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Navy recruits spend Christmas with ‘people who really care’

Gurnee-12/25/12 Tues./Immanuel Church
Members Immanuel Church watch Navy members play Hedbanz during their holiday visit Immanuel Church Gurnee Chirstmas Day.
| Joe

Gurnee-12/25/12, Tues./Immanuel Church Members of Immanuel Church watch Navy members play Hedbanz during their holiday visit to Immanuel Church in Gurnee Chirstmas Day. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 27, 2013 6:20AM

This was Anthony Ward’s first Christmas away from home. Ward, 18, is from Florida and is about one week away from completing basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes. Rather than sit at the Navy base on Christmas Day, Ward caught a 7:30 a.m. bus to Immanuel Church in Gurnee to spend the day.

Ward was among 43 sailors to celebrate Christmas Day at the church. Local school districts donated buses to transport the sailors.

“It’s nice just getting to call home. We only had one call since being away from home,” said Ward.

This was the first year Immanuel Church has hosted sailors for Christmas Day. Several church members mobilized over the past two months to organize the event. Cellphones and laptops were donated for sailors to use during the event. There were movies, board and video games and a lot of food, according to Michelle Bychowski of Beach Park.

Bychowski and her husband John are fairly new to Immanuel Church. When they heard about the church’s program “Immanuel Church Unleashed,” they decided to suggest the church host sailors. The program encourages church members to suggest ministries and services to bring to the community, according to church elder Ben Ondo of Zion.

“There’s people excited by this choice. A lot of times this happens with one person with an idea that catches on,” said Ondo.

His father is a retired Naval officer who had to spend some holidays away from home, said Ondo. He retired out of Naval Station Great Lakes.

“This is a great opportunity for us to spend time with people who can’t go home and provide a place that is home for a day,” said Ondo.

The church’s holiday event helped recruit Chris James, 19, of San Diego, deal with not being home. This was his first Christmas away from his family.

“It makes you feel like a home environment. (There’s) people who really care,” said James.

Sailors were served a big, family-style dinner in addition to getting all the time to play and chat with their families, according to Bychowski. Donations and volunteers kept pouring in, she said.

“The responses we got were amazing. We’re doing this again next year,” said Bychowski.

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