THE TOWNS RUN BY CHILDREN
“L’autogoverno” (self-government) is the unique educational approach at the heart of A Chance In Life programs. The method is based on young people taking responsibility for the community in which they live. The approach was developed by our founder, Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing over 70 years ago at Boys’ Towns of Rome.
At the end of WWII there was a sharp increase in the number of homeless children living on the streets of Italy. It became obvious that humanitarian needs were not being met and the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of children was damaging the health of the entire society.
In 1945 Monsignor Carroll-Abbing created a specialized relief organization called “Opera per il Ragazzo della Strada” (Organization for the Street Boys), the first step in creating A Chance In Life. Many of the homeless children in Rome had become so accustomed to living on their own that they did not want to return to life controlled by authority figures. The challenges of keeping children in any kind of service organization inspired Monsignor to create new ways to relate to the young people.
During the early months of the organization, Monsignor came to rely on the willingness of the street boys to volunteer to run and organize the program that was designed to help them. This volunteering practice was first used in Civitavecchia and at the “Shoeshine Hotel” in Rome where children, mostly homeless shoe-shiners, could have supper, a bed, a shower and breakfast. The name “hotel” implies a choice, i.e., you come only if you want to. As Monsignor continued his work, more and more children started arriving and staying, contributing to the community in some way.
Monsignor did not want to have only one leader of what he called the “Town,” but wanted all of the children to participate equally according to their interests and capabilities. Monsignor had a deep and unwavering trust in the goodness of kids and believed that in every child there is something special that should be nurtured. This was the basis for the educational method of self-governance still used in the Towns today.
The Towns function as municipalities in which every child has a concrete responsibility in the community. The citizens, as the young people are called, participate actively in their community. Citizens take on daily jobs that contribute to the success of the Town. The main roles that citizens assume in the Towns include Mayor, Financer, Director of Recreation, Director of Health and Hygiene, Police Commissioner, Judge, Banker, Stenographer, Shopkeeper, Restaurant Manager, and Head Waiter. By meeting regularly, writing their own laws and electing their own leaders, the young people develop values of personal worth and mutual respect.
The pillars of self-government are respect, love, trust, liberty and responsibility. The young people are supported by the sincere love and trust of their elders who help them assume responsibility for running their own lives and community. What Monsignor saw is that when adults truly allow young people to take responsibility for their lives, with the freedom to plan, make decisions and experience the risk of making mistakes, they will develop self-confidence and grow into responsible citizens.
After the time spent in the Towns, children with no prior guidance find themselves with every opportunity imaginable. “It will not be easy to hoodwink these young citizens. They will not be easily misled by subtle propaganda or mere promises. They will be leaders, not sheep when they go out into the world.”
Building on the solid foundations of Monsignor’s work and the gifts of thousands of American donors, A Chance In Life has expanded its reach beyond Italy, to Ethiopia, India and Latin America. Through its unique approach to human development – self-government – the organization impacts the lives of 3,000 at-risk youth every year.