It’s the first Christmas season for Mike Boehm as executive director of Watson Children’s Shelter.

Sunday was an annual holiday tradition at Watson, which provides housing for children in abuse, neglect or family crisis situations. At its Buckhouse Lane building, one of two the organization operates, all of the children were taken out for a day of fun so the nonprofit could open its doors to community members to take a tour of the house.

Children and staff had spent the past month decorating the house for the holidays, from putting ornaments on the tree and hanging them from the ceiling in the lobby, hallways and dining room to making stockings for each of the children.

“Because the kids are here all the time, the public doesn’t get a chance to see how they live and just what it is that we do,” Boehm said.

Making the environment as much like a normal home as they can is especially important to the staff members at Watson. Every Christmas, the children make lists of presents they want, and the organization works with individuals and companies in the community to fulfill those wishes.

Sunday at the shelter, Boehm led tours for visitors, many of whom had brought gifts for the children. He walked them through the hallways leading to the private bedrooms each of the kids lives in while they are staying at Watson, as well as the play room, art room and pantry space in the home’s basement.

Through donations, the organization is able to make sure all of the children that come to stay with them, however long, have adequate clothing and other essential needs taken care of. On arrival, each child also gets to pick out a blanket made specifically for the children at Watson by a local quilting group.

“They might be coming in in the middle of the night with only what they are wearing,” Boehm said.

Watson Children’s Shelter operates two homes in Missoula, with an overall capacity of housing 24 children up to 14 years old at a time. Boehm said they have been at capacity for the last two years, serving 122 different children last year alone. While an average stay at the home is about two months, Boehm said some are only with them for a week and others can be there for nine months.

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Boehm started at Watson Children’s Shelter at the end of April. He was hired after longtime executive director Fran Albrecht took a position leading the Providence Montana Health Foundation in January after 17 years at Watson.

He came to Missoula from La Crosse, Wisconsin, where he had served as the head of the much larger nonprofit Family and Children’s Center.

“We had residential programs like this one, but it would have been one of 43 programs there,” Boehm said.

After 21 years working with the Family and Children’s Center, Boehm said he was ready for a change of pace.

“I was looking for an opportunity to scale down my work life,” Boehm said. “I was used to working 10-hour days, every day.”

A job search brought Watson to his attention. Boehm said both he and his wife had been looking to relocate to the Northwest, and he had a relative living in Missoula who said he would love it here.

“I’ve been in hundreds of residential facilities around the country. This is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I took the job – the quality of care.”

Boehm said he has no intention of fiddling with all of the things Watson Children’s Shelter is doing right, but still has new ideas for what direction he wants to see the organization head in. Primary among them is becoming more proactive and involved in prevention and intervention efforts focusing on the reasons children end up at Watson to begin with.

“It’s looking at the risk factors for families in abuse and neglect situations,” he said. “I firmly believe the last place kids should be is out of home care. As long as the environment is safe, they should be at home.”

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