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Youth service trip stranded by blizzard

Chicago Unitarian Universalists come to aid of Mass. teens returning from service project.
By Jane Greer
3.23.07

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It could have been a youth group leader’s worst nightmare: stranded with 49 kids at a blizzard-stricken airport for three days without luggage. But for Beverly Gillette, director of high school youth programs at the First Church in Belmont, Mass., getting stranded at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on February 24 had a happy ending. After completing a week of community service in San Antonio, Tex., the Unitarian Universalist youth group got to experience what it was like being on the receiving end when members of the Countryside Church in Palatine, Ill., came to their rescue.

The Belmont youth group was returning home after spending a week in San Antonio working on such projects as a soup kitchen, food pantry, and the construction of accessibilities ramps, when they headed straight into a blizzard. “I was aware even before we left Belmont that the long-range forecast for the Chicago area was predicting a minor storm around the time of our return,” wrote Ben Bauer, one of the group’s ten chaperones, in a description of the trip. “This was where the delay would come, I thought. But it would be a minor delay. After all, Chicago knows how to deal with weather, right?” But Bauer and the others had not anticipated a storm that would paralyze much of the Midwest.

Eight youth and one adult chaperone flew through Detroit and arrived in Boston after a delay of only a few hours. But the rest of the group found itself stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare airport on a Saturday night with just the clothes on their backs. “When we left San Antonio, some of these kids had on shorts and flip flops,” said Gillette.

Once she had accepted that the situation was indeed real, Gillette, who has been employed as First Church’s fulltime director of high school youth programs since 2001, jumped into action. “We organized all the chaperones to take on different jobs,” she said. “One person dealt with getting prescription medication, two people went to stand on the customer service line, one person was in charge of transportation, and another did the hotel piece.” Meanwhile, a parent in Massachusetts was able to book a return flight for the group on Tuesday morning.

The group found a Holiday Inn Express in Palatine, about 35 miles from the airport, which could accommodate them. They then chartered a bus to drive them to the hotel, stopping on the way at an all-night drugstore to pick up toiletries and supplies. Once they arrived, Bauer discovered via his wife in Massachusetts that the Unitarian Universalist Countryside Church in Palatine was only two miles away. Early Sunday morning he started making his way through the church’s automated phone system leaving messages for all the church staff. “I hoped (or did I pray?) that someone on staff would check messages before leaving for the day,” he wrote.

Luck was with them. Colleen Vahey, the congregation’s religious education director, was just about to leave the church following the Sunday morning service when she decided to check her messages. “Our social action committee was meeting for the first time with our new interim minister,” she said. “Our children’s religious education committee co-chair, Laurie Schmidt, who is also on the social action committee, stopped by my office. When she heard what was happening, she stopped other members from the committee and they waited to hear what was needed.”

Schmidt and Nancy Cowger, also a member of the social action committee, dispatched themselves to the hotel offering their assistance. “Mostly, I served as a chauffeur,” Cowger said, picking up groceries, underwear from Target, prescription medication, and driving a delegation from the hotel over to the Palatine church. The church’s Social Action Committee also arranged a catered meal for the group Sunday evening.

“This may seem like simple assistance, but it was so critical to our stay,” Gillette said.

Bauer, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and one of the Belmont chaperones, recalled the joy he felt upon seeing Cowger and Schmidt in the hotel lobby. “This was a wonderful moment for me,” he wrote. “Not merely because we now had local contacts to aid us in the challenges that would continue to pop up during our snow delay over the next two days, but that we had ‘in-house’ help—help from Unitarian Universalists!”

The youth, ranging in age from 15 to 18, were able to keep their energy in check by using the hotel’s swimming pool and gym. “On Sunday we had an Oscar party—toga style,” wrote Sarah Fennel, 15, in an email. “We all migrated up to the third floor, where there were easily 20 kids in a room watching the Oscars.” Various chaperones and youth also organized mini-courses on subjects such as career paths, yoga, and dance.

The group's community service project in San Antonio was coordinated by the volunteer agency Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection, which places social service volunteers in six American cities for periods of time ranging from a weekend to a year. First Church in Belmont sponsors a community service trip for teenagers every other year, for which the youth raise money through events such as an intergenerational dance and an annual haunted house at Halloween.


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