We see it every day in the news – another tragedy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Drug deals, gang violence, murder. The children who visit The Salvation Army’s Adele and Robert Stern Red Shield Center live this reality every day.
“I’m scared when I go to school sometimes,” said Desire Brown, 15. Jatavia Forney, 16, agreed. “There’s shootings and people get hurt. The shooters just don’t care.”
But Brown, Forney and almost a hundred other youngsters attend the Red Shield Center’s weekly mentoring program – Celebrate Launch and Landing – every Wednesday. The program combines group support, one-on-one mentoring, music, guest speakers and worship to address issues of poverty, hunger, violence, lack of education, peer pressure, homelessness and more. Guest speakers include police officers, athletes, musicians, health and hygiene experts, community organizers and others.
This year, the teens were challenged to make a commitment to excellence and keep it. They were to attend school regularly, complete assignments and maintain good grades. They also needed to avoid discipline issues, attend Celebrate Launch and Landing and contribute to the community. Those teens who were able to do this were entered for a chance to win a trip to Disney World.
“This was such a blessing for them and for us,” said Theo Coleman, Red Shield Center chaplain and mentor. “These kids have never been to Disney. Many may never have the opportunity to go back again.”
In fact, none of the teens had ever been on an airplane before – they overcame their fears, reveled at their ears popping and are dealing with the inevitable colds they came home with. But for some, it was worth it because of the experience. “I loved flying,” said Forney. “I could sit on top of the clouds forever.”
After a two-hour plane ride and a bus ride to their hotel, the teens had finally arrived at Disney World. And it was glorious. They stayed at the Animal Kingdom and were surrounded by animals. It was like a safari. In the boys’ room, there was even an unexpected guest. “We were packing up to leave, and I saw this thing run across the floor,” said Coleman. “It was a gecko. He had gotten under the door to the balcony.”
They saw giraffes, flamingoes and even an okapi – a cross between a giraffe and a zebra. “That was my favorite animal,” said Sterling Robinson, 14.
The group packed all the parks into a two-day trip and the consensus seems to be that Hollywood Studios was the best park, with the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror taking home best ride. “I thought I was going to scream on Tower of Terror, but I didn’t because the boys were all screaming so loudly,” said Tamara Forney, 14. “I did have tears in my eyes, but I had so much fun!”
NBC5 Chicago did a story prior to the group leaving on their trip with a request for donations to help the teens raise money to purchase souvenirs and gifts for the teens and their families. Donors were so generous that the teens were able to purchase several items while at Disney World to bring home with them. “We are so grateful,” said Brown. “It is a true blessing for people to give out of their pockets for us.”
Thank you to Under Armour who provided the duffel bags the teens used to travel and to donors who gave so generously so the teens may have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.