'The McDonald's of Child Care'

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The 1,300-acre plot of Nebraska farmland where Boys Town was born turned out to be too small to accommodate the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan's grand child-care schemes.

The pioneering Roman Catholic priest often expressed his hope that similar refuges for errant and homeless boys would be established in every state. But it wasn't until nearly 40 years after his death that Flanagan's dream of going national was finally realized.

Since 1984, Boys Town, now a multimillion-dollar organization, has spawned satellite campuses in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

From Las Vegas to Brooklyn, Boys Town officials have erected nine emergency shelters and 35 group homes to care for abused and neglected boys and girls, recently jailed adolescents, school dropouts, and homeless youths. Boys Town spends $23 million a year to keep them in operation.

Each day, these satellite operations try to recreate that unique brand of community perfected at the headquarters in Omaha. Every employee, trained in the Boys Town education method, practices the same techniques of encouraging positive behavior and penalizing inappropriate actions for more than 2,500 needy children and their families.

"We are like the McDonald's of child care," says Lisa D. Riley, the spokeswoman for Boys Town of Washington, which opened this spring. "Anywhere you go, the hamburger tastes the same."

Ambience by Design

Boys Town of Washington is tucked into a residential neighborhood of red-brick houses a few miles from the grand monuments of the nation's capitol. Grassy hills hug a narrow driveway that leads from the road to a set of buildings ringed with pink-flowering dogwoods and clumps of yellow poppies. The main structure, a Tudor-style stone building that now serves as an emergency shelter, was once a school for mentally retarded girls run by an order of nuns.

Perhaps the former tenants have lent this place its air of tranquility. But its director, Craig Ferguson, says the ambience is by design. Beauty, he says, is a silent teacher; a pleasing environment can have a calming effect on people who are accustomed to chaos.

The 21 children who have sought refuge here are victims of violent abuse, sexual assault, and neglect. A couple of them have been convicted of crimes. Many are runaways who have slept in subway alcoves and under the stone bridges that span the Potomac River.

"These children may have been living in neighborhoods where there are shootouts or people abusing drugs," Ferguson says. "Here, they don't have to see that."

Academically Underfed

Inside the shelter, young men and women sit at a long table devouring their midday meal--tuna-and-macaroni casserole, cucumber salad, and sweetened iced tea. The boys talk about their weekend plans to play basketball and race go-karts. Their language is as proper as a priest's.

After asking permission to leave the table, 15-year-old Robert hauls the other boys' dishes over to the shiny chrome sink. "I didn't like doing chores at home," Robert confesses. "Now, I just got used to it."

Ferguson says the residents here learn more than how to clean up after themselves, follow directions, and respect their elders during their stay, typically 30 to 40 days. In the shelter's one-room school, the 11- to 18-year-olds are kept on track educationally until they can return to their homes or another foster-care facility and attend their regular school again.

Ferguson says that many of the young people who make their way from the local public schools are academically underfed.

"I could count on one hand the number of kids here who've had positive school experiences," Ferguson says. Many teenagers arrive at the facility barely able to read. "For them, school turned out to be nothing but a punisher."

As a result, the shelter teacher focuses on trying to alter these students' perceptions of schooling. The young people are allowed to proceed at their own pace academically and are tutored intensively. In a month, the shelter school provides a kind of educational intensive care so the children can return to the classroom better able to learn. These students get a crash course, unlike their Nebraska counterparts who are in residence for an average of two years.

Building community support for the satellite campuses is not always easy. "There have been a couple of places that have had the 'not-in-my-back-yard' syndrome," says Randy Blauvelt, Boys Town's public-relations director. But, "people ultimately see that we have kids who run away and act out, but we aren't a low-level radioactive waste dump in their community."

--Jessica Portner

Vol. 15, Issue 37

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