National Geographic : 2002 Nov
BOYS TOWN, NEBRASKA who are hurting." And what are the Carl girls thankful for this year? "My parent-teachers," most declare. "That I'm in a safe place" is a close second. "If I weren't here, I'd probably be dead," one says. Enter Father Peter, a man in constant motion. Today he'll breeze into every house with an infectious laugh and compliments to the chefs. "His visit is a Thanksgiving ritual," says Scott Carl. He and Trisha love their jobs, this place, these kids. "We get to protect them for a little while," Trisha says, forking up sweet potatoes. There are, of course, bitter moments. Back at the Joneses, the big meal devoured and dishes done, stone-faced Frankie, 12, holds the greasy tur key wishbone out to Tony. "I wish I could go home," Frankie announces, looking at no one, and snaps off the bulk of the bone. Unsmiling, he walks out with his prize. "We can't and don't try to replace their families;" Tony tells me later. "And some days they just want out. No surprise there." Still, every day is a Thanksgiving of sorts for someone in this town, where new kids are made "citizens" in a festive ceremony. The Monday after the holiday, I join eight scrubbed newcomers waiting to face a cafeteria crowd. "I don't want to be here. I'd rather be with my real family;" mumbles a straight-banged, suit-clad boy named John. "Better here than in jail," says the kid to his left. Then it's time. Father Peter stands and bids all welcome, cracks a corny joke or two, then calls on the kids to speak. Each rises and recites a rushed stream of well-rehearsed words, as heartfelt as one might expect from teens forced to the podium: My name is Joe. I've been herefor two weeks. What I like best so far are the basketball courts. What I don't like is thepoint system. What I need to work on is controlling my anger.And so on. There's applause, and tense faces relax. No longer labeled bad kids, patients, or prisoners, all are deemed citizens and pledge to follow Boys Town's rules-to treat others as brothers and sisters, study hard, play fair, and pray well. "You are now part of our family," Father Peter announces. Along the way a weary half smile has tweaked John's lips. I point it out to him. "I feel much better," he admits. "Now it's real-I'm part of some thing." The smile wins out. "I'm no longer an outsider."  Every day is aThanksgiving of sorts for someone inthis town. ON OUR WEBSITEThere's more on 68010 at national geographic.com/ngm/0211. Tell us why we should cover YOUR FAVORITE ZIP CODE at nationalgeographic.com/ngm /zipcode/0211 or mail your suggestion to PO Box 98199, Washington, DC 20090 8199. E-mail: zip@national geographic.com "Every boy must learn to pray," taught founder Father Flanagan. "How he prays is up to him."