TRABUCO CANYON — As 16-year-old Patrick gazed across the darkened neighborhood, his eyes settled on a distant hill. There, in the cool of night, the lights of Joplin Boys Ranch sparkled like a beacon.
"I love looking up there," he said, pointing toward the juvenile detention center. "It reminds me where I could have ended up."
Certainly, Patrick and the other long-term residents of Boys Town Southern California could have been sent to any of several facilities for troubled youths. Instead, they were given a reprieve of sorts--a chance to turn their lives around at one of the newest satellite campuses established around the country in recent years by Father Flanagan's Boys Home, better known as Boys Town. In effect, Boys Town was their last chance.
Today, Boys Town Southern California is home to 17 troubled boys and girls from throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties. Most of them were placed there because of continuing problems at home and in the community--including gang activity and drug abuse.
The Orange County Boys Town is a small version of the original Boys Town, a 76-home residential program located in the incorporated village of Boys Town, Neb.
Founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest who borrowed $90 from a friend to open a home for wayward boys in downtown Omaha, its look has changed significantly in recent years. Gone is compound-style living that for decades characterized Boys Town.
The new Orange County campus, which opened last spring, includes five new homes on Flanagan Road, each comprising about 4,500 square feet. Each home is managed and occupied by a specially trained married couple who have responsibility for up to six youths in addition, in some cases, to their own children.
Currently, 12 boys and five girls are living at Boys Town Southern California; most were placed there by their parents, who pay a fee based on their incomes, or by the Orange County Department of Probation or the Orange Department of Childrens Services. The five homes are expected to be fully occupied by 30 boys and girls by Jan. 1.
"Many of the kids who have trouble, who are in gangs or on drugs, come from families that are disorganized, chaotic and generally dysfunctional," says Michael L. Riley, site director for Boys Town Southern California, which has offices in nearby Lake Forest. "It's in our families where we learn our social skills, how to cope with our thoughts and how to behave toward one another. It's in our families where we learn confidence and self-esteem."
"When Father Flanagan started Boys Town, he used the premise that there are no bad boys--just bad environment," Riley says. "The thinking is that if you take these kids, remove them from their bad environments and give them good skills, they will turn out to be productive citizens."
Boys Town, which now has 14 facilities outside Nebraska, started its national expansion in 1983 with a satellite campus in Tallahassee, Fla.
John Melingagio, a spokesman for the organization, said the nationwide move was a result of the then new director, Rev. Val J. Peter's, vision "that children be treated in their own communities."
Six years later, Boys Town Southern California was launched in Lake Forest. A number of programs eventually were started, among them a short-term emergency care program for abused, neglected or runaway boys and girls based in Long Beach, an in-home therapy for families in crises, and placement of children into foster homes.
In addition, 76 acres of land were purchased in Trabuco Canyon with funds drawn from the Boys Town Foundation Fund.
A series of community meetings outlining plans for the homes were held in South County.
"There are always concerns about the kids," Riley said, adding that few local residents opposed the establishment of a Boys Town in the area. "There were some concerns that the kids we would enroll might bring chaos to the neighborhood. Of course, that doesn't happen. At our other locations around the country, it's pretty clear that our kids are the best monitored and best behaved in the community.
"We have to watch our kids--most parents don't have to watch their kids. We're ever vigilant with our kids because they need monitoring and they need limit setting," he says.
In each home, Boys Town provides a structured environment designed to teach children how to live successfully within a family.
They awaken early each morning, prepare breakfast, complete any other chores that might be required that morning, attend nearby public schools, return home after school, work on their homework and help prepare dinner. Each evening, a family meeting is held to discuss any problems or issues that may have arisen during the day. Solutions usually are arrived at democratically--by a vote of the children.