Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Sep 20, 2010, 11:12

Boys Town, Nebraska
Doug Czyz
National Admissions Coordinator

Visit By Lon Woodbury, MA, CEP, June 2010

I don't think a person can really appreciate Boys Town of Nebraska 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, NE is an incorporated city on 900 acres and has been in existence for 93 years. It has its own police force, fire department and even its own zip code. The entire city is devoted to helping the children. There are about 600 children in the program supported by over 700 staff, which includes the law enforcement personnel and other administrative positions typical to any incorporated town. Everyone consciously plays a role in providing a healthy environment for the children.
Popularized by the late 1930s movie "Boys Town" starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, it became an icon of quality help for children throughout the world. Virtually everybody has heard of Father Flannigan's Boys Town. Tour buses bring people from all over the world wanting to see where it all started. Over the years, thousands of people have donated to the organization. As a result the facilities are solidly built and offer much to the children. It is a healthy and safe community in every sense of the word.

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, which eventually included emotional and mental needs as well. (Girls were added in the 70s.) 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.

The visit started with an introduction to Cathy DeSalvo, the Principal of the Middle School. There were about 40 students attending the summer session, with class size around 7-8 students. 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. The building was brightly colored, clean and comfortable. The tour guide was a young boy who was polite, friendly and outgoing. The school encourages the students to introduce themselves and shake hands with any visitor as a technique that helps students learn to reach out to others and become comfortable 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. At the time of this visit there were 350 students attending. They have very few "pull-out" classes for specialized services. Currently 47 percent of the students participate in ROTC, an important component of leadership training providing the structure and leadership skills that students crave.

Unlike many high schools I've been in during class break, we were in no danger of being run over in the halls here. 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 without lingering; however there were many enthusiastic greetings as friends ran into each other.

A major emphasis during senior year is to create a post-graduation plan. Each senior is provided with resources and information necessary to make an educated decision, however no student graduates without a realistic career plan that matches their interests and abilities.

Although academics are very important at Boys Town, the heart of the program is the living arrangements. Each student lives in a single-sex cottage with six or seven other students, a Family Teaching couple, an Assistant Family Teacher and one or two therapists monitoring and helping with issues that might arise. The cottages have a home-like feel. The idea is to provide a natural home for the students and to overwhelm them with positivity. Each student has house chores, as well as encouragement for involvement in sports, help with school work, and socializing with the Family Teachers and the other students.

Downstairs is the school for the Specialized Treatment Group Home students. There are about 50 students enrolled there and the structure is much tighter with fewer privileges than those in the school upstairs. In general, their 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 transition to the main part of the program. Children in this part of the program obviously needed more intense therapy but seemed to be responding to the positive environment. A few students do not respond well and either go elsewhere or to a hospital like Intensive Residential Treatment Center (IRTC) downtown in the Boys Town Research hospital building. Some students start their Boys Town experience in the Specialized Treatment Group Homes, but most of the enrollments here come from the downtown IRTC and after stabilization transition into the main program.

After touring this school, we visited one of their cottages, where up to four students live. Although the format was the same as the main program with Family Teachers heading up a home-like structure, the structure was much tighter. There were motion detectors and alarms on the doors and windows, which are necessary due to the 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.

That evening we had dinner in one of the cottages and it was a pleasant experience. The students were more than willing to share their stories and talk about what they were getting from their stay at Boys Town. One boy fit the original model for Boys Town in that both his parents had died, and except for issues of loss, he just needed a safe place to grow up. Another had been heavily involved with substance abuse and was successfully working on recovery and dealing with his learning 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, and Program Director Dennis Vollmer explained there are about 40 co-ed students, ages 7-18, and these children obviously needed more intense treatment. Some of them were virtually incapable of making eye contact or speaking loud enough to hear what they were saying. IRTC is a locked facility and again the average length of stay is four months. The interior is well lit and colorful, giving a bright healing atmosphere. The younger students are in a separate section but older students mentor them. Staff explained both the older students and the little ones enjoy this mentoring and seem to get a lot from it. About 65 percent of these students step down to the Specialized Treatment Group Homes.

Working with emotionally volatile students of course requires restraints from time to time. Restraints are considered a necessary evil in the program. Although sometimes necessary, the staff are well trained in proper use and recognizing the inherent dangerousness of a restraint, and often choose time-out instead. As soon as the student demonstrates they have regained control of themself, they are allowed to return to the rest of the kids. Restraints are more common in the IRTC reflecting, uncommon in the Group Home, and extremely rare in the main population."

Because of the three levels of service, Boys Town of Nebraska can provide appropriate services for almost any child struggling with emotional/behavioral/mental problems and without having to transfer them to a different program with different philosophy. All their programs are verbally-based with developing positive relationships as a key element to their healing.

Everyone was very competent; they have a full complement of therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists. Every important consideration, like budget, communications, logistics, etc., however, was secondary to what the kids needed. The most impressive component at Boys Town was that the staff obviously had a passion for helping kids and viewed their primary objective as providing a positive environment to heal these children. If a child needed something, like sports involvement, or a hug, or a friendly ear, that was the staff priority.

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.