If you build it, they will come

When Claretian Father Bruce Wellems first moved to his inner city Chicago parish, he admits he wasn’t entirely comfortable. “The place is riddled with gang territories, drugs, and violence,” he says. “And these guys can look intimidating.” But Father Bruce began to break down barriers, and his own fears, by inviting the kids to play basketball, to start up a marimba band at church, to explore nature and the world outside the neighborhood.

“Soon enough, we began to find our way into each others’ hearts,” he says. Today the Claretians, in partnership with area community groups, sponsor an accredited alternative school, after-school programs, community centers, and of course, all of the outreach programs of the parish itself.

One significant way Father Bruce helps troubled kids is by sending them, on scholarships, out of the neighborhood to the famous Father Flanagan’s Boys (and now Girls) Town in Nebraska. The program has been so successful in changing the lives of kids who go that Father Bruce has embarked on building a Boys & Girls Town home right next door to his parish in Chicago.

“It will be one of 19 Boys and Girls Town ‘branches’ across the country,” Father Bruce says. He has reached out across the city to garner financial support for the three-and-a-half story house, which will be a place to call home for young people who come from circumstances of poverty, violence, drugs, and crime. He has rallied the support of the city’s highest ranking officials, including Mayor Daley, as well as local corporate leaders. “Yet we’re in serious need of gifts to make this home a reality,” he says.

Father Bruce carries on Father Flanagan’s gift of hope for boys like Juan Pablo, who before knowing Father Bruce, was in trouble with abuse, gangs and violence. Today Juan Pablo is in high school at Boys & Girls Town on scholarship in Omaha, where he’s traded in running the streets for running track. “The home right here in Chicago will give new hope to many children who want to escape from circumstances that prevent them from making healthy choices,” says Father Bruce. “The Juvenile Court judge, Probation officers, and the police commander of the 9th district believe the home will help reduce crime and create a safer neighborhood.” Before Father Flanagan ever built Boys Town in the 1920s, he made a home in his heart for kids in poverty by inviting them to play baseball in an abandoned lot. Father Bruce is a modern-day Father Flanagan, living and working among his neighborhood’s poor, who always find a home in the hearts of the Claretians.

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