Father Flanagan’s legacy: Untangling our ‘Christmas lights’

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

In the Gospel reading for Mass on Nov. 3, Jesus noticed the tax collector Zacchaeus in a tree and looked past his criminal behavior and directly into his heart. The encounter changed Zacchaeus, and he repented.

In a similar fashion, more than 100 years ago, Father Edward J. Flanagan, a priest of the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska, embraced street kids that society had judged harshly. Seeing no bad boys but, instead, youth trained by their environment of bad examples, Father Flanagan created Boys Town, where children of every race, creed and color could be nurtured and educated as productive citizens.

Father Steven Boes, president and national executive director of Boys Town since 2005, visited New Orleans Nov. 1-4 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Boys Town Louisiana. He attended a banquet and, at a Nov. 3 Mass where he was homilist, bestowed a special “Community Champion” award on the St. Catherine of Siena Women’s Club.

Father Boes said Zacchaeus was probably bullied as a boy because he was short, making him feel worse on the inside and outside. It wasn’t until Jesus acknowledged his potential that he changed.

Troubled youth today feel the same way, he said, so Boys Town, rides into town like a cowboy – its mascot – to help them and to make a difference in the world.

“We not only see what’s on the outside but look into (boys’) hearts and discover what they want to be as an adult and lead them and their families there,” Father Boes said.

Help boys from beginning

Father Boes attributes Boys Town’s uniqueness to Father Flanagan’s family’s background living on land owned by an English lord in Ireland and experiencing religious and racial persecution.

“He’d come from this place of persecution and wasn’t going to persecute (the boys in Omaha), no matter the religion or race they were,” Father Boes said.

From the beginning, he shepherded kids of all races and religions. He had African Americans, Germans, Jews, Catholics and Protestants. Because people of different races and faiths were segregated by law then, he couldn’t operate in downtown Omaha.

“You couldn’t have Catholics and Jews under the same roof,” Father Boes said.

This forced Father Flanagan to start his own town – Boys Town – in the middle of a cornfield on Overlook Farm in western Omaha. It has been headquartered there since 1921.

While there were orphanages and county reform schools when Father Flanagan created Boys Town, Father Boes said children were basically imprisoned and made to do forced labor under harsh disciplinary circumstances there. Father Flanagan had talked to the street kids, who were then adults, to learn this.

He formed something entirely different in Boys Town. With the approval of the bishop of Omaha, Father Flanagan created a nonprofit, separate from the Catholic Church, relying initially on donations to stay afloat. A Catholic priest has always been its executive director.

“It started as a home” on the farm, he said, but Father Flanagan never worked the boys eight to 10 hours a day. “They had chores in the morning and night, but most of the day they went to school, played sports, did music, band, drama, had dances … It was a very rich life. … He set up Boys Town as a separate example of what could be possible.”

“His lifetime goal was to change the American system of care for children,” Father Boes said. “He did that before he died” by supporting advocates who changed child labor laws that closed the orphanages and reform schools.

Father Boes credits Father Flanagan with helping to start the juvenile justice system in America.

Mission same, delivery online

The mission of Boys Town has never wavered, but how and to whom services are delivered has changed, said Father Boes. The focus is on helping families mend themselves through guided assistance in the home and online.

“Ninety-six percent of what Boys Town does (today) is in the home,” Father Boes said.

In the late 1980s, under the direction of Father Val Peter, Boys Town began expanding nationwide. It now has 10 affiliates with the slogan, “Boys Town: Saving Children, Healing Families.”

“It’s grown from that original boys’ home to a national network that supports boys and families,” said James Howell, Boys Town development director. “We work as a comprehensive support for families.”

“Father Peter knew we had something special, and America needed what we have,” Father Boes said. “So, we started to digitize our platform, started on the web, had a hotline and started in-home training and parent training.”

Father Boes said 1.2 million children access Boys Town’s services, and its hotline (1-800-448-3000) receives between 300,000 and 400,000 calls annually.

In Louisiana, more than 6,000 calls are received, justifying the need for Boys Town in New Orleans.

The headquarters serves mostly as a research and development facility, although 350 boys still reside there annually.

“What we learn there, we take out,” Father Boes said. “We learn how to take super-troubled kids who are crazy difficult – we call them tangled Christmas lights. We take these tangled Christmas lights that people just throw away, and we’ve gotten really good at taking care of these troubled kids.”

He said the online and in-home services training “helps parents of troubled kids get better at discipline. … We work with juvenile justice kids, child welfare kids and the addicted and mentally ill kids. Our goal is to have the same impact Father Flanagan did.”

The local affiliate offers Boys Town’s “continuum of care” that includes immediate diagnostic and assessment of youth in danger, three family homes for adolescents, in-home family services for families of troubled youth as well as online tools. It reaches approximately ​7,600 children and families in Louisiana each year.

“We believe what Father Flanagan believed – that inside of everybody is a cowboy,” Father Boes said.

For details, visit www.boystown.org or call the local affiliate at 293-7900 or 518-7840.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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