Boys Town Celebrates its Annual Tradition

This article was posted on​ on July 27, 2023.

For 70 years, the Boys Town nonprofit has offered its youth an annual summer camp opportunity at Camp Okoboji. As the camp's 70th season started wrapping up, campers and their families celebrated last Saturday with the annual Blue Water Bash Fundraiser.

Boys Town provides an array of youth care and health care services for children and families in need. The nonprofit teaches its youth about structure and making good choices while also providing opportunities for kids to enjoy being kids. Camp Okoboji is part of that process, as many of the Boys Town youth hadn't gone on family vacations before.

“Most of our kids don't have vacations you and I would take for granted, like going to a lake," Boys Town CEO Rod Kempkes said. “They talk about it like you wouldn't believe every year."

The camp's mission is to provide a relaxed setting with experiences not ordinarily found on the Boys Town campus. At Camp Okoboji, Boys Town youth and their families participate in activities like boat rides, tubing, kayaking and fishing.

“It's really fun when the kids at the end of the trip say, 'I want to buy a boat someday,'" Camp Director Shara Leetsch said. “We've broadened their horizons and opened their eyes to being on a lake for the first time and doing a lot of fun activities they've never experienced before."

In her 18 years of experience, the camp director has seen many Boys Town youth blossom during their time at Camp Okoboji. The break from their responsibilities and new life experiences camp provides gives them a chance relax and be kids again, Leetsch said.

“Some of our kids have way too many responsibilities and stress in their life at a young age," she said. “For them to come and jump off the dock and fish and just relax and have fun, that's pretty important for them."

Boys Town was established in 1917 as a boarding house in Omaha, Nebraska, originally called Father Flanagan's Home for Boys. In 1921, Overlook Farm on the outskirts of Omaha was purchased and the boys' home was moved there and became known as the Village of Boys Town.

Boys Town helps youth in all 50 states. Kempkes revealed Boys Town helped almost half a million young adults across the country last year. Approximately 140,000 suicide ideation calls were taken and approximately 40,000 of those calls were from Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska.

“We do a plethora of services across the whole array of youth services," Kempkes said. “We do pediatric care, preventative care and acute care, then we do restorative services to help kids get reacclimated back into their own homes because that is the goal."

It's hard not to fall in love with the mission of Boys Town, the CEO said. What has kept him involved with the nonprofit for the last five years has been working with the youth and watching them grow during their time at Boys Town.

“When you get to know them, these kids are inspirational," Kempkes said. “They overcome adversities that you can't even imagine, and they lead productive lives. They're the leaders, we're just here to support them."

Rasheed Fairley, former Boys Town Youth and now an assistant teacher with the nonprofit, knows firsthand the positive impact Boys Town can have on someone's life. Fairley came to Boys Town in 2010 from North Carolina. The then 17-year-old was going into his senior year of high school having made some reckless decisions and needed to turn things around.

“I missed 81 school days, so I pretty much got sent to Boys Town because I was making a lot of bad decisions," Fairley said. “I got expelled from my school, so Boys Town was my last chance."

To graduate high school and make his family proud, Fairley decided to give Boys Town a chance. He eventually embraced the family-style environment of Boys Town, joined the basketball team, made friends and bonded with his coaches and teachers. In just under a year, Fairley went from being expelled from high school to graduating and getting an athletic scholarship to go to college.

“I knew that if I could turn my life around I'd make (my family) proud, and in the whole process of doing that I made myself proud," Fairley said. “I achieved a lot more things than I thought I could, but it started with Boys Town believing in me and the relationships I built. It all played a part in where I'm at today."

Fairley applied the skills of structure and discipline he learned at Boys Town at college and ended up graduating with a degree in sociology. He ended up coming back to Boys Town as an assistant teacher in 2020 and using his experience at Boys Town to relate to the current youth. Within a year, Fairley realized he was meant for that job.

“I like the perspective of being able to see a kid be able to turn their life around," Fairley said. “Whatever situation they come from, it's just a matter of them buying in, coming here and structuring their lives completely different than what they were used to in order to build a new life."

As Boys Town's Camp Okoboji tradition celebrated its 70th year last Saturday, the camp director reminisced about all the happy memories families have made over the years. The summer camp, Leetsch said, is an important service the nonprofit is proud to keep offering.

“It's another great milestone that Boys Town has hit in providing family structure," Leetsch said. “The family-style environment is very important to our kids because once they get that embedded into their hearts, they can continue that tradition with their own families."​