Sleeman looks back on 37 years of traveling with local senior citizens

In her 37 years as a travel coordinator for senior citizens in Warren, Margaret Sleeman has epitomized Buddha’s assertion that “It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

At times it was a bumpy road, but Margaret’s groups of senior citizens always enjoyed the ride.

Although Margaret will no longer coordinate trips through the local senior center, now Allegheny Community Center, she has many memories to look back on and laughs when she remembers some of those bumps she and her entourages encountered.

Margaret estimates she has led local seniors on 1,000 trips, from one-day excursions to four-week hiatuses, and she has greatly appreciated all the opportunities.

Her first organized trip was a three-day venture to the Catskill Mountains of New York.

Margaret’s favorite was a Mediterranean cruise.

She estimates her favorites not necessarily by the destination, but by the company.

Margaret enjoyed trips “mainly because of the people you were with,” she explained. The Mediterranean cruise was memorable because she and her group “ate banana splits across the Mediterranean,” she explained, smiling.

The most beautiful trips were trips to the mountains, she said, … Alaska, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.

She led groups through the Panama Canal twice.

“I tried to mix it up so everybody could go,” Margaret explained.

They visited 40 foreign countries, many on cruises, her favorite type of travel.

Margaret said she tells people, “instead of putting me in a nursing home, put me on a cruise ship and come visit me from port to port.”

It’s amazing Margaret didn’t give up her efforts from the get-go, when, on the first trip she planned, a participant fell and broke her leg right before the group left Warren, and she didn’t tell anyone! The bus driver had to take her to the hospital in the Catskills, where the woman stayed while the group toured, then they picked her up – in a cast from her ankle to her hip – and brought her home again.

Although she laughs about it now, Margaret wasn’t amused when she had to leave her husband, Tom, at a mall in Branson, Mo.

“I told them 2:15!”, she remembers, laughing. “Everyone was on the bus,” even the biggest slowpoke of the bunch.

“We were on our way to the Blue Velvet Theater to see Bobby Vinton!”, Margaret explained.

“He wasn’t on the bus, but I had to get (the group) to the theater.”

Fortunately, the bus driver went back for Margaret’s husband after they dropped the group off.

“He said he thought I said 2:30,” Margaret said, laughing.

Margaret has memories of trips that she treasures, but it gave her great pleasure to see others having a good time.

“We went across Canada four times on the train,” she said. Once, “two lady friends went, and they had the best time,” laughing and giggling. “They liked to push all the buttons,” and, at one point, one of them pushed a button that collapsed the seat with the other one in it, and she was stuck there.

On one train trip, immediately after 9-11 when security delayed her entourage, Margaret’s seat on the train was not available, so they put her in her own compartment with a seat that slid into a bed, and her own tiny bathroom.

“It was the neatest thing,” she remembered.

Once, on a 28-day bus trip to California, a woman and her husband – slow and decrepit from a recent fall – boarded, and Margaret feared for the worst. It was such a wonderful trip, a healing vacation, that when they returned the man walked off the bus “as straight as an arrow,” Margaret said, happy and fit.

But, it wasn’t always warm and wonderful.

On one of the last trip’s Margaret coordinated, she took a group to Boston, Mass., with a bus company with whom she hadn’t worked before.

“We were almost to Massachusetts,” she said, and the bus broke down. “We’ve got problems,” the driver explained. “We can’t go anywhere. The (coolant) hoses have split.”

“Well a kid came to fix it, and he brought the wrong hoses,” Margaret said, shaking her head. “I bet we waited there four hours.”

Rising above the calamity, Margaret and her entourage disembarked, rested and stretched their legs on a strip of grass near the road and talked. Margaret called the hotel and said they would be late, and the hotel set them all up with box lunches. What could have been a major upset turned into a little adventure on the way. And no one seemed to complain.

“If they complained, I never heard it,” Margaret said.

Also trouble on the trip to Boston, a planned stop at the JFK Library was canceled because of the government shut-down in October 2013, but some last-minute scrambling got the entourage a guided tour of Fenway Park.

“It was the highlight of the trip,” Margaret said.

Margaret thinks guided group tours are appealing to many people, especially senior citizens.

“They like the idea that it’s set up for them,” she said. Group trips are less expensive than traveling alone.

Margaret also made a special effort to have meals included, so the many seniors on fixed incomes could save even more money.

And, she enjoyed setting up the picnics. At one stop at a grocery store, just she and the bus driver, the deli attendant was looking skeptically at the pair as they loaded up pounds of meat and salads, and Margaret laughed, saying “he eats so much!” referring to the bus driver, laughing.

One picnic in particular was a fortuitous event! On the final day of a Boston fall foliage trip, the weather report had been 60 degrees and sunny, but – in Springfield, Mass. – it started snowing. Within hours the bus couldn’t move forward, with 12 inches of wet, heavy snow on the turnpike, and they were stopped behind a stalled car.

“It was 11:30,” Margaret said, “and we had diabetics on board.”

In an effort to lighten the situation, the group invited the woman who was driving the stalled car onto the bus, and Margaret broke out the picnic, complete with a big pot of hot coffee, and they all ate on the bus.

Her memories will sustain her temporarily, but Margaret suspects she will be planning more trips with seniors – on her own time.