LINCOLN, Ill. — As Loyd Elam watched a group of children board a chartered bus bound for the Cubs game at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Wednesday, he looked as if he might change his mind and hop on to go with them.
But Elam stayed behind in Lincoln to look for them later on television, hoping to spot them wearing their yellow hats, after paying for the trip with money he won nearly 20 years ago playing the Illinois Lottery. Since winning $7 million in 1991, Elam has been paying for similar trips for 35 to 40 children and about 10 chaperones each year to see a professional baseball game.
For many of the children, it's a rare chance to a see a game in person, just like Elam did for the first time when he was in eighth grade. The children are chosen through the Community Action program, many of them coming from low-income backgrounds.
"Even when they grow up, they remember the experience," Elam said. "They have a ball. I never forgot my first game."
After suffering a heart attack five years ago, the 71-year-old Elam hasn't gone on the trips and said he plans for this to be the last trip he sponsors.
"It got too rough on me," Elam said. "I'm going to miss it."
The day started at 7 a.m. with those going on the trip being fed breakfast at the Eagles Lodge in Lincoln. They boarded the bus at 8 a.m. for the trip north and didn't plan on being back until after 9 p.m.
On this day, team allegiance wasn't the most important thing. Most of those going wanted the Cubs to win, but a few brave ones such as 7-year-old Devyn Snow wore shirts of their favorite teams, including the Cubs' rival St. Louis Cardinals. It was going to be his first game at Wrigley Field with seats down the right-field line.
The Cubs ended up losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2-0.
Kiersten Little, 9, hoped to enjoy this game a little more than the last time she went when she was battling leukemia and had to be protected from the sun. She was wearing a Cubs necklace she took home from that game and insisted on going again.
Each of the children is given 30 Cubs bucks, which they are free to spend on food, drinks or souvenirs. Sabreena Koeppen, 12, hoped to have a baseball signed by her favorite player, first baseman Derrek Lee.
Parent Nicole Montcalm said it makes for some very exciting times around the house.
"They come home and they're excited," Montcalm said. "We were up pretty late last night. It was very early this morning."
Montcalm isn't a baseball fan, so it's a chance for Kiersten to have an experience she would not otherwise have.
Chaperone Shirley Buchanan hoped to have the entire group cheering for the Cubs, like what has happened in the past.
"I believe they will cheer for the Cubs," Buchanan said as she prepared folders with paper for the children to draw and later write thank-you notes to Elam. "We had them all standing and cheering, yelling. It was great."
Elam's generosity also seemed to be an inspiration for some of the children. Donald Anderson, 10, said right away that if he won a lottery, he would buy a car. Then after thinking about it some more, he seemed to think being generous like Elam has been would be an even better idea.
Elam won the Illinois Lottery's first Heart of Gold award handed out in 1999 for his part in sponsoring the trips.
Elam's fiancee, Sandy Brown, was excited to be going with the group, but disappointed the man behind it all wouldn't be on board. The couple was wearing matching Cubs shirts.
"This is him," Brown said. "It's his thing. We always went together. It's not the same thing when he's not able to go."
Carie Groves, who was chaperoning her ninth game, said the trips have been a great thing for the Logan County area.
"The whole entire thing is for the kids to get to go," Groves said. "Loyd's so generous. It's one thing to get to go to a game, but to come back with a souvenir to remember it, it's the best."
Elam said he still plays the lottery but hasn't had much luck since his big win. He does hope the Cubs can turn things around and has found the games to be his favorite charitable donation.
They've been filled with a little of everything, including rainouts. The weather for this year's game was almost perfect with comfortable temperatures and plenty of sunshine.
"I hope they root for the Cubs," Elam said, adding, "I like to root for losers. They seem to seldom win, but the kids don't care and have a good time. It's a day of fun for them."