It was warm and hazy as the third day of the Packers Road Trip got underway in Madison. A few of the group stopped at the Dane County Farmer's Market on the Capitol Square before hopping on the bus to the first stop of the day, the American Family Children's Hospital.
While COVID-19 protocols wouldn't allow the visit to take place inside the hospital, a covered patio space outside of the building provided the perfect location for the guys to spend time with more than a dozen patients and their parents. The first patient had been waiting excitedly since 6 a.m. for the Road Trip bus to arrive, and she had a big smile ready to greet the alumni.
Another patient who happened to be from Green Bay was anxious to see the Packers and also was celebrating her seventh birthday. She was receiving treatment when the bus first arrived, and her mom wasn't sure whether her daughter would have enough time to make it to the patio. Just in case, the alumni recorded a "Happy Birthday" video for her, and as luck would have it, the birthday girl arrived a few minutes later. The group wished her a happy birthday and shared some special Packers-themed gifts with her.
Julie Auenson, Child Life Services Manager at American Family Children's Hospital, said the visit was a special treat for the kids, their families and the hospital staff alike.
"We've been through COVID the last year and a half and have really had to do things a lot differently here at the hospital," Julie said. "Being in the hospital is hard, being in as a kid is hard, and then being in as a kid without your family being able to come and see you for however long they're here is really tough.
"I'm going to tout my child life staff, but they've been amazing through all of this, to try to find ways to still provide the kids distraction and help coping, anything for the kids in the hospital to still be able to connect with their families and do visits like this," Julie added.
Other highlights of the visit included Nick Collins handing a brand new green and gold t-shirt to a young boy wearing a Bears shirt and vowing to convince him to become a Packers fan. Another boy dressed as The Flash, complete with lightning bolt boots, got a signed miniature football and taught the alumni a new handshake he called "the jellyfish."
After handing out stuffed animals, Lambeau Field puzzles, Packers t-shirts and plenty of autographs, the Road Trip crew boarded the bus again to travel to the next destination, another healthcare facility. Only a short drive away, the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital serves 130,000 veterans living in 15 counties in south-central Wisconsin and in five counties in northwestern Illinois.
The facility has 131 beds total, and tends to care for between 60-80 patients at one time. Many of the veterans being treated at the facility are recovering from surgery, and the area where the group gathered during the visit ordinarily serves as the community living center, which is aimed at providing a place for patients in the last stage of their rehabilitation as they transition back to independent life again. During COVID, the area had to be temporarily converted for other services to provide more critical care, but it's beginning to shift back to its typical use.
"Events like this really lift spirits and have such an impact on patients and their health because they get something positive," said Paul Rickert, community relations manager and public affairs officer for the hospital. "It means a lot. This is probably the best therapy these folks will have all week."
Veterans present at the visit with the alumni served in several branches of the military, with many proudly wearing Air Force, Army and Navy gear, along with their Packers attire. Many of the doctors, nurses and other staff members at the hospital were also veterans, and they all had an opportunity to get autographs. One doctor even had his white coat autographed in black marker.
A 90-year old World War II Veteran was also among those visiting with the players, and he received a Packers military coin to commemorate the visit.
After plenty of conversation and photos, the group boarded the bus once more and headed to Wisconsin Dells for lunch and some classic Wisconsin summer fun. Saturday's lunch spot was Summer House, on the shores of Lake Delton, and the alumni struck up a conversation with some of the international workers who are in town for the summer. One of the servers, who said he's from Jamaica, got a crash course in American football and the Packers.
The next stop was a visit to Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Campground, where the families camping were celebrating "Christmas in July." The alumni were greeted by hundreds of cheering Packers fans, many of had clearly spent most of the hot day at the Jellystone pool and waterpark.
A crowd of waterlogged kids joined either Team Nick and James or Team Ryan and Morgan in a relay race, featuring hula hoops, hopscotch, three-legged sack races, and jump rope.
The Dells Jellystone location has been owned and operated by the Gasser family since 1971, and the current owner, Brent Gasser, said 1,200 people were joining the fun at Jellystone this weekend.
Their location puts on about 25 special events each year, and next on the agenda after Christmas in July is "Mardi Gras" and "Hawaiian Island Paradise." They also annually hold birthday parties for all the Yogi Bear characters (Cindy, Boo Boo, Ranger Smith and of course, Yogi Bear).
After a "snowball fight" featuring snowballs made from some form of crushed ice, the alumni handed out Packers goodies, signed some autographs and took photos, and answered questions in a brief Q&A.
The whirlwind visit ended with some "Go Pack Go!" cheers and after another short drive, the Packers Road Trip suddenly found itself paying a visit to Hades...not in the underworld, but at Mt. Olympus Theme Park!
Many park-goers noticed the bus pulling up, and the alumni posed for photos with lots of Packers fans while waiting to enter. The thundering roller coasters near the park entrance made some of the group apprehensive about riding, but soon enough, the Road Trip crew found themselves taking on Hades, the world's first upside-down wooden roller coaster. With speeds of 75 mph, a drop of 140 feet and a 360-degree loop, the coaster was thrilling for everyone, and maybe a little too thrilling for a couple members of the group (Editor's note: the author of this blog came close to losing her lunch).
Following another coaster, the alumni treated themselves to funnel cakes and ice cream, marking the end of the rides for the day. The jam-packed third day of the Road Trip wrapped up with a long dinner at Del-Bar, a true Wisconsin supper club known for its char-broiled steaks, and a detour to Trapper's Turn Golf Club to crash a wedding. Congratulations to the bride and groom! With only one day left on the trip, the alumni were looking forward to making their way back to Green Bay on Sunday with some more surprise stops along with way.