The 38 miles between the east side of Aurora and Soldier Field in Chicago were a testing ground for skills a group of high school students spent all year studying: survival.
More than 60 teens, most taking a class called Survivor Literature at East Aurora High School, spent all day Wednesday walking from their school in the Western suburbs across at least 10 towns in three counties to the lakefront home of the Chicago Bears.
By the time they arrived at Soldier Field around 7:15 p.m., the students had gained some insight into the experiences of a speaker they are bringing to their school next month: a man named Ishmael Beah, who, at age 12, was forced into an African army as a child soldier.
"This was the longest walk I ever took in my life. It made me more appreciative of what Ishmael went through," senior Adrian Gallardo said. "It was for a good cause, so that's what drove me to carry on."
The journey involved roughly 14 hours of walking, shivering, talking, walking, listening to music, watching the landscape pass by, encouraging friends, walking, stopping for granola bars and bathroom breaks, walking, walking, walking some more and reflecting on the purpose of the trek.
"When I was on the bus (going home), I realized we all struggle at one point or another, but it's all the same," Gallardo said. "Struggling can be one of the most powerful motivating factors in life."
Called "Tomcats' Journey to Remember," the walk was the culmination of a service project students in four sections of English teacher Shane Gillespie's Survivor Literature class developed on their own.
"They really, from nothing, created this project, which is cool to see," Gillespie said about the walk, which raised funds to bring Beah to the school on April 15 to speak about surviving his time in a government army in Sierra Leone.
The yearlong Survivor Literature course involves the study of novels or nonfiction about the Holocaust, slavery, war, Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"It puts things in perspective," said Gillespie, 33. "When you think you have it a little rough and you're reading about someone going through the Holocaust, it doesn't seem so bad."
Each year, students read six books Gillespie selects, but they also get to choose another topic to investigate. This year's group picked the struggles of child soldiers, forced into armies to witness and unwillingly commit the atrocities of war.
"They didn't choose to be soldiers," senior Andrea Ramirez said.
Ramirez and her peers read the book "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," by Beah, and were so moved they wanted to bring the author to their school. But that created the need for a fundraiser to generate about $7,500 for Beah's plane ticket, accommodations and speaking fee.
A walk seemed like an obvious choice. Walking is the only way Beah could get around when, at age 12, he fled attacking rebels in Sierra Leone and was forced into a government army.
"For the first third to half of the book, Ishmael is, for all intents and purposes, homeless and wandering around Africa and Sierra Leone," Gillespie said. "We're modeling after what he did."
Gillespie, a graduate of North Central College in Naperville, originally proposed walking from East Aurora High School to his alma mater -- about 8½ miles.
"One of the kids was like, 'That's not that far. It's not that big of a deal,'" Gillespie said.
So the journey grew. The class looked for a meaningful or symbolic location to conclude the journey and chose Soldier Field, named as such at the request of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers in 1925.
Embarking on a physically grueling journey across much of the east-west radius of Chicago's suburbs seemed like a fitting way to spend the middle of spring break to Gallardo, who said he signed up for Survivor Literature specifically because he knew it wouldn't be easy.
With backpacks containing water bottles and snacks, bandages and headphones, teens such as senior Ruby Perez put one foot in front of the other and trudged along, keeping the former child soldier they studied in their thoughts as motivation. They did so without the pressure of a class grade or the promise of extra credit.
"Ishmael definitely went through some hard obstacles in his life, and I respect him for overcoming what he has," Perez said. "I know that if Ishmael can go through this many miles and probably more each day, I can definitely do this once."
Support vans accompanied the students and were on hand to drive everyone home. Four checkpoints along the way provided a brief respite, a bandage for blisters and a quick reminder from Gillespie about survival -- the skill at the heart of the journey. The group hit the last checkpoint in Berwyn about 3:15 p.m., then continued following sidewalks toward the lake.
When the students embarked, they had raised about $6,000 of their $7,500 goal through business sponsorships and individual donations.
They also had received a social media shout-out from Beah, who said on Twitter he was "so touched" and news of the walk "made my day."
And they had scheduled Beah's speeches for during the school day Tuesday, April 15, and at 7 that evening in the school's Hawks Auditorium, open to the public for a $5 ticket at the door or by emailing email@example.com.
All they had left to do was finish the walk.
"Once we got there, it was so exciting. We realized how everything, all the pain and everything, it wasn't in vain because we accomplished our goal," Ramirez said. "Even though we're really sore right now, it's just amazing."
Students now have raised about $6,500 of the $7,500 they need to fund Beah's appearance. The group is continuing to accept donations at gofundme.com/EAHStomcats.
Any extra money will go to Beah's charity, the Ishmael Beah Foundation, which works to improve the lives of children affected by war by helping them reintegrate into society.