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He Ain’t Heavy: Boys Town’s Chris and Lori Mathsen

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This ​article published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine. It is written by Andy Williams.

Chris and Lori Mathsen received a surprise phone call recently that reminded them why their planned one-year stay as live-in family teachers at Boys Town has stretched into 26 memory-filled years

The Mathsens hadn’t heard from this particular young man—one of nearly 200 teenage boys to move through their family home on the West Dodge Road campus—for more than 20 years. If they did hear from him again, they figured he wouldn’t say much.

“He didn’t do anything to really stand out while he was here,” says Chris, “Nothing too crazy. Nothing that positive. He was only vaguely interested in what was happening.”

All those years later, the young man reached out.

He couldn’t believe the Mathsens were still at Boys Town, still overseeing the same house full of teenagers, still with the same Michael Jordan poster that has survived countless Nerf gun wars and sometimes less playful confrontations in the home’s spacious basement.

The young man, now married with two children, had a message that never gets old to those dedicating their lives to helping troubled teens.

“He told us his time here totally changed his life, and he doesn’t know where he would be without it,” Chris says. “We had no idea, especially with him. There is power in that.”

Indeed there is, so much so that Lori Mathsen, who took a one-year sabbatical from earning a Ph.D. to obtain real-life experience, turned it into 25-plus years of helping teenage boys turn from trouble to sports, music, ROTC, good grades, and a brighter future.

So much so that Chris shut down his roofing company and went to Creighton University for an MBA that’s still waiting to be deployed while the Mathsens raise their 11-year-old son, Karsten, and 10-year-old daughter, Kari, in a house full of boys who are learning what it’s like to be treated like family in a place they can call home.

“There have been plenty of times when we ask ourselves, ‘What have we done?’” Lori says. “Let’s take a normal job…and have some privacy…and not get cussed out by kids. But then there are always special kids that you think, ‘I want to stick around to see that kid through.’ Then another one grabs your heart,” and the Mathsens repeat the process. “You bond with them and they bond with you. They ask us sometimes, ‘Are you going to leave before I graduate?’ We don’t want to let them down.”

The Mathsens have certainly passed the perseverance test. The average tenure of Boys Town’s live-in family teachers is around three years. Life with young people who need to reshape behaviors and relationships can get intense. “We’re on a treadmill that never stops,” Lori says. “We don’t like to be bored, and there’s no danger of that.”

The couple have grown to love their Boys Town life even more since their kids were born. The older boys in the home provide role models—good and, sometimes bad. And there’s never a shortage of playmates as the Boys Town kids are almost always willing to shoot hoops or pool, battle at Just Dance, or strike up a wiffle ball game.

“When we go on vacation, before the week is even up our kids start asking, ‘I wonder what they’re doing at home? I wonder what’s going on with so-and-so?’ Chris says. “They told us, ‘We’ll be mad at you if we ever leave Boys Town,’ and they mean it.”

It’s all part of helping kids move from turmoil (home, school, the legal system) to a shot at a coveted place in the Mathsen “Hall of Fame.” That select group is represented by a large picture on a stairway wall. It’s an elite group—a coveted position reached by only four boys over the decades through demonstrating uncommon character, leadership, academic excellence, and extracurricular achievement.

There’s Robert, who graduated from Boys Town with a 4.0 GPA, three varsity sports letters, and no incidents on his record. And there’s Jay, who was identified by a police officer as a teen with potential, but heading down the wrong path. He now serves as an assistant family teacher at Boys Town.

“We get to watch him come to work every day and give back what was given to him,” Chris says. “These kids can be the biggest pains in the hind end, but then something breaks through and you see a kid change and head the right direction. There aren’t many places where you get the opportunity to spend your life being part of that.”

“It’s a place for second chances,” Lori adds, “and maybe even third or fourth chances.”

The Mathsens view their time at Boys Town as one small part of something special that’s been happening for nearly a century at the place known for its iconic motto of “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.”

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