"He ain't heavy, Father. He's m' brother"
Boys Town (and Girls Town) has become a network of houses for homeless, abused, handicapped, troubled boys and girls, striving to provide these youth with a loving, caring home. More than just orphanages, couples volunteer to live on the Boys Town grounds and be parental figures for the children. They try to create families for the kids, rather than just feed 'em and educate 'em. They try to raise them in what they call a family home. There are sites spread throughout the United States. The organization also has created a research Hospital, Boys Town National Research Hospital, runs a National Hotline (1-800-448-3000) for children and parents, and has created other services all centered around aiding troubled children.
Boys Town was started in 1917 by Father Edward Flanagan. Father Flanagan was born on July 13, 1886 in County Roscommon, Ireland and moved to the U.S. in 1904. In 1912 he became a Catholic priest for the archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska. In 1917 the world was at war and the U.S. was involved. Young Americans were fighting and dying thousands of miles away. Father Flanagan reflected on the lists of casualties he would read in the newspapers and began to think about the casualties of everyday life, the homeless. Also about the same time he would read about orphans and their increasing numbers. He knew about that the young castoffs were often drawn to crime. He had seen this too many times. He vowed to try to help these young neglected children. Finally on December 12, 1917 Father Flanagan started his first home for boys at 106 North 25th Street.
At the time of opening there were about six boys in the house. Within a year there were 100 boys and the home had moved from its original house to the abandoned German-American house, one of the most despised buildings in the city because of the current war with Germany. Most boys were sent by court order, but some walked in off the street. The home was open to all boys of any race or religion. During this time he was relieved of his duties as a pastor and given two nuns to help carry out his work. The church supported this endeavor to help the troubled youth.
In 1921 the home was moved to Overlook Farm and still resides at the same spot. Father Flanagan had been looking for some time for a farm, believing the outdoors and farmwork would be of benefit to the boys. He ran into opposition from the residents of one suburb because of the criminal past of many of the boys, but finally found what he wanted 10 miles west of Omaha on a 160 acre plot of land. To the shock of many people Father Flanagan refused to build fences or use locks. He believed it was important that the boys want to be part of the home. The farm has grown into its own village, sometimes call the City of Little Men, covering thirteen hundred acres, with many homes (26), its own post office, fire department, school, and many of the other amenities of a normal village. Its name was changed to Boys Town in 1926. It also has its own government where all residents have a say in the business of Boys Town. This style of self-government is also reflected in the homes where the children are allowed to help make the rules of the house. They are all also involved in the labor of running the town. I visited the places many years ago when I was very young, my biggest memory is of the size and openness of the facilities.
The home continued to grow with requests for admission of boys from many agencies and organizations. Sometime in the 1930s the Boys Town Choir was formed and in 1941 they got a new priest Father Francis Schmitt who was both a singer and an organist and who Father Flanagan gave the task of building "the finest choir of boys in the country." The choir help raise funds and brought a lot of publicity to the home. Many of the listerners became contributers.
Father Flanagan was the director of nearly three decades and was asked at one point what would happen after he was gone. To which he replied "God will send. The work will continue you see, whether I am there or not, because it is God's work, not mine." And so it was, Msgr. Nicholas H. Wegner took over after the death of Father Flanagan in 1948. The home continued to flourish under Wegner and his successors. Father Robert Hupp took over in 1973. And Father Valentine Peter followed Father Hupp in 1985 and still leads the organisation (to my knowledge).
It was under Father Hupp's direction that the organization changed from an institutional style of care to the current family care. In this new style about six children live in a home with surrogate parents. The parents are married couples that must pass extensive training to provide 24-hour care to the children and to create a loving nurturing home.
Several movies have been inspired by Father Flanagan's Boy Town. They are the 1938 movie Boys Town, 1941's Men of Boys Town, and more recently Miracle of the Heart in 1986. Men of Boys Town featured the quote "He ain't heavy, Father. He's m' brother." which became a motto of the home.
- "History - Girls and Boys Town" - http://www.boystown.org/aboutus/history/
- "Father Flanagan and the history of Boys Town" - http://azaz.essortment.com/boystown_raun.htm
- "Father Flanagan's Boys Town" - http://www.omaha.org/oma/boystown.htm
Girls and Boys Town National Hotline
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