Stranded drivers find shelter at church

By Anna Carrera

Published 01/07 2014 02:00PM

Updated 01/07 2014 07:04PM

Update: 6:56 pm
MATTOON -- Dozens of cars were ditched along I-57 this week because of the bad weather. Hundreds of drivers were left out in the cold.

Ray and Ginny Tholen were expecting to spend a few hours driving home to Carterville after visiting family in Naperville. But the Central Illinois natives, like many others, weren't planning to take a pit stop in the middle of the road.

"Just south of Arcola," said Ginny, who was raised in Danforth. "White out. Went into the median. That was at 3:30 Sunday afternoon. State cops picked us up four hours later."

The officers brought them to the First Presbyterian Church in Mattoon.

"The need is there and we're just here to help," said Rick Mercer, who is a member of the church.

"There are a lot of weary travelers," said Valerie Goodwin, who is the volunteer services director for the Central Illinois chapter of the Red Cross. "There have been people who have made it out to hotel rooms as they've opened, but as soon as we get a few people out the door, something happens on the interstate and we get dozens more in."

More than 170 stranded drivers came to sleep here Sunday night.

"In the pews on the sanctuary," said Ray, who is originally from Gilman. "All the blankets were gone and they were pretty much full up. I've slept in church a lot but never at night."

Upwards of 250 ended up there the night after, including Valaria Duckworth.

"I was on I-57 and my car stalled out because we were in traffic for two hours," said Duckworth.

She was heading back to New Orleans, where she's seen her share of wicked weather.

"I was there for Hurricane Isaac and that prep," said Duckworth, "but when you're dealing with subzero temperatures, it's so much harder to deal with."

And she wasn't traveling alone.

"It's really great that they let us keep our pets because otherwise they'd be sitting in the car in subzero temperatures right now," said Duckworth.

Her cat's name is Pax; the Latin word for peace. That's something people have come to find at the church.

"What will be will be," said Ginny. "They've been great to us."

"Trying to keep warm and keep everybody fed and, in some cases, entertained," said Mercer.

As the day goes on, more people get ready to hit the road. But even if this was their first time in Mattoon, some say it may not be their last.

"I might consider coming back," said Duckworth. "They've been very hospitable."

Organizers say they plan to stay open at the church for as long as they're needed. Any stranded drivers, as well as their pets, are welcome to stop by.

First Presbyterian Church
10 Charleston Avenue
(217) 234 - 6722
Original: 2:10 pm
MATTOON -- Hundreds of stranded travelers have been spending the week at a church in Coles County. The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the First Presbyterian Church Sunday evening.

Many drivers were trying to head home Tuesday, but others say it'll be a while before they can hit the road again.

"We've always had the ability to be the first ones off the interstate so helping is just a part of our nature," said Rick Mercer, who is a member of the church.

The church was first used as an emergency shelter in 1978. Drivers have taken cover there many times since then. People who came this week are from all over the country.

Copyright 2015 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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