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An Island of Stability

Frankie Lopez, 18, inside his home at Boys Town, is a senior at Portsmouth High School. The Providence Journal/Steve Szydlowski

This article is written by ​Donita Naylor. It was published February 28, 2015 at

Directly across from the entrance to Raytheon on Route 114 is Flanagan Road, named after Father Flanagan, founder of the original Boys Town in Nebraska.

Flanagan Road leads to Boys Town New England, which consists of five large ranch-style houses and an office building. Together they resemble an upscale condo neighborhood. On the sloping lawns, a doe and her twin fawns were often seen last summer, grazing placidly in the presence of children.

Living in each house is a married couple, their children and six children for whom Boys Town was a last resort.

"If they're coming to us, there's no other place for them," said Matthew Zoerhof, 32, who serves with his wife, Kathy, 29, as family teachers for six boys and girls 12 and younger.

The children stay until a more permanent setting can be found for them.

The Zoerhofs, who met at church in Holland, Mich., have no children of their own. They have parented at one of the two homes for younger children for more than three years and said that, in their house, they do "anything that is done in a regular normal home."

Except they keep a 9-foot artificial evergreen in a corner of the living room all year, decorating it according to the next special day on the calendar.

On a February afternoon when the tree bloomed with paper hearts, one boy worked with a tutor at the dining table, one girl met in therapy with her family of origin in the office, and another girl read aloud to Michaela Newcomb, the family assistant, in the playroom. The home's three younger children had not yet returned from school.

Because of the snow on the enclave's rolling hills, sledding is a popular event, and sleds were included in the heaps of presents donated to each child for Christmas, the Zoerhofs said.

"The problem with sleds, as we're learning, is they don't last very long," Matthew Zoerhof said. Luckily, Boys Town has extras. Kathy Zoerhof said the children like to form sled trains, and she likes to join them when she can.

"We consider it to just be a huge joy," Matthew Zoerhof said of being a parent to six children. "It can be gut-wrenching because you build a relationship with them and you love them to pieces and they do end up moving on."

The other three homes are for adolescent boys, from 13 to 17 years old, although one young man, Frankie Lopez, is 18. He arranged to stay until he graduates from Portsmouth High School in June. He's learning about independent living in hopes of moving into an apartment. He'd like it to be in Middletown or Newport so he can attend the Community College of Rhode Island. He wants to be a social worker.

From the age of 12, Lopez said, he was in and out of Boys Town and other group homes. "I decided when I was 16, I was done worrying. Since Boys Town was always the constant in my life, I gave it a shot," he said. "I took all the tools they gave me."