Unique hot-air balloon opens opportunity to wheelchair users

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | 11:05 p.m. CDT; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — At ballooning events across the country, the 65-foot handicapped-accessible symbol emblazoned on the side of Serena’s Song commands attention.

Twenty-two years ago, when a friend of Gary Waldman offered a ride in his hot-air balloon, he grasped the wheelchair of his 2½-year-old disabled daughter and hoisted her into the basket. He cushioned the gondola, secured her chair to a fuel tank, and the pilot took flight.


To see photo galleries and access video of the balloon for wheelchair users, click here.

Airborne, experiencing what her father calls “the spectacle” for the first time, little Serena did something she had never done before. She laughed.

For a father who speaks of having been “very much earthbound with this little girl,” the vehicle that induced her first smiles became a source of hope. Waldman decided to find a way to share that experience with others with a balloon that allows a wheelchair to enter the basket and is equipped to secure the chair safely in place. It took six years to raise $30,000 in donations from the owner’s community in the Omaha area to build the accessible hot-air balloon.

Waldman and Phil Gray, the builder and pilot of Serena’s Song, will be among those flying at the Columbia Balloon Invitational that begins this evening with a media flight at Corporate Lake and continues through Sunday. The event is free to the public; proceeds from sponsorships and donations will benefit the Children’s Hospital at MU Health Care and the Children’s Miracle Network.

“Everyone kept asking us, ‘When are the balloons coming back to Columbia?’” said Vicki Fogue, one of the event’s coordinators. “We’ve just really had a passion to bring (Serena’s Song) in because we feel like it’s a balloon that really touches people’s lives.”

Serena’s Song will be offering tethered rides to people through Services for Independent Living, an organization whose mission is, in part, “to empower people with disabilities.”

“We come to Columbia on the shoulders of literally tens of thousands of people who, in one way or another, have helped with suggestions or monetary donations or whatever,” Waldman said.

The image on the cobalt blue balloon, christened with his daughter’s name to “allow her to speak without words,” is as symbolic as its name. The handicapped-accessible symbol and white script that adorn Serena’s balloon, as her father refers to it, together represent the hope that has sprung from their trials and the hope they intend to impart to others.

In the 16 years that Serena’s Song has been flying, almost 20,000 people with disabilities and their families have experienced the freedom in flight. In Findlay, Ohio, Waldman recalled, a man with Down syndrome was so excited after his ride that he ran two laps around the basket, fell on the ground waving his arms and legs, and yelled, “I’m so happy!”

Perhaps the pilot’s and owner’s fondest memory is of a 16-year-old girl in Tulsa, Okla., who spoke her first words exiting the gondola. The words she used? “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“These are real Americans; they’re real people,” Waldman said. “What this balloon brings to them is an opportunity to display uncommon courage facing an uncommon challenge.”

Waldman said his balloon team is the only one traveling the country to offer free rides in a wheelchair-accessible balloon. The men are proud of the breadth of their work, which extends from “coast to coast, border to border.” They have also just been invited to take Serena’s Song to Leon, Mexico. Now, though, the team is searching for a new sponsor after learning in January that a foreign takeover was ending their company sponsorship.

Waldman is humble about his work with Serena’s Song. “We get more out of this than we’re ever able to give,” he said. “It’s a wonderful sense of purpose. It’s wonderful to be able to share these experiences with people who literally never dreamed they would have this opportunity.”

At the Columbia Balloon Invitational, even more people will share that experience. For Waldman, the feeling never gets old. “It’s wonderful magic, it truly is.”

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