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November 2002

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ZipUSA: 68010

By Jennifer Steinberg
Straddling dirt bikes, pants crotches to their knees, three teenage boys eye me from a streetlamp's cone of light. City-trained, I look away, walk faster, then glance back. They smile and wave.

It's my first reminder that I'm in a town like no other—Boys Town, Nebraska, the famed village-style haven for troubled kids. Forget Spencer Tracy taming a rogue Mickey Rooney in the 1938 film Boys Town. These are real kids with real, sad histories: broken homes, neglect, abuse, drugs, alcohol, psych wards, detention centers, and suicide attempts. Sent here by courts or relatives, all the kids "come in angry," says executive director Father Val Peter. "But we give them back their childhoods, teach them skills, and give them love."

It was another man of the cloth, in 1917, who planted the seed with his motto: "There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking." Father Edward Flanagan, with a $90 loan, placed his first five youths in a rented Omaha house. He later borrowed more to buy the 160-acre Overlook Farm, and homeless boys flocked there. A trust fund, donations, and fees paid by state agencies and some parents or guardians have kept the town going—and growing.

The first girls enrolled in 1979 and now make up half the population of what is still called Boys Town, though Girls and Boys Town has become the name of its far-reaching national organization. Flanked by cornfields, highways, then houses to the horizon, Boys Town leans against Omaha's sprawl but retains its identity as a campus of sorts—with 500 kids, a middle school and high school, two churches, a park and post office, police and fire stations, athletic facility and fields, and the iconic statue of one boy shouldering the weight of another.

"Don't ask them about their pasts," Father Peter and others instruct me when I arrive Thanksgiving week. Let them focus on the present, they say: on school, surrogate families, and a rather lengthy set of rules.

Rules here, in fact, rule, the kids tell me. Worship services are mandatory. So is good behavior, which earns points—translating to privileges like candy or outings. Bad behavior (from skipped chores to violent tantrums) means "lost privs" or a stay at the Respite House—where offenders go to cool down. Boys' hair must be short. There's no dating, no tank tops, no tight jeans. Piercings are limited to girls, to ears, and no more than two holes per. And so on. Without these laws of the land, "we'd be distracted from what we've come here to do," one girl tells me.

In part, they're here for months or even years of therapy that includes a healthy family life. Kids stay in mixed-race, same-sex groups of six to eight overseen by parent-teachers, resident married couples who are not just rule enforcers but caring supporters and role models. The dorms of earlier days have given way to 69 Tudor houses perched on curving lanes. Welcome flags whip in the wind, surnames dangle from lampposts: The Reals. The Carls. The Joneses.

I've barely stepped into the Jones foyer before I'm politely accosted with handshakes from five teenage boys—clearly in training. "They like the response they get and soon it becomes natural," says parent-teacher Tony Jones, who, with wife Simone, oversees eight teens and his own young son. Once a student here himself, Tony says, "Boys Town saved my life, so I came back to help the next generation."

Blocks away, Scott and Trisha Carl's house of girls represents the other half. Ashley, a sweet-faced freshman, is the first to befriend me. Running from room to room in her socks, she points proudly to family photos. "That's me. And I'm in this one too." Upstairs, her shared room is neat (a recent habit), and her months-old welcome balloon hovers at waist level, shriveled. "I'm keeping it until I leave," she says.

Jennifer—Ashley's roommate—and twin sister Dawn are cheerleader-pretty and busy in the town choir, ROTC, and flag corps (choreographed waving of oversized pennants, which they demonstrate for me in the foyer). "I'm not in all that," Ashley says, curling up in an overstuffed chair, "but I used to be afraid of water and now I swim." Once rebellious ("It's hard to be good when you don't care about yourself") and still reticent to smile, she has dreams of a safe household, a faithful marriage, and maybe a child "once I'm older and more in control."

But here, now, Ashley has "issues" to address. It's Thanksgiving morning and she's antsy; guests, most notably her mother, are coming. "We're working to have a better relationship," she tells me. And in the Carl living room the two do seem, at first, cautious. Then Ashley's mother brushes hair from her daughter's forehead and compliments her attitude change (at home last Christmas, she tells me, Ashley refused to leave her room). Before the feast—a group effort born from the well-rigged kitchen—mother and daughter hold hands as Ashley offers a prayer "for all who are hurting." And what are the Carl girls thankful for this year? "My parent-teachers," most declare. "That I'm in a safe place" is a close second. "If I weren't here, I'd probably be dead," one says.

Enter Father Peter, a man in constant motion. Today he'll breeze into every house with an infectious laugh and compliments to the chefs. "His visit is a Thanksgiving ritual," says Scott Carl. He and Trisha love their jobs, this place, these kids. "We get to protect them for a little while," Trisha says, forking up sweet potatoes.

There are, of course, bitter moments. Back at the Joneses, the big meal devoured and dishes done, stone-faced Frankie, 12, holds the greasy turkey wishbone out to Tony. "I wish I could go home," Frankie announces, looking at no one, and snaps off the bulk of the bone. Unsmiling, he walks out with his prize. "We can't and don't try to replace their families," Tony tells me later. "And some days they just want out. No surprise there."

Still, every day is a Thanksgiving of sorts for someone in this town, where new kids are made "citizens" in a festive ceremony. The Monday after the holiday, I join eight scrubbed newcomers waiting to face a cafeteria crowd. "I don't want to be here. I'd rather be with my real family," mumbles a straight-banged, suit-clad boy named John. "Better here than in jail," says the kid to his left. Then it's time. Father Peter stands and bids all welcome, cracks a corny joke or two, then calls on the kids to speak. Each rises and recites a rushed stream of well-rehearsed words, as heartfelt as one might expect from teens forced to the podium: My name is Joe. I've been here for two weeks. What I like best so far are the basketball courts. What I don't like is the point system. What I need to work on is controlling my anger. And so on. There's applause, and tense faces relax. No longer labeled bad kids, patients, or prisoners, all are deemed citizens and pledge to follow Boys Town's rules—to treat others as brothers and sisters, study hard, play fair, and pray well. "You are now part of our family," Father Peter announces.

Along the way a weary half smile has tweaked John's lips. I point it out to him. "I feel much better," he admits. "Now it's real—I'm part of something." The smile wins out. "I'm no longer an outsider."


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