Smart Investments: Keeping Kids and Communities Safe

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The following is excerpted from a statement by Aeryn Van Eck from Boys Town Las Vegas at a briefing of the U.S. Senate in fall 2015. 

Good afternoon! I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this important discussion and thank you to Senator Grassley and Senator Whitehouse for co-hosting this important event.

Lost, naive, and in search for comfort and friendships in the wrong places --this was me. I was living a struggle every day. School was no longer a priority, let alone a part of my life. My future was dimming day by day. The relationships with my family members were broken. At the age of 16, I was arrested and placed on probation for grand larceny in June 2012. I accepted responsibility for my involvement in the theft, but I continued to run away. At 17, I was referred to Boys Town by the Department of Juvenile Justice Services, because I violated my probation and was not attending school.

When I first arrived at Boys Town, it was the biggest challenge I had ever had to face. I faced cold hard truths, with the world and myself. At my intake meeting, I agreed that I wanted to make significant changes in my life; with the support of Boys Town, I was able to make those changes.

Everything was new. I had rules. I was in a new environment. I had peers going through just as stressful a situation as me. I began learning. Learning about respect, accountability, responsibility, and what it's like to be able to say "I look forward to the future." I was able to feel security and stability. My bad habits quickly died while my self-confidence and respect soared. The relationship with my family began to mend. I've become a better person.

Of course I have had my struggles including accepting the rules and having peers coming in and out and from different backgrounds. But, Boys Town introduced me to skills to help handle situations to the best of my ability. While in Boys Town, I've actually heard my family say they are proud of me with all of the changes and progress I've made. I've been able to give myself something to be proud of.

All of my untapped potential has finally been able to be put to use. Graduating high school seemed almost impossible after dropping out my sophomore year, with a deficit of nine credits when I arrived at Boys Town. I had a GPA of 1.74. My first summer at Boys Town, I took summer school classes. When my senior year started, not only was I taking a full schedule, but I was taking two online AIS classes at a time to make up credits. I was able to maintain a GPA of at least 3.6 the whole time. It was scary. During a few moments, I didn't believe I was going to make it to graduation. In May 2014, the day I received my cap and gown was the moment I realized it was really happening. My graduation day was one of the happiest days of my life.  

After graduation, I had completed all of my probation requirements and had the option to go home. I was 18 years-old and had been working with Boys Town's Aftercare Specialist on my post-high school plans. I enrolled in classes at Nevada State College; however, due to them not having dorms available, I was unsure of my living arrangements. Leaving Boys Town was a choice I would have taken in a heartbeat in the beginning. After a long discussion with my family, I took Boys Town's offer to stay for my first semester of college to make sure I got the support to handle the transition in to college life. It was a hard choice but it was one of the best I have made.

I finished my first semester of college at Nevada State and for once I see a light. I see a way out of the dysfunction I was born into. I cannot even begin to express the gratification that I possess for Boys Town. I found a job that I love, a family, and my first apartment to call my own. I think about where I would be today and what my life would be like. It's something I can't fathom. They are continuously helping me plan for the future. I know that, even after I left, I will always have the support and care from Boys Town. They've become my family.

I don't want to sound like an ad for Boys Town. These types of programs helped me and so many others turn our lives around. I'm not any different from other kids who find themselves in trouble with the law. The difference is that someone didn't just lock me up and throw away the key. Instead, I got help and support in my community and I was able to make changes for the long term. I think Congress should reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and fully fund the community-based, life-changing programs the Act supports. If you want to know what works, talking and listening to individual young people like me is the first step.

With help, I learned I deserve more than what I was giving myself. I feel I have a set of skills now that I can take with me as a young adult into the world and begin building a life of quality for myself. I will continue going to college and earn that degree. I even want to pursue higher education further. I want to be a role model for my little sisters, so they know they can do whatever they want, despite past generations. Boys Town was a challenge. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do. Sometimes the greatest things in life come from the hardest.

Boys Town was founded in 1917 in Nebraska by Father Edward Flanagan. He was a leader in the movement to reform how abandoned and wayward children were treated in America, advocating for homes and education instead of the orphanages and workhouses that were typical during that time. Although our name is “Boys Town,” we provide help, healing, and hope to both boys and girls and their families. Over the last 98 years, we have grown to directly serve almost half a million children per year in over 10 states and the District of Columbia. Our Integrated Continuum of Care® provides a range of evidence-informed services from prevention and intervention through aftercare and family reunification. Between our Common Sense Parenting® classes, parenting and® websites, National Crisis Hotline, National Research Hospital, Well-Managed Classrooms and Schools training, and a variety of Youth and Family Care Services, Boys Town touches the lives of over 2 million Americans each year.