Father Flanagan's Boys' Home welcomed its first residents nearly 75 years ago in December 1917. Father Edward J. Flanagan, a 31-year-old Irish immigrant priest, borrowed $90 from a friend to pay the rent on a home for boys nobody wanted. Discouraged after working for several years with homeless and alcoholic men, Flanagan asked permission from his bishop to care for neglected children instead. His mission was to influence their lives while still young, so they would be better prepared for the adult world.
As his home's reputation grew, so did the number of residents. They came -- abused, abandoned, and neglected -- from every state in the nation. In just four years two homes were outgrown, leading Flanagan to broaden his vision. In 1921 he purchased the 160-acre Overlook Farm, the site of the modern village of Boys Town.
Today Boys Town, occupying 1,300 acres in west-central Omaha, is the only incorporated village in the nation created exclusively for children in need of a fresh start in life. With its own post office, schools, churches, police and fire department, Boys Town provides a home in a community setting for some 550 young people, both boys and girls.
All this didn't happen overnight. Flanagan initially worked from dawn until dusk to get the money needed just for housing and schooling. In 1922 the first major building was constructed. Other expansion projects followed. Boys Town's official incorporation as a village came in 1936.
As in any town, "citizens" elected their officials. These young leaders monitored life in the dormitories, seeing that everyone got off to campus schools on time, assuring fair play in sports, and supervising "lights out" at night. Residents continue to lead their student government, although dormitory life is no longer part of the program.
In 1938 Boys Town, already well known, became a household word with the release of the movie starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Filmed on location, "Boys Town" won Academy Awards for best actor and best screenplay.
Before Father Flanagan's death in 1948, the Boys Town choir and football teams began to establish national and international reputations. The football team toured over 20 states, playing before crowds as large as 35,000. The choir performed at Carnegie Hall, on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" program, and in Cuba, Canada, and Japan.
Today Boys Town is renowned for another reason: the quality of its child-care program. In a more contemporary setting, children -- boys and girls -- reside in family homes consisting of six to eight boys or girls and a married couple.
These couples, highly trained and called family-teachers, set up a program for each child, teaching such skills as performing household chores, getting along with others, and following instructions. As the child masters each skill, additional privileges and responsibilities are offered. Each evening the family gathers after dinner for a meeting to review the day, to listen to each other, make decisions, and plan for tomorrow.
Approximately 175 of the 550 residents of Boys Town are girls. Like their male counterparts, they are also in need of a new start in life. To reach even more young people, Boys Town USA owns and operates mini-campus sites in Florida, New York, Texas, and Louisiana and has plans to open other sites across the country. Boys Town also has operated Father Flanagan High School since 1983 in the inner city of Omaha for high-risk boys and girls who would probably not graduate from high school without its special programs. The Boys Town National Research Hospital located in downtown Omaha, is a national diagnostic, treatment, and research center for hearing, speech, and language disorders.
Boys Town's family-based programs provide four more services: emergency shelter care for children, treatment foster care, parent training, and in-home crisis intervention for families experiencing great stress. Boys Town's goal is to eventually have these services available at most of its mini-campus sites as well. A new national hotline (1-800-448-3000) offers 24-hour assistance to troubled children and parents, helping callers find support fast, and close to home.
In all, over 17,000 children are helped by Boys Town programs each year. With this expanding array of child and family service, Boys Town has a national impact far beyond the borders of this small Nebraska village.
By Joan L. Flinspach, Hall of History, Boys Town Visitors' Center, Boys Town, NE 68010, (402)498-1140 or (800)545-5771.