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By Jennifer SteinbergPhotographs by Landon Nordeman



Give them homes, schools, families and some old-fashioned religion, and troubled kids might just pull themselves together. This is their place.



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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. 

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By employing a model based on family values, Girls and Boys Town has established a successful track record in addressing teen problems. How could a model similar to Boys Town benefit your  your community? Join the discussion.

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Did You Know?
The Hollies hit the top-ten charts with it. Neil Diamond and Olivia Newton-John sang it and sold thousands. It even featured prominently in a popular beer commercial. But Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan was the first to see the potential value of the phrase and later song title, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother."

Contrary to popular belief, however, the phrase didn't originate with Boys Town. In 1941 Father Flanagan saw a magazine drawing of a boy carrying another younger boy on his back with the inscription, "He ain't heavy, Mr., he's my brother." Believing that the drawing would make a good symbol for Boys Town, Flanagan purchased the rights to use it and changed the inscription to: "He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother." Since then the image and slogan have become universal symbols of Boys Town.

—David Brindley

Did You Know?

Related Links
Girls and Boys Town Website
www.girlsandboystown.org/home.htm
Boys Town, Nebraska, is just one of seventeen residential centers run by the national organization of Girls and Boys Town. Learn more about those locations and their innovative programs to help troubled kids across the nation.

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Bibliography
Ivey, James R. Boys Town: The Constant Spirit. Arcadia, 2000.

Lonnborg, Barbara A., ed. Boys Town: A Photographic History. Donning Company, 1992.

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NGS Resources
Keller, Ellen. Kids are Citizens. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Smith, Roff. "Nebraska: Standing Tall Again," National Geographic (November 1998) 114-139.

Van Dyk, Jere. "Growing up in East Harlem," National Geographic (May 1990), 52-75.

Jordan, Robert. "Nebraska, the Good Life," National Geographic (March 1974) 378-407.

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