When Brian was 16, he spent a freezing cold Christmas Eve in a doghouse.
He would later say that two things helped him survive the night.
First, he snuggled up to the family dog to stay warm.
Second, he sang “Away in a Manger" over and over.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.
It was the only Christmas carol he knew. And it was the reason he was in the doghouse.
Brian's story starts a few weeks before that fateful Christmas Eve. The teen knew there wasn't going to be any holiday celebration for him and his three siblings. Between their dad's drinking and their mom's indifference, Christmas was going to be just another day to get through.
But Brian wasn't going to let that happen. He secretly started planning a joyous Christmas for his three siblings. When his dad was asleep, Brian took money from his wallet to buy presents for the kids. Then he found a broken pine branch. He would decorate it and that would be their Christmas tree.
In the meantime, his little sister was getting ready for her school Christmas play. She was a sheep and she needed to learn how to sing, “Away in a Manger."
Brian practiced the song with her night after night. Soon, she (and Brian) knew the words and melody by heart.
The night of the play, Brian bundled up his siblings and took them to the school for the big event. Mom and Dad didn't even know they were gone.
A few nights later, it was Christmas Eve. The four kids gathered in a room by themselves, and one by one, Brian handed out the simple gifts he had bought with his dad's money. As they opened their gifts around their Christmas “tree" – the pine branch Brian had decorated – their faces lit up with happiness. Then they asked Brian if they could sing “Away in a Manger."
No, he told them. Dad and Mom were asleep, and he didn't want to risk waking them up and having them spoil this special Christmas Eve.
But the kids begged him. Brian decided to take a chance, and four voices softly began singing the carol.
They didn't sing softly enough. Dad woke up. When he barged in and saw what was happening, he smashed the kids' presents and scattered them across the room.
Then he dragged Brian outside into the frigid night and shoved him into the doghouse.
Alone and shivering, the teen sidled up close to the family dog. He began to sing:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.The stars in the sky look down where he lay,The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.
As Brian continued and repeated the lyrics, the carol became a prayer of hope:
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby awakes,But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.I love Thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the night sky,And stay by my side till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay.Close by me forever and love me I pray.Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.
Brian made it through the night. And it wasn't long after that painful Christmas Eve that he and his siblings were removed from their home and Brian came to Boys Town.
When Boys Town first welcomed Brian, Darlene and Steve, the Family-Teaching Couple he would be living with, immediately noticed that their newest youth smiled all the time. But it wasn't the smile of a happy person. Instead, it was the frozen-on expression of a child who had been beaten down – physically, emotionally and psychologically – all his life. A child who had learned that pleasing the adults in his life by pretending to be happy was a way he could sometimes fend off the next slap, the next kick – or banishment to the cold, dark doghouse. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But Brian had become conditioned by years of torment to use that “pretend" smile to defend himself.
It took a long time, but through the loving care, kindness and teaching of Darlene and Steve, Brian made great progress. Knowing his Christmas Eve story, the couple made sure to ask Brian to help pick out the Christmas music the family listened to as they decorated for the holidays.
“He was one of the most grateful boys we had over the years," Darlene said. “When he apologized, it came from his heart, and he thrived under Boys Town's care. He graduated and attended a community college where he worked in the computer field.
“The day he left our house after graduation, he cried a little, but the smile he wore out the door was the real thing. He fed our hearts and souls, and Steve and I knew we had planted the seeds for Brian to become a kind man and a strong and loving father when that time comes."
When kids like Brian come to Boys Town, we do our best to make sure they never have another sad Christmas again. Once they understand they are safe and loved, our boys and girls begin to be transformed by their Boys Town experience and respond with love and appreciation of their own. That creates the foundation for them to learn new skills, develop caring relationships with others and overcome the pain they've suffered in the past. They also witness and experience loving parenting so they can be good dads and moms when they have families of their own.
In this Holy Season, I ask that you pray for Brian and all the kids who have found hope and redemption at Boys Town, all the boys and girls we are helping right now and all the children who still need our care.
If you'd like to be part of our mission to change the way America cares for children and families, please consider making a financial gift to Boys Town.
It's one of the best Christmas gifts you'll ever give!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from our Boys Town family to yours!
The stories about the children and families in our care are real. In some cases, names may be changed and details altered to protect their privacy and therapeutic interests.