Don't expect to see drab green classrooms, beige bedrooms and a postage-stamp playground at the new Residential Treatment Center on the campus of the Boys Town National Research Hospital West.
The center for youths with serious mental health problems, which opens with a ceremony today, was designed to be like home, with bright blue desks for students, warm blue couches and soothing artwork in living rooms, colorful blankets on beds and a large outdoor play area with a park.
There's even a full-size gym accented in Boys Town's signature blue.
The center — near 140th and Pacific Streets, next to Father Flanagan's Boys Home — is Boys Town's second residential treatment facility. Both centers treat children who have major psychiatric problems and cannot live at home.
Construction on the west Omaha treatment center began in spring 2012. The total construction cost was $10.5 million, funded by local community members and businesses. Kiewit Construction Co. built the center and architects from the Leo A. Daly Co. designed it.
The Rev. Steven Boes, Boys Town executive director, told people attending today’s dedication ceremony that the new building will allow the home to serve more troubled youths.
“This represents the kind of help that Father Flanagan wished he could give in his day,” Boes said.
Boys Town graduate Karly Harrison, 21, said that help made all the difference for her. She came to the downtown treatment center from California as “a very troubled teen” at age 16. She now is a senior at Creighton University and hopes to attend law school.
“It’s a wonderful addition to the community,” she said of the new building. “It will help more youths have more positive outcomes like me.”
The homelike atmosphere will make residents feel more safe and secure, said Dr. Doug Spellman, medical director of Boys Town Behavioral Health Services, which operates the new facility and the original treatment center that opened in 1996 at the Boys Town Hospital in midtown.
“We're really excited about the colors,” Spellman said. “I think kids will take better care of the place when they feel comfortable.”
The west treatment center, with 34 beds, will meet a longtime need, said Spellman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He said there are 20 children on a Boys Town waiting list.
The metro Omaha area has about 120 beds for children who need live-in treatment for severe behavioral problems. Alegent Creighton Health has a facility at Immanuel Medical Center, and Children's Square USA in Council Bluffs treats youths from western Iowa.
The new Boys Town center has 32,000 square feet, with living quarters, dining rooms, a kitchen, therapy rooms, a place where kids can be in confinement, private areas for family meetings, and school classrooms for 10 to 12 students each. Two residents share each bedroom.
The center also has two colorful rooms with televisions, air hockey and foosball tables and video games. Residents can earn the right to use those rooms each day.
Unlike Boys Town's family teaching homes and other group homes, residential treatment center programs are medically directed and are aimed at children who can't live in any type of family situation, whether that's with relatives or foster parents.
“We're talking about a niche of the most difficult, the most aggressive and the most at-risk kids for self-harm or risk to others,” Spellman said.
The vast majority are either victims of physical or sexual abuse, or saw someone else abused, he said. They may have a variety of mental problems, including depression, ADHD, hyperactivity, impulse control disorder or a number of other illnesses.
In treatment, the kids learn structure, self-control and how to express anger appropriately, with the goal that they will return to a lower level of care as soon as possible, either to a Boys Town family home or, ideally, back with a parent or parents, said John Arch, Boys Town executive vice president of health care and director of the Boys Town Hospital. The average stay for adolescents is 120 days, though younger children often need a little more time.
Arch and Spellman both said a key element of treatment is recreation and exercise, so they're excited about those opportunities at the new center.
“The playground is wonderful. Lots of our kids haven't been physically active. They need to lose weight. We emphasize that strongly,” Spellman said.
The playground is fenced, and the kids are constantly supervised at play. The center also is secure 24 hours a day and has 24-hour nurse staffing.
Though officials considered closing the midtown residential treatment center, Spellman said, they decided the need was great enough to operate two. They will move some residents from midtown and keep some there, and then will add to each facility as they take on new kids. Both centers will offer the same services.