Retired Geneva counselor starts Operation Snowball in Lithuania

  • From left, adult Operation Snowball leader John Grossman; Austeja Landsbergiene, founder and director of a private school in Vilnius; and Jack Irwin of Geneva during a visit to the private Lithuanian school to share information about alcohol and drug abuse prevention.

    From left, adult Operation Snowball leader John Grossman; Austeja Landsbergiene, founder and director of a private school in Vilnius; and Jack Irwin of Geneva during a visit to the private Lithuanian school to share information about alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Courtesy of Jack Irwin


Jack Irwin had all of the background he needed to make a difference for teens in Lithuania.

He was a counselor in the Central and Kaneland school districts before retiring in 1993, and he worked with the Greater Fox River Valley Operation Snowball program to thwart drug and alcohol abuse among teens from 1986 to 2000.

But what was it about Lithuania that lured Irwin from the relative comfort of his home in Geneva?

A couple of things. His family has roots in that country, and he was well aware of the high rate of alcohol and drug abuse there, especially in the early 1990s.

He made his first trip to Lithuania in 1992 after years of difficulty in trying to visit the communist country. But it was the first country to declare independence from Russia, thus opening the door.

"In the summer of 1993, we were asked (by the Ministry of Education there) to start a Snowball chapter in Kuanas, which is the city my great-grandparents left," Irwin said. "When we agreed to start the program, we were not sure it would work, as it had never been done in a different culture."

Irwin became the leader of that initiative and took some local teens over to Lithuania the following year. They started the interactions for the Snowball program, but he was worried that the cultural differences would be too dramatic.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

"We asked our teens what the biggest difference they noticed during their first few days, and they said, 'They peel their bananas from the other end.'

"We knew then, that the program would work," Irwin said, in knowing the similarities far outweighed any cultural divide.

Irwin completed his 71st trip to Lithuania just before last Christmas. He goes two or three times a year, taking various speakers to address the teens.

Even though the Snowball program has grown from one chapter to 38 in the country under Irwin's guidance, it remains a challenge to get Lithuanian teens to break the mental chains of Russian rule.

"I asked a Lithuanian friend, after she visited America in the '90s as an interpreter, if it made her angry when she saw all of our consumer goods," Irwin explained.


The lady said it made her angry that the Soviets "taught us that we were not capable."

It turned the Operation Snowball program slogan there into "I am lovable and capable."

"Although the teens understand freedom and decision-making, they still have to deal with their parents who were raised during Soviet times," Irwin said.

But he'll keep working to break that way of thinking by bringing some of what is really good about the Fox Valley area into a country very much in need of it.

For special needs:

We're not from the Stone Ages in terms of how we deal with children with special needs, but in the past we were close. Ours schools and lawmakers didn't always know exactly how to help these students feel as if they belonged.


In what seems to proclaim "look how far we've come" each time I hear about it, the Batavia Special-Education Parent Network is hosting its annual Parent Resource Fair from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at Batavia High School.

This free event is all about expanding the quality of life, and parents from all cities in the surrounding area are invited to attend and learn about the various organizations and businesses that serve individuals with special needs.

Some staying power:

Yep, those of us who remember this are getting long in the tooth. Tomorrow marks the 55th anniversary of The Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York City.

I remember it like it was yesterday. And, no, Paul McCartney did not sing "Yesterday" on this particular night. That came much later.

Mostly, I remember my grandfather saying he would bet that no one would remember anything about these guys in 10 years. In doing the math now, he was only off by forever.

There was another interesting facet of Beatlemania unfolding back then. Nearly every kid was going nuts over this band from Liverpool, but adults who were products of the World War II era big bands and the 1950s and '60s crooners took some time to catch on.

But they did. I remember my mom hearing songs like "This Boy" and "Do You Want to Know a Secret" that first year and suddenly admitting she liked this band.

It was then that I knew my grandfather's "bet" was going to be way off the mark.

It's in the cards:

You never know what sort of feedback a column will generate, especially as it spreads its wings across the internet.

Late last year I wrote about all of my Three Stooges memorabilia as part of a preview for the live Stooges show at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

Turns out, Gary Valiquet Sr., a 67-year-old Stooges fan from Palos Heights, saw that article online. He thought I must be a prolific collector and he was right, sort of.

When we connected, he revealed he possessed some Three Stooges trading cards from the late 1950s. They represent a piece of nostalgia, he claims after some research, that is worth many thousands of dollars.

He asked if I was interested in buying them. If I wanted to end up with a big frying pan dent on my head from a swift blow delivered by my wife, then my answer would be yes. I like my head as it is, so, of course, I had to say no.

But Gary sent me some pictures of the cards and others he had, including The Beatles trading cards from the mid-1960s.

Those particular cards brought back bad memories. As a fifth-grader in 1964, my teacher caught me looking at my Beatles cards during class and took them away. This was in March or so, and she said she'd give them back to me at the end of the school year.

The school year ended, and I went to her desk to get my cards. She looked at me like she had no idea what I was talking about, and declared that if she took something away from me, she probably threw it out.

Still ticked off about that one.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.