by Lon Woodbury on June 29, 2010

Boys Town Landmark

Boys Town Landmark

Typical Boys Town cottage, each with 6-7 students living there
Typical Boys Town cottage, each with 6-7 students living there
Boys Town Landmark

Boys Town Landmark

Lon’s visit: June 14-15, 2010


Doug Czyz, National Admissions Coordinator


I don’t think a person can really appreciate Boys Town until they have driven onto the property.  The physical plant is impressive, and just as impressive is what they have learned about helping kids with problems.

Boys Town has 900 acres, is its own incorporated city, and has been in existence for 93 years.  It has its own police force and fire department with staff hired by the city of Boys Town, which is legally separate from the program for children.  The town also has its own Post Office and postal code.   However, staff are proud to explain that this is a city primarily devoted to helping the children.   There are about 600 children in the program, supported by over 700 staff.  This includes the police force, fire fighters and other administrative positions typical to any incorporated town, and all consciously play their role in helping provide a healthy environment for the children.

Popularized by the late 1930s movie “Boys Town” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, it has become an icon of quality help for children throughout the world.  Virtually everybody has heard of Father Flannigan’s Boys Town.  Over the years, thousands and thousands of people have offered material and financial contributions, including some of the most famous and richest people in the country.  As a result, the facilities are solidly built, and everything useful for helping the children is available, including, for example, an impressive field house fully equipped for all kinds of sports.  It is a healthy and safe community in every sense of the word.  It is even the stop for a continuous run of tour buses, bringing people from throughout the world wanting to see where it started.

Founded in 1917, Boys Town could be considered the beginning of our modern approach to helping struggling teens.  Previously, the view of young people in trouble was to punish and/or lock them up.  This might include boys who had lost their parents and were on their own at a very young age, and unfairly considered delinquents.  Father Flannigan expressed the belief that there were no bad boys, just boys living in a bad environment, and his mission was to provide a healthy home that could provide for their needs.  (Girls were added in the 70s.)  Eventually, this included emotional and mental needs also.  Over time, this view came to dominate in efforts to serve this population and I see the Boys Town influence in many of the youth programs I’ve visited throughout the country.

Our visit started with meeting Cathy DeSalvo, the Principal of the Middle School, consisting of 7th and 8th graders.  At the time, starting the summer session of school, there were about 40 students attending.  The school looked like a typical middle school with well furnished classrooms and a whole wall of sports trophies the students had won over the years. (Organized sports like baseball, football and basketball are considered important child building activities.) The building was brightly colored, clean and comfortable.  Typical class size is 7-8 students.  Our tour guide was a young boy who was polite, friendly and outgoing.  We were then introduced to a practice we found whereever we visited.  When there are visitors, the students are encouraged to introduce themselves and shake hands.  The school encourages the students to do this as one technique in helping the students learn to reach out to others and become comfortable in meeting strangers.

The next stop was a tour of the High School and Career Center by Superintendent Dr. Bob Gehringer.  Again, class sizes are small and most academic and career needs are met in classes.  They have very few”pull-out” classes for specialized services.  Part of what the school teaches is leadership, and an important part of that is their ROTC program.  Currently 47% of the students are actively participating in ROTC.  Relatively few of them plan to go into the military, but the program is popular because the military system provides both some of the structure they crave and a chance to learn leadership skills.  At the time of our visit there were 350 students attending.  We were in the hallway during class break, and as is typical in any high school, it was prudent to move to the walls and out of the way of the students.  Unlike many high schools I’ve been in, we were in no danger of being run over even if we hadn’t moved aside, but it was fascinating to watch the students as they passed on to their next class.  They were orderly and polite as they moved through the hallway, but I saw a lot of enthusiastic greetings as friends ran into each other and very few were lingering.  Very quickly the hallway cleared as all the students went straight to their next class.

Again, throughout our visit many students came up to us to introduce themselves and shake our hands.  A major emphasis during their senior year is to plan their future after graduation.  Each senior is provided whatever resources and information are necessary to decide on their post graduation plans.  Some decide to go to college, with a decent idea of what they want to major in, others plan on going into the military and others decide on vocational training.  No student graduates without a realistic career plan that matches their interests and abilities.

Academics is very important in Boys Town, but the heart of the program is the living arrangements.  Each student lives in a cottage with six or seven others of the same sex, with a Family Teaching couple, with an Assistant Family Teacher and one or two therapists monitoring and helping with issues that might arise.  All the students had problems before coming to Boys Town and working with those individual issues was a part of the normal daily activities.  The cottages have a home feel and the students are told this was their home, – a home away from home so to speak.  The idea is to provide a natural home for the students and to overwhelm them with positivity.  They get this positivity environment from school as well as in their cottages.  Each student has their “home” chore assignments, as well as encouragement for involvement in sports, help with school work, and socializing with the Family Teachers and the other students.

After our tour of the High School, we went downstairs to the school for the next higher level of structure, the Specialized Treatment Group Home students.  There were about 50 students enrolled there, and the structure was much tighter, being semi-secure and the students had fewer privileges than those in the school upstairs.  Again, the students came up to us to introduce themselves and shake our hands.  In general, the eye contact and handshakes were not as solid as upstairs.  This is a 4-5 month program to stabilize the students and hopefully get them to where they could transition and function successfully in the main part of the program.  They were more obviously damaged children but seemed to be responding to the positive environment they were in and from the more intense therapy.  Most of them are successful and transition to the main program.  A few do not respond and either go elsewhere, or to the hospital like Intensive Residential Treatment Center (IRTC) downtown in the Boys Town Research hospital building, which I will describe later.  Some students start their Boys Town experience in the Specialized Treatment Group Homes, but most of the enrollments here come from the downtown IRTC.  After stabilization, most then transition into the main program.

After touring the school, we visited one of the cottages they lived in.  Although the format was the same as the main program cottages with Family Teachers heading up a home-like structure (with 4 students per house), the structure was much tighter with fewer privileges, with motion detectors and alarms on the doors and windows, necessary due to the more emotional volatility of those students.  The cottages were clean and comfortable, but since the students were there for only a short time, did not have the comfortable home feeling as the main cottages where the students were there longer and encouraged to consider it their home.

That evening we had dinner in one of the cottages and it was a very pleasant experience with good conversation and good food, cooked by the Family Teachers with help from some of the boys.  The students were more than willing to share their stories and talk about what they were getting from their stay at Boys Town (All positive by the way, including even from the student who had been there just one week).  One boy fit the original model for Boys Town in that both his parents had died, and except for issues of loss, he just had needed a safe place to grow up.  Another had been heavily involved with substance abuse and was successfully working on recovery and his learning difference/disability.  All of them had much better grades than they had before coming to Boys Town.   Others had stories similar to what I have heard at many therapeutic boarding schools.  All had good eye contact, firm handshakes and appeared as very typical teenagers.   The feeling of comfort and safety was strong.  It felt so comfortable that it was hard to tear ourselves away and go back to our hotel.

The most intensive program is the IRTC downtown, and Program Director Dennis Vollmer toured us through the facility.  There are about 40 students there, ages 7-18, co-ed, and these children are obviously very damaged.  In greeting us, some of them were virtually incapable of making eye contact or speaking loud enough for us to hear what they were saying.  It is a locked facility and again the average length of stay is about four months.  The interior is well lit and colorful, giving a bright healing atmosphere.  The younger students are in a separate section and at the time of our visit they were practicing their reading skills.  Older students had been invited in to mentor the little ones.  All seemed to be enjoying themselves reading in pairs, and staff informed us both the older students and the little ones were getting a lot out of this exercise.  We were informed that about 65% of their students stepped down to the Specialized Treatment Group Homes. 

The three levels  of service are designed  to provide a wide continuum of care so they are provided appropriate services for almost any child struggling with emotional/behavioral/mental problems.  It’s integrated to where children can be moved up or down in the intensity of their needs within the same overall philosophy, eliminating the need for changing programs from one philosophy to another.

All Boys Town programs are very verbally based with developing positive relationships a key element to their healing.  They also are moving toward a much stronger family involvement, parents being welcome to visit frequently and family sessions, sometimes by video conference, are frequent.  They recognize that if the parents don’t make changes as their children change, the gains the child makes at Boys Town are at risk of being lost.

What impressed me most during my visit was the staff.  Everybody I met was very competent, but more importantly, had a passion for helping kids.  Every important consideration, like budget, communications, logistics, etc., was secondary to what the kids needed.  If a kid needed something, like sports involvement, or a hug, or a friendly ear, that was the staff priority.  The heart of the healing in my view was the Family Teachers heading up each cottage.  With up to eight kids in a cottage, and often with their own biological children in addition, there is never a dull moment.  Even in my short visit, I visited two cottages while all the kids were there. The Family Teachers were perpetual motion.  It was impressive to watch them entertain guests (us), and still respond to the individual requests from all the kids, without missing a beat.  I raised four kids, and that was often exhausting.  I can imagine the normal every day demands from 2-3 times as many kids.

Working with emotionally volatile students of course require restraints from time to time.  Restraints are considered a necessary evil in the program.  Sometimes necessary for the safety of the child, but the staff are well trained in it and recognizing the inherent dangerousness of a restraint, make them as short as possible and within five minutes the student with a melt-down is put in a timeout room. As soon as the student demonstrates they have regained control of themself, they are allowed to return to the rest of the kids. They are done only on Doctor’s orders.  Restraints are more common in the IRTC reflecting the seriously damaged population, uncommon in the Specialized Treatment Group Home students, and extremely rare in the main population.”

Another note.  Although they have a full complement of therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists, those are considered secondary to the real healing which comes from adults providing a natural adult and parent driven positive environment which is the underlying mission of Boys Town.

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