The story of Boys Town is proof positive that one person’s vision can change the world. That person was Father Edward J. Flanagan. In 1917, Father Flanagan opened the doors of his first home for boys, later known as Boys Town, and started a revolution in the future of childcare.
Father Flanagan’s end goal was to create an America – and perhaps even a world – where all children were valued. He felt children deserved to be respected, loved, cared for, educated and guided so that they could become productive adults, involved citizens, and eventually, responsible parents for generations of children to come.
Today, Father Flanagan’s philosophy of care for youth has become the foundation of Boys Town-type organizations worldwide. Three other Boys Towns – two from Spain and one from Colombia – recently joined the United States for the first Boys Towns of the World Congress, held December 12-14. This three-day virtual event was entitled, “Boys Towns of the World – More than 100 Years of Stories of Life.”
Boys Towns of the World? It begs the question, how did Boys Town’s model of care, originated in Omaha, become the basis for youth organizations worldwide? It all began in the 1930’s. Often the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, Boys Town was catapulted into the national spotlight in 1938 with the release of the Academy Award winning movie, Boys Town.
Filmed on location in Boys Town, Nebraska, the movie provided an accurate look into life at Boys Town and its popularity led to its worldwide release. Almost overnight, people the world over knew about Boys Town and Father Flanagan’s important work to save the lives of children.
Fast forward to the end of World War II. The war had left tens of thousands of children orphaned and countries struggling to rebuild were at a loss for the best way to help them. Father Flanagan began receiving letters from around the world asking for his advice and guidance. He answered them all and later wrote to U. S. President, Harry S. Truman, offering his assistance with the war orphans.
Father Flanagan was ultimately asked by the Truman administration to go to Japan and Korea and later to Europe, to share his philosophies on raising children and to make recommendations on how to best care for the war-orphaned youth. On one of his humanitarian trips to Europe, he suffered a heart attack in Berlin, Germany, and died. Many of those mourning were comforted when they heard that Father Flanagan often said, “The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not, for it is God’s work and not mine.”
Now, more than 105 years after the opening of the original Boys Town, the first Boys Towns of the World Congress enabled participants worldwide to share real-life stories, discuss the evolution and transformations occurring in childcare and create future plans to ensure that all children have a voice and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
The first day of the conference included the sharing of stories about the humble beginnings and rich histories of each organization. One common theme shared by the organizations was the importance of ensuring the rights of children and teaching them the principles of democracy. Another shared commitment was ensuring that all children, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or religion, are welcome and appreciated.
The second day featured heartfelt stories from Boys Town alumni from all the organizations. Insightful research, showing the evidence that behavioral science, when coupled with love and relationships, is the magic that creates successful outcomes, also was shared with the group.
On the closing day, the personal stories voiced by the children currently involved in the programs, brought the Boys Town vision to life. The goal is to grow the event annually with organizations from Australia, South Africa and Ireland to be among the next to join.
“Father Flanagan firmly believed that kindness and love could open the heart of any boy and start them on the path to a productive life,” said Rod Kempkes, CEO of Boys Town United States. “Hearing the amazing stories that have been shared at this inaugural congress event and learning about the impactfulwork of the Boys Towns around the world has been truly inspiring. We look forward to collaborating with Boys Towns worldwide in the years to come on our shared mission of providing life-changing care and support for children in need.”