Expansion is coming to Boys Town in Oviedo, one of the community’s most valuable but under-the-radar resources
Laqueena Ward is not ashamed to admit she was a troubled teenager. Conflicts with family, other teens, and the law landed her at the Boys Town campus in Oviedo around the age of 14, where she lived in one of its family homes for abused, neglected, and delinquent youths.
What Laqueena thought was a temporary situation turned into several years of residence, and she initially resisted authority at Boys Town, as well.
“It was a struggle for me to find my identity,” she says.
A decade later, Laqueena is a college graduate with a degree in social work, and she now helps children with mental and physical disabilities.
She credits the structure of Boys Town with turning her life around.
“It motivated me to become a confident woman,” Laqueena says. “The lessons and skills I learned at Boys Town I still use today.”
Laqueena is one of the many success stories for the nonprofit organization. Since the Oviedo Boys Town campus was built in 1986, countless kids have received help there. Some stay briefly – others, maybe a few weeks. And for some, like Laqueena, Boys Town becomes home.
Boys Town residents stay in four family homes on the property. They live two to a bedroom, share meals at a dining table, do chores, play games, and generally live together just as any ordinary family might.
At Boys Town, the plan has always been to eschew a sterile compound environment, says Greg Zbylut, the executive director of the Oviedo campus.
“There are no barriers or fences,” he says. “Our goal is to make it look like any other neighborhood you would drive through.”
Six to eight boys and girls, ages 10 to 18, live in each home, which is led by a married couple who also live in the house. Residents are taught social and independent-living skills to help find success at school and in life.
“They learn how to follow instructions, how to take criticism,” Greg says. “The things we might take for granted.”
Boys Town in Oviedo will soon be able to help even more kids. Thanks to a three-year fundraising drive, a fifth family home is expected to open soon.
Mary Demetree – whose father, William, donated land to help make Boys Town in Oviedo happen – agreed to match up to $500,000 in individual donations to the organization. This is the second time she has been involved in such an effort.
Across all its many programs, Boys Town Oviedo serves some 7,600 children and families each year, many of them involved in the state’s child welfare system.
The organization provides a number of services outside the family homes. Its Behavioral Health Clinic offers therapy and evaluations for children and young adults experiencing a range of problems, such as ADHD and emotional issues. Meanwhile, Common Sense Parenting classes help mothers and fathers develop healthy relationships with their kids. An emergency shelter on the Oviedo campus is available for temporary situations, such as a runaway who police are attempting to return to their guardians.
Despite its name, girls have been involved with Boys Town in Oviedo since its inception. The organization changed its name in 2002 to Girls and Boys Town but returned to its original name about five years later to avoid confusion among donors, Greg says.
The Oviedo campus is one of the largest outside of the original Boys Town headquarters in Nebraska. Boys Town was founded more than a century ago by Father Edward Joseph Flanagan, who ministered to the homeless in Omaha. Father Flanagan was famously played by Spencer Tracy in the 1938 film Boys Town. He won an Oscar for the role and that Academy Award statue is kept in a museum at Boys Town headquarters.
Several years ago, Greg joined about 100 other people who attended a viewing of the movie in downtown Oviedo. “It was a fun night,” he says.
And true to the film’s themes, Boys Town in Oviedo continues to change lives for the better, one boy or girl at a time.
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