The Giving Tour, Day 1: Chicago to Minneapolis

By Alex Cohen

The night we arrived in Chicago I was a little nervous – what had I gotten us into?  I hardly slept and was tossing and turning all night worrying about all of the things that could go wrong on this journey.

I woke up at 1am on Monday morning and by 5am I was ready to get the show on the road.  There was no coffee to be had, so I was one cranky lady. We took pictures in front of the bus then headed to Marillac St. Vincent’s, brand new MAC air in hand as a gift for one of the featured students.

We arrived to have Maureen Hallagan, Marillac St. Vincent’s Executive Director waiting for us, she could not believe how big the bus was – the look on her face was worth a thousand words. Who were these people who had traveled so far and what exactly were they looking to find?  We marched off the bus and exchanged handshakes with the staff.

The minute we walked into the school we were knew why we were there. Marillac St. Vincent was the most colorful and happy place we have ever seen, everyone who greeted us was amazingly nice and happy.  The women who run it are sisters, and, as they were fast to explain, not the nun type – real sisters.  Maureen and Deanna Hallagan are the backbone of this place, the surrogates, friends, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and cousins of all who entered, whatever they needed them to be.  One thing was immediately clear, they love and support each and every child that walks through those doors, and those kids return the favor.

For the first hour of our visit, we sat with a group of roughly 9 young adults who had been in the program since they were 4 or 5 years old. Some were still in college, and some had graduated and were back to work for the Hope youth Program at Marillac – the very program that raised them. They were counselors to the younger kids, they inspired and supported them to follow their dreams.  They were living proof of what was possible and they shared that experience with the younger kids.

Their stories were hard to hear – some were extremely sad – but in the end they were all stories of survival, courage and perseverance.  I was inspired that after all they had been through – gang violence, the death of family members, economic hardship and other unthinkable tragedies, after all they had suffered, they flourished and succeeded only to come back to pay it forward to the place that made it all possible.  The love and respect the young men and women from Marillac had for Deanna was so heartwarming, they were there to show them how much what they did for them meant.  I was so happy to be there and witness what this great place does for those hit the hardest in the worst-off areas of Chicago.  God bless those two sisters – may they continue to change lives and show kids that there is always a better way.

We got back on the bus and departed Chicago full of hope and inspiration for a seven-hour trip to Minnesota. After just four hours we stopped for lunch at great diner in Madison, Wisconsin that Jake had found.  Not only was the food terrific, but the people we met there could not have been nicer. Everyone there seemed less stressed, they seemed happy.

After four more hours on the road we finally arrived at the Frederick R Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, which was designed by the famous Frank Gehry.  After the initial awe of its striking beauty we ventured inside to take a quick tour.  The Museum is closed on Mondays but Weisman Art Director, Lyndel King was happy to open it for us and take us on a tour of their incredible collection. After the tour, the museum team took the time to tell us about all of the programs the museums offers, serving everyone from students of the university, local school-aged children in the community, the elderly, and the less fortunate. They also train teachers so they can share that knowledge with their children and make sure art continues to be a part of their curriculum.  The current exhibit on clouds is a hands-on exhibit; we played with all the bells and whistles then sat in a room with a huge screen of just clouds passing….very peaceful.  If you ever have a chance to visit the Wesiman Art Museum, it is worth it!

We were whisked out of there to check out the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. We were immediately struck by the building’s colorful glass façade; from the moment we pulled in, it was going to be a special place.  Just outside of the entrance, a very big stuffed Giraffe animal sat in the corner of the extra-large automatic revolving door, going round and round as people came and went…

The lobby was bright and colorful and featured a beautiful compass sitting in the middle of the floor. The hospital staff explained the compass’ significance, telling us how they are often referred to as “the Gateway to Discovery.” They have been responsible for many “firsts”; a doctor in their hospital performed the first open heart surgery on a child, another discovered the cure for a terrible skin disease called epidermolysis bullosa. People come from all over the world to have this treatment, saving their children from a fatal illness that takes the lives of children at a young age.

Dr. Daniel Saltzman was incredible; he was kind of a superstar to the hospital but you would never guess from this humble man.  The staff could not have been more welcoming, they took us on a tour, and what at place this is, I had never been more impressed with a Children’s hospital.  The design of the entire building was collaboration between doctors, nurses, parents of patients, siblings, and patient’s themselves – everything worked together and made perfect sense. The staff at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital treat everyone who comes to their hospital and never turn anyone away; this is a very special place for their patients, and all of their family- very thoughtful and respectful to all.

We left the hospital and headed off to dinner – after a 12-hour day, pizza and steak was on our mind.  Still wearing the same clothes we ventured out in, we were exhausted – physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s a lot to take in on one day.  While we sat at dinner all we could talk about was how HAPPY we were that we did this and how we were even more inspired than we imagined we could be….I thanked my team and my son for taking this journey with me, it’s not the most comfortable of lodgings but days like these make up for that, nothing worth having is easy!

Day two, long night sleeping on the bus but we all survived and woke up a little slower than usual but happy we made it the first night without any issues.  I woke up early and sat with the driver and just took in the sights, this is a HUGE country and there is so much to see.  We passed just land for a while, then some cow farms and every now and then a house… The rain started but I didn’t mind, every city’s temperature has been so different; we went from 75 to 35 overnight….