Christmas is a special time for most of us. Those of us working and studying abroad, and those of us who’ve moved out of our parents’ houses return to the place we grew up in to spend the holidays with loved ones. The season isn’t just a time for reunions; it’s also a time for homecomings.
Our houses are dressed with seasonal decorations and are filled with the smell of home-cooked food. There are wreaths on the doors and presents under the tree, roasted meats on the dinner table, and maybe even a pie or two for dessert, baking in the oven. Though traditions may differ from home to home, one thing remains constant: sharing and experiencing these traditions with family.
But not everyone gets to be in the warm company of their own family during Christmas time—certainly not all the boys who reside in Boys’ Town.
While most of the boys return home for the holidays, every year, without fail, there are about ten to fifteen who remain. Problematic familial situations prevent them from truly having the year-end break most of us experience.
Year after year, come November, the compound empties out, leaving the boys’ dormitories predominantly vacant. Belongings that are left behind are neatly stacked away into the corners and cupboards of the rooms. The campus is so quiet that when walking through, one can only hear the rustling of the leaves on the trees surrounding the campus in Upper Bukit Timah. The mainly unoccupied grounds definitely amplify the sympathy one feels about the situation some of these boys are in.
Festivities are in order
Life in Boys’ Town may come off as fairly regimented to some. The doors of each room list the roles each boy holds, like Dorm IC or Toilet IC. They have daily morning “Dorm Inspections” and at night, after “Lights Out,” no technology is allowed—similar to National Service.
However, even though regimentation seems to almost define the boys’ lives, one can see why discipline is such an important tenet for the Boys’ Town institution. The fairly structured life lends itself to instilling in the boys the important values of accountability, diligence and teamwork—values that are not only representative of the home’s Catholic history and foundations, but also that of a well-grounded, righteous individual.
Admittedly, daily life for the boys does seem to be a mundane, slightly restricting one. Looking at the dormitories and hearing about regulated routines, one’s brain might conjure up horrific images of bleary-eyed boys climbing out of bed at the break of Christmas dawn, to clean their rooms as a Duty Officer berates them with orders and insults.
It’s hard to imagine how that life could be enjoyable; it can be difficult to understand how the boys could be happy living such a structured life, in such a structured environment.
The true picture, however, is quite different.
During the year-end holidays, the Boys’ Town staff members plan a variety of activities for the boys to take part in. They do anything from taking them outdoors to hike up Bukit Timah Hill to something as simple as going out to makan. The programme members and supervisors (the division in charge of coming up with activity ideas) try their best to keep these boys occupied and in good spirits. During this year-end break, they will be taking a trip to Universal Studios.
One of their mid-day activities this holiday includes sending out Christmas cards. Sitting in small circles around the room, the boys systematically fold Christmas cards and insert them into envelopes. These cards, bearing well-wishes for the festive season, are meant for the people and organisations that frequently donate money to the institution. It is not quite the factory-style affair it might sound like. Rather, it is a fairly jovial activity. Some of the boys laugh and joke as they fold the cards and others run around, playing with each other. Staff members sit amongst them, talking with them, helping them out. The room is lively, and there isn’t an ounce of sadness or loneliness to be felt.
Boys’ Town isn’t what we all might think it is. It isn’t gloomy, it isn’t grim and it isn’t a harsh, military-like institution. What it is, is a haven. It’s a place for boys to go to, to get away from their troubles; a place to learn and to grow in an environment that doesn’t stifle but instead, encourages and facilitates.
A Conversation With L, A Boy At The Town
L (not his real name, but a nod to his favourite character in the Japanese anime, Death Note) is one of the boys who has spent the last few year-end holidays and Christmases in Boys’ Town. He stays because his family situation is not good and so, he rarely gets the chance to go home.
14-year-old L’s interests are varied and diverse. He plays the guitar and drums. He reads anything under the sun, from science books to fiction and he actively trains for and takes part in triathlons. He likes being by himself because he much prefers a quiet environment. He’s a pretty chill boy through and through and he’s just like any of us were when we were that age.
If you were to speak to L, laughing along with him as you both crack jokes, you’d forget that while you’ll be returning home to family at the end of the day, he’ll be staying on at the Boys’ Town dormitory, away from his. You’d forget that he won’t be celebrating Christmas in his own home.
But his nonchalance and easygoing personality masks these seemingly unfortunate circumstances. He doesn’t seem to mind that he’s not going back for Christmas and the holidays, and he doesn’t seem to mind that his family situation is complicated.
This quiet acceptance and contentment is not only present in L but can be felt throughout the premise of the Town. What makes the atmosphere in this place so uplifting is the constant attention and support the staff provides to its young residents.
The boys here have learnt something very valuable: that the bad things in their lives don’t have to define them. They may not be able to explicitly spell that out for you if you asked them, but you can tell that they have a positive outlook from the way they live their lives. They take each day as it comes, and enjoy each moment that unfolds before them.
Boys’ Town does more than shelter troubled boys. They aim to give the boys a home—a place to belong. They show them that there’s more to life than a rough upbringing. Like L, who dreams of competing in overseas triathlon competitions and of one day becoming an Aerospace Engineer, these boys are taught and shown that their experiences, their memories, their disposition and their character come from within and don’t necessarily have to be shaped by the homes they come from.
A Merry Christmas At Boys’ Town
This goal of Boys’ Town carries into Christmas, and the staff of Boys’ Town intend not to glorify and oversell Christmas, but to simply commemorate the meaning of the holiday. On Christmas day, they cater meals for the boys, organize games and performances and even have a gift-giving session.
Christmas in Boys’ Town is a simple affair. According to L, the boys wake up at their regular “holiday time” of 8.30am, do their daily morning chores and take part in the few activities organized by staff members. But there’s nothing wrong with simple. In fact, life in Boys’ Town seems very simple, and yet this produces joyful, happy boys—all with concrete and impressive aspirations and dreams.
Christmas to them seems like any other day; there are no expectations. But that also means that they remain content, satisfied and happy throughout the holiday season because they don’t get disappointed.
After seeing how the boys in Boys’ Town live, you realise something very important: the simpler things are, the easier it is to pay attention to the important details, because those details don’t get lost. In Boys’ Town, the simplicity of Christmas and the simplicity of daily living, for that matter, ensure that these important details never get lost.
The boys know that during Christmas, they must be kind, they must be compassionate and they must be generous to one another. And beyond Christmas, the boys know that even though they might not be able to change where they come from, they are free to decide how big a role it plays in shaping their mindset, and more importantly, their character.
Special thanks to David Lim (Head of Residential Services) and Andrew Ee (Assistant Manager of Community Partnerships) at Boys’ Town for their hospitality and help, and also to L, for sharing his story.