Sixty-seven years after Spencer Tracy played the revered Father Edward Flanagan in the 1938 MGM motion picture "Boys Town," the group's new executive director unabashedly trades on such idealized images of the past while adapting to the changing realities of today's troubled youths.
The Rev. Steven E. Boes, who heads what is now called Girls and Boys Town, said the organization sheltered or directly cared for 43,000 youngsters across the United States in 2004 regardless of religion and still is guided by a premise famously offered years ago by Flanagan, the Roman Catholic priest who founded it. "There are no bad boys," Flanagan said. "There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking."
But society's environment can be quite harsh these days, Boes said, because of what he called a breakdown in the family structure, less emphasis on religious values in general, greater disparity between the rich and the poor, and the rising expectations of people who have less.
Most of the youths are referred to Girls and Boys Town by social service agencies and courts, with such problems as abandonment and gang involvement.
"We give kids help, healing and hope," Boes said. "That's our vision for what we do."
Boys Town was started in 1917 in Omaha, Neb., as "Father Flanagan's Boys' Home." Four years later the priest, with the help of Catholics in the Midwest, bought a farm 10 miles west of downtown Omaha.
Today that campus is the home of a national research hospital and is the hub of a network of 19 sites in 15 states and the District. In addition, nearly 1 million additional children were served through nonresidential outreach and training programs in 2004, officials said.
The national headquarters reports an annual budget for all locations of $200 million, with 2,500 full-time staff members and 300 volunteers. It is supported by direct-mail campaigns and other fundraising, and government-financed placements of youths by local and state agencies.
It has no formal connection to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha other than the tradition that Boes and his predecessors have all been Omaha diocesan priests.
Boes, ordained in 1985, previously taught religion in Catholic schools and worked with Native American children at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Neb. He has master's degrees in theology, divinity and counseling.
On the night before he began his duties in July, Boes, 46, slept in Flanagan's bed with its sagging mattress on the second floor of Flanagan's red-brick home, which is a museum on the Girls and Boys Town campus.
"It was just something that we thought of as a way to sort of connect me to the past in a physical and spiritual way. You know, I'm sure it also had some PR value," said Boes (pronounced "Bays").
He said as many nonprofits struggle, it does not hurt to get a little public relations mileage as the head of a venerable institution of which the aura of Flanagan still opens doors. A remark to Flanagan in 1920 by a strapping youth while he carried a crippled boy on his back remains as familiar to many as any Madison Avenue slogan: "He ain't heavy, Father. . . . he's m' brother."
Nostalgia aside, the travails that brought early generations of boys to Flanagan are not always the same problems faced by today's youth, Boes said.
In the early days, the focus was on meeting their needs for food, clothing and shelter, and a loving "family" that they lacked. In those days, Boes said, many youths who came to Flanagan had a low self-image. Many contemplated suicide.
The picture changed after the 1960s. He said new arrivals generally thought better of themselves, although thoughts of suicide remained a problem with some. "They had a higher self-image but a higher rate of violence. The anger wasn't directed in anymore. It was directed out," Boes said.
Children who live in group homes learn they are expected to help out. They share chores and learn to relate in the give and take of living with others. In addition to counseling, the programs emphasize building relationships with others -- including trained adult role models -- and attending to spiritual needs.
Boes said youths are required to attend a weekly religious service. Christians go to churches of their choice. Jews observe Shabbat and go to synagogue. "Father Flanagan said that every boy must pray. How he prays is up to him. We don't proselytize," he said.
Boes thinks back to the boy in 1921, the late Ruben Granger, who later changed his name to Jim Edwards, who carried the crippled boy, Howard Loomis, on his back to go swimming in the Missouri River.
"I think that children still have within them the capacity to care for others," Boes said. "We bring that out in Girls and Boys Town. It may be more hidden, but I still think there are brothers who would pick up their little brother."