When Jack Irwin visited Lithuania for the first time, he went as a tourist.
It was summer 1992 – two years after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union – and Irwin said he wanted to see the country in which his great-grandparents were born.
Seeing the national cathedral inspired him to do more, he said.
“I have to help somehow,” he recalled feeling.
And he has.
The Geneva resident returned from his 60th trip to the eastern European country last month. It’s a trip he now makes twice a year, he said, noting he used to make the journey more frequently.
The retired guidance counselor has established chapters of Operation Snowball – an alcohol-and-drug-prevention program that began in 1977 in Rockford – in Lithuania to counter the country’s drinking culture.
Irwin said the team of adults and teens who helped him bring Operation Snowball to the Lithuanians in 1994 didn’t know whether the program would be successful overseas, as it hadn’t been done in another language.
But, he said, they knew it would work when the biggest cultural difference was in the way the Lithuanians peeled their bananas (that is, from the other end).
“We made it international,” Irwin said of the Snowball program.
Last spring, he said, the parliament of Lithuania gave him an award thanking him for his work in the country, which now has 39 programs. There are also two Snowball programs in Poland and one in Belarus, he said.
He can tell it’s making a difference, he said, recalling the wedding of a young couple as an example.
Traditionally, Irwin said, everyone gets drunk at a Lithuanian wedding because each guest toasts the bride and groom. At this wedding, the couple broke tradition by asking guests to instead share how they knew the bride or groom, he said.
In addition to its focus on curbing drug-and-alcohol use, Snowball in Lithuania is trying to help raise teens’ self-confidence, Irwin said. Noting the high suicide rate there, he said they need to know how important they are so they won’t do things to damage themselves.
Irwin, who is 76, said he plans to keep visiting Lithuania for as long as he can, but it’s more tiring now. During his last trip overseas, he said, he visited nearly 500 teens in 15 programs in Lithuania and Belarus.
“It’s not an easy schedule,” said retired educator Maggie Perry, who accompanied Irwin on that trip. “It’s go, go, go.”
Perry said it is evident the people there respect Irwin, who was welcomed with open arms. She described him not only as a source of information for them but also as a source of inspiration and direction.
“I think he has opened the door for a lot of youth and current and future leaders in Lithuania,” she said.
Irwin, who retired at 53, said his international work with Snowball was a good fit with his other interests – travel and Lithuania. But, he said, he would have used his mother’s maiden name, which was Lithuanian, if he would have known that the program would grow.
He does, however, have Lithuanian items displayed in his home. He said it’s fun to be Lithuanian because the heritage is unusual to many people in the United States.
“People don’t know where it is,” he said. “Everyone knows the German, English and Irish parts of me.”
The Irwin lowdown
Who he is: Jack Irwin, who promotes a drug-and-alcohol prevention program overseas
Town of residence: Geneva
Family: Married 10 years
Hobbies: Travel, Lithuania and stained glass
Fun fact: He’s been to Lithuania 60 times.