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One Man’s Vision, One Nation’s Transformation

December 12th, 2016     By Father Steven Boes, Boys Town National Executive Director

Boys Town History, Father Flanagan

On Dec. 12, 2016, Boys Town marks its 99 th anniversary of saving children and healing families. As we begin the celebration of our centennial year, it is fitting that we honor the legacy of our founder, Servant of God Father Edward Flanagan. Boys Town’s mission to change the way America cares for children, families and communities began with his dream and thrives today to benefit boys and girls across the country.

In the early 1900s, the treatment and living conditions of homeless and abandoned children were appalling. In cities and towns across the country, many boys who were without a family or in trouble with the law ended up in reformatories, orphanages or workhouses. These were terrible places for children; the youngsters who lived in them often were abused, mistreated, forced to labor for long hours and sometimes starved.

Father Edward Flanagan felt this was a shameful way for society to care for its most helpless and vulnerable citizens. He had seen firsthand the tragic results of this system in the brokenness of the destitute men he had counseled on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska.

So when the priest opened his Home for Boys (later to be known as Boys Town) in 1917, it was more than just a building where youngsters could find safety, three meals a day and a bed. It was an early model and a public symbol of the kind of treatment Father Flanagan believed America’s forgotten children deserved. From the very start of his work with boys who had nowhere to turn, his intentions were to change not only the course of individual lives but also to reform the whole system of child care.

The following ideas and principles of child care may seem obvious and normal today. But when Father Flanagan introduced and advocated for them nearly 100 years ago, they were groundbreaking and far ahead of their time. Most importantly, they sparked a revolution in child care in America.

  • Every child deserves to be loved, nurtured and protected, regardless of his or her race, religion or cultural background.
  • Child care must focus on healing the whole child – body, mind and spirit.
  • Every child needs and deserves a quality education.
  • Every child must be taught skills that will enable him or her to get a good job and become self-sufficient as an adult.
  • Every child should have a strong spiritual foundation; but each child should choose his or her own spiritual path.
  • Children are to be valued as people because they represent the future.
  • A loving family is the key to raising healthy, happy children who, as adults, will be good parents of their own children.
  • Assistance should be available to parents who are struggling with problems that jeopardize their family’s stability and ability to stay together.

As Boys Town grew, Father Flanagan used it as a testing ground, a place where he could develop and try out these new theories and concepts for child care. Much of what he learned came from his relationships with the boys in his care. Father Flanagan knew he did not have all the answers, so he began to do his own research on the types of backgrounds each boy came from and the individual problems they brought with them to the Home. (This also involved keeping track of his boys after they left the Home to provide evidence they had become good citizens.) Over time, Father Flanagan recognized the value of such research in developing new and better ways to help children.

This revolutionary approach – basing the care of a child on his experiences and needs – eventually begin to catch the attention of others who could bring much-needed support to the Home and its mission and set the stage for greater exposure and acceptance of Father Flanagan’s methodology in the future.

Gradually, Father Flanagan became a well-known champion of children and their causes and a vocal proponent of the need for wholesale changes in America’s system of child care. That’s why many of the ideas he put into practice nearly a century ago are today considered the standards for quality child and family care around the world.

At Boys Town and everywhere society’s most vulnerable children receive the help they need, Father Flanagan’s vision lives on!

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