Story and photos by VANESSA MEUIR
The sounds and sights of construction work emanate from campus of Boys and Girls Town of Columbia. What used to be a small cluster of buildings is expanding to include additional space for residents to relax, heal and learn.
Children who live on the campus go to school, enjoy recreational time together, and engage in therapy sessions daily. Now, Boys and Girls Town is completing the final phase of an improvement project that will allow the children to have better options recreationally and socially.
“It’s important that we emphasize environment and making sure that these children have an opportunity to all interact with each other, outside of the 12 that they live with on a daily basis,” said Julie McBride, director of advancement. “This is therapeutic in a sense because they are learning how to eat in a cafeteria type setting, which is what they’ll do when they go to a mainstream school.”
What the agency does
The Boys and Girls Town was founded as a nonprofit agency in 1949 as a home that provided treatment for boys with behavioral disorders or problems with the law. Since then, the organization has grown to accept all children in need throughout communities in Missouri. The Columbia campus, located at 4304 S. Bearfield Rd., houses 50 young people, age 9 through 18, who stay in campus cottages and receive treatment.
“Basically we are helping the children here heal from difficult situations that they have been placed in, in the past,” McBride explained. “Some of them have been severely abused and neglected and are trying to recover and move past that.”
Many of the residents of Boys and Girls Town are referred from state agencies. Although there are other agencies that provide services to children in need, Boys and Girls Town is one of the few that provides assistance to children who need intensive programs and therapies due to how severely they have been emotionally and physically abused.
Life with the kids
For Mike Vestal, a Cottage Life Supervisor, working at Boys and Girls Town is rewarding, but full of challenges. Vestal has been a part of the program for five years and enjoys the time that he spends with the kids on a day-to-day basis.
“What’s most rewarding is working with the kids every day,” Vestal said. “They are at length stays from nine months to two years, so just hanging out with them and seeing them go through changes over months at a time is rewarding.”
Vestal is one of the few staff that has lasted five years in the program. Boys and Girls Town has a high staff turnover rate because of the intensity of the job. Staff sometimes endure getting spit on, kicked and hit.
“I got scratched today,” chuckled Vestal as he raised his arm to display two pink lines across his wrist. “I’ve got two fresh ones!”
Changes to the campus
The campus now has a multipurpose building that includes a cafeteria with an outdoor patio area, which will include barbecue pits for more social options. Perhaps the biggest visual change on the campus is the covered pavilion, which will have a full size basketball and volleyball court once it is finished.
“Right now, if there’s inclement weather, the kids have to stay in their cottage, and we don’t have any place for them to go,” McBride explained. “This will allow the kids to get out and release their energy and do team activities and play, and just be a normal kid.”
In addition to these changes, Boys and Girls Town will have a baseball field and walking trail, which will feature outdoor tables and benches to create family visiting areas.
“I’m most excited about the basketball courts,” Vestal said. “Now we are going to start an intramural league here on campus. I’m excited about it all because I’ve been here going on five years and we’ve never had anything like this.”
Boys and Girls Town is able to fund the campus improvement projects through the support of the Columbia community.
“We’ve been really fortunate here in Columbia and mid-Missouri, where individuals and organizations have stepped up and provided large amounts of gifts and funding for our capital campaign,” McBride said.
Making a difference
Because McBride works to keep the community aware of what Boys and Girls Town does, she has limited contact with the kids. However, this doesn’t keep her from feeling the gratification that comes from indirectly assisting the children.
“Just knowing that the funds I raise and the awareness that we are creating in our community are helping make a difference in the lives of these children and families is very gratifying,” McBride said. “It makes it easy to get out of bed and come to work each day.”
Vestal predicts that the improvements to Boys and Girls Town are far from over. The organization is looking to further expand their property, in the hopes of serving even more children.
“I think that the sky is the limit out here,” Vestal said. “I want the people of Columbia to know that we are doing treatment out here. We are treating kids to get better so that they can go back into the world and live a better life.”