The large sign at O’Hare International Airport is a bully – towering in front of the terminal and announcing your travel destiny in high definition.
Throughout the day, stressed travelers cautiously approach screens, hoping for good news in the form of the coveted phrase “ON TIME.”
Those less fortunate receive a message processed in yellow which represents a disrupted trip, either a flight delay or, worse, a cancellation.
Reading such a note is daunting for everyone, but it’s different when you have 120 eighth graders in your care – just ask Glencoe parents Annice Moses and Tina Balderas.
Moses and Balderas were chaperones for students at Glencoe Junior High who were heading for an educational trip to Washington, DC, in February – a three-year trip that was saved by reliable parents, patient teenagers and a tenacious employee of the airline company.
The eighth grade field trip had an inauspicious start.
The travelers were due to meet at Glencoe Junior High before their flight on February 17, but were unable to enter the school. Although the issue was quickly resolved, it was a sign of things to come.
With about 120 people set to depart on two flights to Washington, DC, the group gathered in the school auditorium with snow and high winds picking up outside.
“The weather was pretty crazy, but we hadn’t received any information from the airport that the flights had been cancelled,” Moses said. “There was a sense of optimism against Mother Nature.”
That feeling quickly evaporated upon arrival at O’Hare.
The high council broke the news: Vol 1 cancelled. Flight 2 delayed.
Balderas started making calls. The trip’s travel group wasn’t much help, she said, and she started playing phone games with a number of American Airlines agents.
Eventually, a plan emerged involving a new robbery; however, the airline needed to mobilize a crew. About seven hours later, students and chaperones were still stationed in the terminal.
“It got to a point where I said, ‘You have to let us know if there’s a chance. Otherwise, we have to bring the buses back here and bring the children home,” Balderas said.
The airline reportedly told Balderas to take the group home, but she would have to keep an eye on her phone; they were still trying to charter a flight.
“I thought ‘yes, right. It will never happen,” she said, but she also told the students not to unpack – just in case.
While the first group stood in O’Hare, the second flew high through Appalachia.
Group 2 weathered a flight delay and left Chicago around 11 p.m. arriving at their hotel in Washington, D.C. around 3 a.m. on Friday, February 18.
The next morning, the DC students began ticking off their route – Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Wall. Meanwhile, Moses was on the offensive, doing what she could to help Balderas and the second group back in Chicago find and board a new flight to the nation’s capital. She said all she saw of the International Spy Museum was its bathroom.
Amidst the chaos, the collective understanding and honest behavior of the students was essential.
“I honestly think because they saw that all the adults were completely determined and it was just a matter of when (their classmates would arrive), not a matter of if,” Balderas said.
Back in Chicago, Balderas’ phone rang at 7 a.m. It was Anita Pearson from American Airlines.
Pearson helped combine the Glencoe group with a group of students from Oak Park, who also lost a flight, to justify a charter flight this afternoon.
But they should take more buses – and hurry.
“Every child was back in school at 10 a.m.,” Balderas said. “It was amazing.”
Pearson worked the night shift but stayed in the mornings to help Balderas’ group, even giving Balderas his cell phone number. She also helped keep the flight going until 1:30 p.m.
Balderas and Moses gave Pearson credit for doing the whole trip.
“I said thank you very much,” Balderas said of her conversation with Pearson, “and she said, ‘I’m relentless, those kids haven’t done anything for two years. They really need to go. … We want to get them out.
“At first, no one was going to help us out.”
The DC-bound plane took off around 1:30 p.m. and the student groups joined forces around dinnertime.
Balderas’ group met Moses’s in a small Mexican restaurant who never knew what hit him.
“It was like the president had arrived,” Moses said of the celebration. “The children went crazy seeing their friends. I lost it. I was crying. … Fortunately, Tina met Anita. She really saved the day. It was something.
The two groups embarked on DC adventures together for the rest of the trip, which lasted until Sunday evening, February 20.
The return flights were relatively uneventful, and Moses and Balderas said that despite the emotional and tense scenario, and thanks to the heroism of Anita Pearson, the Glencoe students enjoyed a trip they will never forget. never.
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