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Passport-processing delays jeopardize students' missionary trip to Zambia

For Lauren Brechtel, 17, getting family and friends to donate $2,100 for her volunteer trip to Zambia was the easy part.

Though the Hamburg High School student applied for her passport more than three months ago, she still hasn't received it.

She isn't the only one. Days before their Monday departure date, four of the nine high school students who signed up for the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg's missionary trip to Africa are still waiting for their passports.

"I'm just really scared that it's not going to come in in time," Brechtel said. "I've been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and it means a lot that I got the chance to go."

For several months, Brechtel and the other students have been preparing for the trip, which includes working in hospices and with orphans. Each participant was responsible for raising more than $2,000 to cover the cost of the trip.

But like hundreds of others in Western New York and around the country, Brechtel is now in travel limbo because the State Department was unprepared to handle the crush of applications it received this year.

The agency said it received a record number of applications -- more than a million a month between January and April. The increase is due in part to a new regulation that said starting this summer, Americans would be required to show a passport when traveling by air to any country, including Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The federal government has since suspended that requirement at least until September.

The delays have frustrated Paul Gartley, the church's youth minister. Last year, the church ran missions to Africa and Australia without any passport problems. But this year, things are completely different.

"The plane tickets are bought and paid for," he said. "But there's no passports, and without them the kids aren't able to go."

Brechtel said that when she called last week to check on her application status, the person who answered her call told her that her application had been sitting on the desk since March, but nothing had been done with it.

"I've called back twice, and they haven't said it was coming and they can't tell me when its going to show up," she said. "I'm basically going to have to wait."

Fellow Hamburg High School student Ariel Wood, 15, is also struggling to persuade the State Department to hurry up and approve her application.

She finally spoke with someone in the agency last week, she said. They told her they would put her application at the top of the pile.

"I'm really nervous," she said.

e-mail: aerickson@buffnews.com

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