By Joe Lugara

Brooklyn's Girls and Boys Town: Turning Lives Around


If the Spencer Tracy classic Boys Town were remade today in a contemporary setting, the first facelift would involve the title. It's not just "Boys Town" anymore: its "Girls and Boys Town". And it wouldn't necessarily be set in Nebraska because the organization now exists in 19 sites spread over 14 states. Around here, for example, it's called Girls and Boys Town of New York. Other than the title update and the expanded locations, Father Flanagan's philosophy wouldn't be at all different. Although social conditions (and with them, young people's problems) have changed significantly since the young Irish priest founded his Boys' Home in 1917, the institution's goal of taking in children and setting them on the right path hasn't changed one bit. The National Headquarters still has its roots in Nebraska. (Even Spencer Tracy's Boys Town Best Actor Oscar, which he donated to the institution, is exhibited there). The Home stood alone in mid-America for many years, and didn't even begin to expand to other areas until 1986, with the establishment of a site in central Florida. But beginning in the early '90s the organization boomed, extending its reach considerably, opening locations in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New England, and Washington, D.C., among other cites and regions. Debuting just a year ago, New York's addition, the Willoughby Street School in Brooklyn, is the newest addition to the institution's Eastern Seaboard line-up, and the first stand-alone Girls and Boys Town school facility ever opened outside the main campus in Omaha. Although the Willoughby school location is fresh to New York, the Girls and Boys Town programs are not; they were established here about a decade ago, reports New York site director Maxine Shoulders. Two long-term and three short-term residential programs predate the new four-story school facility. (Children not in trouble with the law are included in the long-term program; those facing sentencing for non-serious crimes are enrolled in the short-term). The Willoughby School is attended by kids ages 9-17 from the latter group, from Girls and Boys Town of New York's non-secure detention shelters in Brooklyn and the Bronx, together with short-term kids from its two residential homes in Brooklyn. (Prior to the Willoughby School, the school conducted its business from a smaller space located on Dean Street in Brooklyn). Neither the residential programs nor the Willoughby School is a reform school, a place where kids are dragged kicking and screaming; as in the movie, believe it or not, a kid requests to come to Girls and Boys Town. As Shoulders points out, a child can get accepted by writing their own letter to the organization's president, Father Val J. Peter. The environment they enter is described by Shoulders as "family" — both residential programs put the kids in a family situation in which a husband/wife "Family Teaching Couple" lives with as many as six kids at a time, taking their meals, shopping, and going on outings with them. The New York branch is currently working with 48 young people overall, all of whom attend Willoughby. Academically, the school covers all the bases, with classes in language arts, math, social studies, computer science, science, and the arts, taught by a dozen Board of Education-certified teachers and teaching assistants. Beyond the academic fundamentals, Shoulders points out that the school also offers lessons in the culinary arts, life skills, relationship-building skills, and culture, with guest speakers and activities not uncommon. "We give them guidance all down the line," Shoulders says of the residency program/school arrangement. "Right down to table manners, how to read the classifieds, how to get their working papers — we coach them all the way." Although there is also family counseling, Shoulders says she would like to see the New York location have its own aftercare program, as so many of the Girls and Boys Town locations already do, which would allow for work not only with the child, but also with the child's parents. She has already discussed the possibility with Father Peter and some of the executive directors in Omaha, but right now she says her work is geared toward increasing the organization's recognition factor, fund-raising efforts, and grant research. (Current funding comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Office for Children and Family Services, and Father Flanagan's Trust Fund). Another concern involves building a volunteer board of directors for New York; the location has an advisory board, but no board of trustees. Having been with a number of other organizations during her 25 years in the social services field, Shoulders says, "This is the most rewarding program, because here we get them at a younger age, and the younger you get them, the better chance you have of turning them around." The Willoughby School is located at 167 Willoughby St., in Brooklyn. To volunteer or to make a financial donation to Girls and Boys Town of New York, call (718) 622-1667.