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MATTOON -- The cavernous waiting area in the lower level of the Mattoon train depot was as quiet as a library Thursday evening as the few passengers there prepared for the arrival of the southbound Amtrak train.

Then, the sounds of children happily chattering started to drift down from the front entrance of the depot at street level on Broadway Avenue. Soon a long column of children and their adult chaperones, a group numbering about 45-50 all together, filed down the stone staircase of the depot.

The kindergarten and first-grade students from Sacred Heart Elementary School in Effingham had arrived, via bus, for their annual Christmas train ride back to the depot in their hometown.

Kindergarten teacher Barb Keller said she and fellow teacher Laura Tays, now retired but still active with Sacred Heart, organized the school's first Christmas train ride out of Mattoon more than 25 years ago and this event has been a tradition ever since then.

"My whole thing is to create memories for the students. This is what I like to do," Keller said. She added that the event is the first time on a train for many of the young students.

The train ride is organized as one of the regular themed "Read Night" events for students at the Catholic school and their parents, Keller said. She explained that the kindergarten and first-grade students always hear a reading of "The Polar Express" at the Mattoon depot, and read other books and sing Christmas carols if the train is running late.

Keller said these young students then ride the train back to the Effingham depot, where their families are waiting to cheer their return and take them back to Sacred Heart for snacks. She said a local family with ties to Sacred Heart annually donates money to make the Christmas train ride possible.

Tays said the students, particularly the newcomers to train travel, are excited to try out their seats and push all the buttons there for the reading lights and air circulation. Tays said she has talked to Sacred Heart alumni who had advanced on to high school and college and still have fond memories of their Christmas train rides.

The retired teacher, who is now a chaperone for the train rides, said she has vivid memories of the early years when much of the depot was darkened and closed off to the public. Tays said when the depot renovation started, the students and their chaperones laughed when they got covered by snow-like dry wall dust there.

"The depot is beautiful now. I am really glad they were able to restore the depot and make it nice," Tays said. While the Sacred Heart group was at the depot Thursday night, they toured the Coles County Historical Society's museum there.

Sacred Heart student Michael Wright said he started going on the Christmas train ride in kindergarten and has continued riding every year as a "chaperone in training" with his mother, Andrea, who is an administrative assistant at the school. Michael said he still remembers his first ride.

"It was cool because you got to see out the window and it was different because you are used to riding in a bus or a car and not going that fast," Michael said. Andrea Wright added, "It's a special trip."

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Contact Penny Weaver at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud

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