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A Man to Lean On
Leigh Montville
December 21, 1992
Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town
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December 21, 1992

A Man To Lean On

Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town

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"You try to create an environment for these kids," he says. "That's so hard these days. It's so different. When I grew up, there were always people around. If it wasn't your mom, it was your dad, and if they both were gone, it was your Aunt Polly. Well, that's over. Mom is gone during the day and Dad is gone and Aunt Polly's never around. Kids come home and turn on the television, and they can see anything they want. There's no one there to turn it off. Latchkey kids. They can do anything they want. They are going out the door and being exposed to things I wasn't exposed to until I was in my mid-20's—things that maybe I never was exposed to. Where does it stop?"

He says that the kids in his care always have choices to make. Burton simply gives guidance in those choices. Some of the kids still might make the wrong choices, but at least that's not because they did not know the options. He is around. He describes the options, tries to sell them.

"What we've tried to do is offer an opportunity to change behavior," Burton says. "Mom always was around for Beaver and Wally. Mom always is around here. Kids can choose something else, but at least they have seen this. In my time here, most of the kids I've had have made the right choices."

The news is that Burton is leaving Boys Town. He and Ida have been selected to head a new satellite facility in Long Beach, Calif. This is part of Boys Town's future. It does not mean Lawrence will stop working with kids. He probably will work with even more of them. Boys Town plans to have established satellites in 17 major metropolitan areas by the end of 1995. The satellites, under the name Boys Town USA, are intended to deal with kids on a residential or short-term residential basis, depending on the facility. In Long Beach and the other short-term residential satellites, there will be room for kids to stay for a maximum of 30 days. The long-term solutions will come through working with the kids' families, bringing the lessons of Omaha into their homes. Already there are short-term residential facilities in Brooklyn, San Antonio, New Orleans, Orlando, Fla., and Grand Island, Neb. Long Beach will be another place to spread the message.

The Burton home in Omaha has become the Key home, where Rob and Gail Key make the rounds after dinner, talking about the vagaries of the day. Lawrence and Ida have been house-hunting in Long Beach but will stay at Boys Town for Christmas, in a guest cottage on South Lake. They will be in Long Beach by the end of December.

"It's funny," Lawrence says. "I'd been worrying a lot about the disruption in the kids' lives at the house, but there seems to be more disruption in mine. Whew! I really will miss those kids."

His time as a family teacher was one of the longest in Boys Town history. The job has a high burnout rate. The average family-teacher couple stays for two to five years and then moves along. Lawrence and Ida never felt an urge to move. The same fire that made Lawrence leave the practice field in San Diego is with him now. What can he do to help these kids? If anything, the fire is greater. He knows better how to help.

"I think there was a sign from the Lord about a year ago," Burton says. "He sent us a kid from Los Angeles—a kid who had been associated with a gang. We'd never had one of those, at least not from Los Angeles. His father just put him on a bus and sent him here. You know what we found? He was a kid like any other kid. There are no bad boys. It's environment. This gave Ida and me confidence when this chance in Long Beach arrived. Because these are the kinds of kids we're going to be helping."

Two of his own kids—B.J., now married, and Shanaeya, just accepted to med school—will stay in Nebraska. Lawrence and Ida will take 13-year-old Christie with them. They have a sense of renewed adventure. Everything is new. When she shops for her family, Ida is amazed that food actually comes in packages smaller than colossal or super-giant. Peanut butter. Did you know that peanut butter is sold in jars smaller than a galvanized drum? Lawrence is making plans to hire people for the new facility in Long Beach, seeking people who speak Vietnamese and Khmer and Spanish and the other languages of his new neighborhood.

There has been a round of farewells in Omaha, and no doubt there will be more. Christmas is a tough time around Boys Town, "the worst day of the year," according to Father Peter. Many kids return home for the holidays. A few stay on the grounds. All of the earlier emotions, the troubled feelings and situations, can return in a flash, everyone's stomach churning. Burton will be around to help over Christmas because help is his business, the business he has worked at for 13 years.

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