By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The classic movie “Boys Town,” depicting a Catholic priest’s efforts to save a bunch of tough street kids from a life of crime, will be coming to life in Dyker Heights, only without Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.
The real life Boys Town organization is opening two group homes for troubled kids in the former convent next to Regina-Pacis Catholic Church at 1244 65th St., representatives told a Community Board 10 committee Monday night.
“We anticipate the kids within the next month or so,” Cynthia Armijo, president of Boys Town New York, told the Committee on Senior Issues. Housing and Youth Services at a meeting at the community board’s office at 8819 Fifth Ave.
The two group homes will be located within the same building, a converted convent, and will house six youngsters each, according to Armijo. The boys are middle school and high school age, she said. The youngsters are troubled or come from troubled homes. “The kids we deal with have been involved in the juvenile justice system in some fashion,” Armijo said.
The youngsters entering the Boys Town program are usually referred to the agency by the Family Court.
Boys Town already sponsors two group homes in Crown Heights and two more in Park Slope. Plans are underway to open two homes in Astoria, Queens.
The group home setting allows the youngsters to live in a family-oriented environment, Armijo said. They are looked after by a married couple, known in Boys Town parlance as “parent teachers,” who live in the home with them. The married couples are employed by Boys Town and are trained in behavior modification methods. “We believe in an open, positive environment. There is a vey strict routine that they follow,” Armijo said.
In addition to the married couple, other staff members are assigned to the group home. “The kids are monitored 24-7,” Armijo said.
While living at the group home, the kids will attend a Boys Town-sponsored school located on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Willoughby Street in downtown Brooklyn. The youngsters will be transported back and forth to school by a van.
The goal of Boys Town is to “transition the kids back to their home community,” Armijo said. The average stay of a Boys Town resident in a group home is eight to 10 months, she said.
The Rev. Msgr. Ronald Marino, pastor of Regina Pacis Church, said he consulted with the parish council about leasing the former convent space to Boys Town. He said he informed parishioners by putting notices in the church bulletin for several weeks in a row and by speaking about it at Sunday masses. “I was prepared for community negativity,” he said.
To Marino’s surprise and delight, the parishioners reacted positively to the news. “It was the easiest sell I ever had. I’m really happy that’s the attitude of the people,” said Marino, who has been the pastor for six years.
Similarly, the community board committee supported the idea. “I’m very excited about this,” Committee Chairman Khader El-Yateem told Armijo and Marino.
Committee member Mary Quinones asked if there would be opportunities for local residents to volunteer at the group homes. “There are volunteer opportunities,” Armijo told her. “And conversely, the kids will be looking for employment opportunities, so if there are local stores that can hire them, that would be wonderful,” she said.
Boys Town was founded in 1919 by Father Edward Flanagan, a Catholic priest in Omaha, Nebraska, who opened a home for homeless young truants. “He believed it would build good citizens,” Armijo said.
Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Flanagan in the 1938 movie. Rooney played a troubled teen in the film.
The Nebraska-based organization expanded its services in 1990 to several other states, including New York. “The organization has truly not changed much since 1919,” Armijo said. But it has changed in one respect. Boys Town is no longer boys only. The organization helps girls, too. The two Dyker Heights homes will be boys only, however.