Sojourn from stress and strife
By EILEEN SCHULTE
CLEARWATER BEACH -- In 1996, Audrey Vaughn and her two young sons, Robert and Trevor, flew from Belfast to the Florida sunshine.
Also on the flight were Bridie McCool and her daughter, Carol.
All three children were sick. Robert, 10, and Trevor, 11, each had cystic fibrosis; Carol, 12, had a heart transplant.
The two families were embarking on a two-week vacation in Florida, but they did not know each other. The McCools were Catholic and the Vaughns were Protestant -- and all were from Northern Ireland.
The families were the first participants of the Florida Rainbow Co., a charity that brings two families, one Catholic and one Protestant, each with at least one sick child, to the United States for two weeks of fun and relaxation.
Within days of their arrival, the two families who talked about Mickey Mouse rather than politics were as one. And they have stayed that way: When Carol caught a virus and died nearly two years ago, it was not her mother but Audrey Vaughn who called Monsignor Michael Devine of St. Brendan's Catholic Church on Clearwater Beach to tell him the sad news.
Despite the loss, Devine and Betty Kennedy, co-creators of the Florida Rainbow Co., were elated they were able to transcend politics and bring the two families together.
"If you want to promote peace, you would be better targeting the entire family. Terrorism is generational. (We want) the mothers to go back and become friends," said Kennedy.
All the children involved in the program have life-threatening illnesses.
To raise money, the organization sells green socks two weeks before St. Patrick's Day.
This year, the group raised so much money that it is able to bring three families to Clearwater Beach for a weeklong stay at the Ebb Tide Hotel (the owners donated three units) and another week at Give Kids the World, a Disney World village for handicapped kids. The trip is expected to cost as much as $8,000.
The group of 11 parents and children will touch down in Sanford, north of Orlando.
The project is a joint effort of St. Brendan's and Chapel-by-the-Sea, a Protestant church on Clearwater Beach.
"We feel there is something special about Catholics and Protestants working together," said Rev. Herb Freitag, senior minister at Chapel-by-the-Sea. "And it gives (the families) an opportunity to get to know each other as people rather than as representatives of an enemy religion, so to speak."
The effort got a big boost thanks to a recent wedding.
St. Petersburg Times columnist Jan Glidewell married Kennedy, marketing director at Madison Glen assisted living facility, on March 1 at St. Brendan's. The couple turned their entire wedding into a fundraiser for the charity.
They sold green socks. They asked restaurants to donate food. And they decided to forgo wedding presents.
"I told the guests no gifts were required, but donations (to the charity) were appreciated," said Kennedy. "I invited 400. Two hundred came and almost everyone sent a check."
The money combined with donated tickets from local attractions will allow the families to have the time of their lives.
Not only will they spend time on the beach, but they will go to the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo, Universal Studios, the Magic Kingdom and Sea World, among other theme parks.
There is so much on the itinerary, Kennedy worries that the ill children will tire out.
"In all the years we've done this, these are the sickest children we've had," she said. Of the four sick children coming, three use wheelchairs. But Kennedy said the kids never feel sorry for themselves while here. For them, the vacation is a chance to give something back to their families, especially their tolerant brothers and sisters.
"These little guys are on a cloud because they are able to give their siblings this dream holiday because they are sick," Kennedy said. "The sick children consume the family. The well child can't possibly get that attention."
Audrey Vaughn wishes she were going on the trip this year. It's been raining in County Tyrone for weeks, she said, and she could use the break.
"It was really brilliant," she said by telephone. "It was just so nice to relax."
She said Robert, now 17, and Trevor, 16, are doing well. And they treasure their memories of their trip to Florida.
"My children . . . they had a life of fun," she said.
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