This article originally appeared on NewportRI.com.
Jesse Rios sits at a custom chess table in a Portsmouth living room, contemplating his next move as his 11-year-old challenger, Andrea, gazes at him expectantly. Family photos and school art projects cover the surrounding walls in a scene that could be played out in countless Aquidneck Island homes.
What makes this particular scenario unique, and this game of chess noteworthy, is that Jesse and Andrea have been brought together through Boys Town New England, an organization providing care to children and families in Rhode Island and surrounding states.
Jesse and his wife, Nikki, work as a “family teaching couple,” which means they are full-time guardians, mentors, caretakers and essentially acting parents to six teenage girls who live in a residential group home adjacent to the Rioses’ own apartment (which they share with two young sons). The Rios home is one of five similar houses lining lush and leafy Flanagan Road, a quaint cul-de-sac just off of West Main Road, across from the entrance to Raytheon.
Flanagan Road is named for Father Edward J. Flanagan, the Irish priest who established Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917 (and was memorably portrayed by Spencer Tracy in a 1938 film). What began as a home for adult males coming out of the prison system has evolved over the past century to concentrate on preventative care for both young men and women.
Boys Town New England was established in 1991 as a separate but connected entity. It’s a distinct 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but still falls under the umbrella of the national organization, with which it shares resources and financial support. Other funding comes from the state of Rhode Island and private contributors, like the Bazarsky family, which donated the land that the Portsmouth campus has occupied since 2005.
This campus also serves as the headquarters for Boys Town New England, which is overseen by executive director Sarah Galvan, who previously worked for Boys Town in Washington, D.C. Marcy Shyllon, the senior director of programs at Boys Town New England, has been with the organization for 13 years, having previously worked at a Boys Town shelter in Philadelphia. For both Galvan and Shyllon, working at Boys Town happened a bit by chance and evolved into a profession that often feels more like a calling.
“What a privilege it is to work here,” Shyllon says. “I remind myself that on my hardest days.”
Life on the Boys Town Campus
The young people on the Portsmouth campus arrive there for a variety of reasons and from a range of places. Some come directly from Bradley Hospital in Providence, a psychiatric hospital devoted exclusively to children and adolescents. Others are products of the state’s child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Some are in touch with their biological families, others are not. Most have what can be described as behavioral struggles that require more nurturing and care than other settings are equipped to provide.
The ultimate goal at Boys Town is to work with each youth and help them develop a treatment plan that’s in their best interest. That can involve reuniting young people with their biological families or helping them graduate from high school and establish independence and stability in work or college.
“The length of stay depends on their needs,” Galvan says, noting that all residents can remain until they turn 18, at which point they are considered adults. Some stay for several months, others for several years. The campus can house up to 30 youths and is often at capacity.
Each of the five houses on campus has its own family teaching couple, all of whom are married and whom Galvan describes as “taking on all the roles and responsibilities parents would take on — and then some.
“Moving into a house and taking on six kids with behavioral issues isn’t an easy task,” she continues. The job attracts people from all walks of life, and demands stability, which is what the kids need most. “Boys Town believes that the people closest to the kids are the primary change agents for the kids,” Galvan says.
Two of the homes are residences for teenage girls, two for teenage boys, and one for a mix of younger children. All of the youths attend different schools around the state, usually staying within the same district for as much of their K–12 education as possible, to promote continuity in their lives and learning.
For some of the youths, Nikki Rios notes, “going to the same school is the only constant thing going for them.”
At Home with the Rioses
Jesse Rios teaches all of the girls in his household how to play chess. “I grew up very similarly to a lot of the kids,” he says. “I attribute learning chess to getting out of the situation I was in.”
He and Nikki have worked as a family teaching couple for four years. Jesse, 32, and Nikki, 28, met in Southern California while working in theater, married in 2012, and are expecting their third child this summer.
Neither had experience with Boys Town before Jesse applied for a job in 2014 at the suggestion of Nikki’s mother. Jesse didn’t get that position, but he did receive a phone call asking if he and his wife would be interested in becoming a teaching couple. When they accepted, they had no idea they would soon be surrogate parents to six teenage girls — an idea that seemed overwhelming at first and is now the only thing they can imagine doing.
Both emphasize that they are not there to replace the parents the girls already have, but rather to serve as mentors and support systems. They often work with the girls’ biological parents, coaching them as much as their children. They are also in constant contact with teachers, doctors, case workers, therapists and psychiatrists.
“Any adult that interacts with our kids we have some sort of contact with,” Jesse says, adding that he and Nikki are often “one of the first adults in our kids’ lives to fight for and advocate for them.”
At Boys Town “Your Voice Matters”
Andrea is the youngest occupant in the house, as reflected in the collection of unicorns carefully piled atop her bed. She shares the room with the oldest resident, a recent graduate of Portsmouth High School who plans to study art at CCRI this fall. Her side of the room sports darker colors and fewer sparkles, along with walls adorned with art.
When Andrea moved into Boys Town housing at the age of 10, she was experiencing an array of difficulties at school and had been flagged by teachers and administrators as being troubled, with her education in jeopardy. Within six months of moving into the Rioses’ home, she was earning honors like Student of the Month. Her teachers were surprised at how quickly her behavior had changed for the better.
When she first moved into the house, Andrea often carried a large rock and sometimes used it to express her frustration. Since then, the rock has undergone a transformation. It has been painted with glitter and placed on a shelf in the company of her unicorns — no longer something to throw, but an art piece that doubles as a reminder of better ways to communicate when she’s frustrated or at a loss for words.
Learning how to communicate, especially when angry or upset, is an essential practice that the Rioses seek to instill in all of the girls they care for. Every night around 5:30 p.m. the group convenes in the kitchen to prepare dinner, which is a communal affair. “We subscribe to the theory that the dining room is the most important room in the house,” Jesse says.
Six teenagers under one roof means various schedules, and some of the girls have jobs and aren’t home as often, so dinner is the one time that everyone is able to sit down, check in and be together. After dinner, the girls conduct what the Rioses call a Family Meeting, which is run by the girls — although Nikki and Jesse are present. One house member is appointed the leader and conducts the meeting, which is used as a time for all the girls to express whatever is on their mind, in a positive and productive way, and in an effort to avoid or soothe confrontations.
Nikki emphasizes that she and Jesse teach the girls that they have a voice and their voice matters, as well as how to create, maintain and build upon healthy relationships — life skills that will stay with the teens as they evolve into adults. Trust is another important element that is not easily gained, nor taken for granted when earned. Once the girls move out of the home, they often stay connected with the Rioses, with some returning for holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The Greater Boys Town Family
Galvan notes that one of the biggest misconceptions she encounters is the stigma attached to “congregate care” or “group home care,” with which Boys Town is sometimes lumped in.
“We’re a professional foster home,” she says. There is no shift staff, just the live-in couple that serves as surrogate parents. Treatment plans are developed using evidence-based research models, and home life revolves around family and routine — “All those things that kids need,” Garvan explains.
“We tell all of our kids that once you’re part of the Boys Town family, you’re always part of the Boys Town family.”