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Gainesville student shares his love of locomotion to give children a smile
Gainesville High senior's Eagle Scout project decks out playroom with train theme
Gainesville High School senior Stirling Callahan, 18, talks about constructing a train set for the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children at The Little House for his Eagle Scout project. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

At one point or another as children, we all said "chug-a-chug-a choo choo" and moved our bent arms in circles to simulate a train’s wheels.

Instead of just pretending to be one, Stirling Callahan has taken his childhood fascination with trains a step further. He’s turned his hobby into a happy distraction for children at The Little House here in Gainesville.

For his Eagle Scout project, Callahan decided to redecorate the center’s playroom with a train theme. The remodel included the installation of a model train set that has been suspended from the ceiling.

"I wanted to do something related to trains because I love them. Always have. The problem was we couldn’t find an appropriate place to do something like this," said Callahan, a Gainesville High School senior.

"One of my teachers, Teresa Hughes, suggested that I do something (at The Little House). We came over toward the end of October to talk about the possibility of doing this, and they thought it was a great idea."

The Little House is a facility that houses agencies serving children who have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. It is also the home of the Edmondson-Telford Center and Court Appointed Special Advocates for Hall and Dawson counties.

"Before he came up with this idea, the playrooms — one for younger, and one for older children — were very generic. There was no real theme. They were just rooms with toys," said Heather Hayes, Edmondson-Telford executive director.

"We were thrilled to have him come in and do this. The kids have enjoyed it a lot. He did an excellent job."

Callahan began collecting donations and materials for the project in the fall and by the beginning of January, he was ready to get to work.

"It was a changing process the entire time. We found a few problems that we had to work out. Like the material that the track is sitting on," Callahan said.

"We were originally going to use Plexiglass, but because of it’s cost and heaviness we decided to use something else. We ended up with the plastic panels that they use in fluorescent lights.

"We got the original contractor who built the building to cut holes in the walls for tunnel portals and remove studs and all that."

With the help of a team of volunteers, Callahan was able to get the elevated track for the train installed in one day. "A typical model railroad is basically a wooden table with a bunch of scenery on it. In doing model railroading all of my life, I know the advantages and the disadvantages of both — elevated and a table model," he said.

"The advantage to a traditional table layout is that you can see everything and you have more opportunity for scenery. But in a place like (a playroom) you’d have kids crawling all over the thing and it would be torn up in two weeks.

"I noticed at some train shows, kids were often too short to see the traditional table layout, they had to be carried in order to fully enjoy seeing the trains. With this, it’s elevated and you can see it much better, and it’s out of the way."

Instead of installing a generic model train set, Callahan added three, localized features.

"I wanted to include something that was Gainesville. The first thing I thought of ... was the chicken statue, which is located across from the Gainesville Midland Engine 209 (at the intersection of West Academy Street and Jesse Jewell Parkway)," Callahan said.

"The second thing is the golf tournament billboard. Every year, the Edmondson-Telford Center holds the Phil Niekro Golf Classic and this is the Phil Niekro playroom that we’re in, so we thought why don’t we go with the full authenticity of this and put in the golf tournament (billboard)."

They also constructed a miniature golf course, complete with tiny players.

"The third thing that really connected the set to Gainesville is the passenger train. It’s the Southern Railway Crescent Limited," Callahan said.

"The Crescent was a passenger train that was run by Southern that actually stopped here in Gainesville. It still runs today under the Amtrak name."

Although the project was 100 percent Callahan’s idea, the pint-sized playroom visitors can thank his mom for the passion that fueled the make-over.

"My theory is that whatever you like as a child, I believe it is the place that your parents first took you to when you were a kid. Say you like baseball, well maybe your parents took you to a baseball game," Callahan said.

"Well mom took me to the train station." "It was free entertainment," said Diane Callahan.

Free or not, the experience was priceless for him.

"We would sit out and watch the trains come and go," Callahan said.

The photos of different trains that now adorn the playroom’s walls not only provide extra decoration, they also provide tangible clues to Callahan’s earliest memories.

One picture in particular of a Norfolk Southern engine stands out from the rest. "Back in the 80s and 90s, Norfolk Southern had a steam excursion program, where they would run steam locomotives all over the system. The 1218 and the 611 were the last two engines to run in the program before they killed it in 1994," Callahan recites with precision.

"When I was about 1 and a half years old, mom checked me out of the babysitter’s early because the 611 was going to be making its last run through Gainesville on a National Railway Historical Society trip. I vividly remember the experience.

"The 611 is a huge engine and it has this real deep whistle. It’s just the scariest thing you ever heard, but it’s so powerful. I remember being in my stroller and it came shooting by — whistle blowing and bell ringing. I remember just thinking, ‘Wow!’"

Although the Boy Scout project was about Callahan giving back to the community, his mother Diane Callahan, says that the Boy Scouts of America organization has given much more to him.

"He has been in Scouts since he was 7 years old. It has helped him overcome a lot, (including obstacles related to) having Asperger’s syndrome," Diane Callahan said.

Asperger’s is a syndrome on the autism spectrum that can impact communication, motor and organizational skills.

"It’s been a long, hard battle, but his is definitely a success story," Diane said.

As a child, Callahan remembers thinking, "I wanna do that," as the trains would barrel by he and his mother. In a few short months, his youthful, wishful thinking will become reality when he becomes a diesel locomotive repair program student at a south Georgia technical college.

It is fair to say that with his passion for trains, Callahan will never "work" a day in his life, since he’ll be doing what he enjoys and his job won’t feel draining. If anything, it’ll be a labor of love.

"I love locomotives," Callahan said.

"I could rattle on about them for hours."

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