but she said she struggled while in her 20s to figure out her purpose in life. She worked in her mom's beauty salon, shampooing hair. She tended bar and ran a day care.
“I was doing not what I should have been doing,” she said. “I was getting into that cycle.”
Then she met Sanford Watkins, a Creighton Prep graduate who was in medical school at Creighton University.
Alicia attended Flanagan High but had not thought about going to college, and she said she was never encouraged to focus on her education.
“I was the girl from the ghetto,” she said. “We were from two different worlds, but he accepted me.”
Alicia hadn't seen healthy marriages in her life, and up until Watkins proposed, she remembers thinking, “Who would marry me, with these children?”
But not only did he accept her four children, he also supported her decision to raise her cousin's son. The child's mother had been convicted of manslaughter while she was pregnant with him in 2002. The couple took him in days after he was born and view him as their own son.
They married in 2003 and moved to Midland, Texas, so Sanford could finish his medical residency at Texas Tech. Eventually, they had a child together.
She said she feared staying near Omaha, knowing that a cycle of violence usually continues if you keep in touch. She talks to her parents but hasn't had a relationship with the rest of the Leverings.
“I don't know how much authority I would have had to not allow my children to become gang members had I stayed in Omaha,” Alicia said.
Texas has provided Alicia's family a fresh start. Three of her children are younger than 18 and still at home. The rest have started their adult lives.
Her 23-year-old son is married and has a child. Her oldest daughter is in her first year of college.
But moving to a better environment wasn't enough to keep all her children on the right path. Her second oldest son, at 21, is trying to find himself. He had a college fund set up but didn't want to go.
Like her grandmother, Alicia is firm with her rules.
“We have given him all the tools to make decisions in life,” she said. “If you aren't doing anything with your life and you're not being productive, you can't be around here. I have other children to raise who need good examples.”
Alicia has a strong support network in Texas that has helped her and her husband start a company. Besides the company, Alicia has started an EMT program called Breaking Chains to help minority youths get information on how to become EMTs.
Their neighbors Lance and Allison Fenton own several car dealerships and have taught Alicia how to be a businesswoman.
“Since she opened her business, she has just blossomed,” Allison Fenton said.
Alicia and her husband started the ambulance company with plans to pass it on to their children. Alicia has broken away from the cycle of poverty, and she hopes passing on a family business will help her children to be successful.
“I am starting something for my family so we can keep it going,” she said. “I don't want my family to leave a bad legacy. We are going to leave a lot of good.”