Like starting a lawn mower, the man jerks the gas-powered fan to life. He directs the air flow into the open mouth of a deflated hot air balloon that stretches across the grass at Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon, Calif. The sound of buzzing fans soon fills the air, as one-by-one the pilots and their crews participating in the balloon festival prepare to launch.
Anticipation animates the faces of the crowd who rose much earlier than usual on this particular Saturday to attend an event designed to raise awareness and financial support for Children's Hospital Central California. As the sun creeps toward the horizon, the row of deflated balloons begins to transform. Inching up from the ground, one balloon teeters to and fro, bobbing into the path of two girls who giggle and back away, only to draw near again as the balloon reaches its perfectly erect position above its wicker basket.
Many attendees recline on picnic blankets. Others settle into the lawn chairs they’d carted with them. Cheers go up from the crowd as the first balloon lifts into the air. Playful dogs enjoy the family outing every bit as much as their human counterparts. A hum of excitement spreads through the crowd as one balloon hugs the ground, skimming just above the upturned faces. Children wrestle on the dewy grass as the rushing sound of the propane burner announces the ascent of yet another balloon.
And so began the sixth annual Color The Skies balloon festival held Labor Day weekend. The balloon launch signaled the opening of what has quickly become a favorite event for families in the North Valley.
The final balloon to launch contained a special little passenger. An excited 7-year-old Adham Hamza climbed into the basket attached to an enormous balloon emblazoned with the Hospital’s logo. Adham served as the patient ambassador this year. A tumor the size of a small orange has nestled in the middle of his head since he was a baby, but it hasn’t stifled his dreams.
“The pilot really enjoyed giving him a ride,” said Teri Amerine, director of annual giving for Children's Hospital Central California Foundation. “He said Adham kept talking about how he’s going to be a chef one day.”
Long after the last balloon disappeared from view with its young passenger flying almost as high as his dreams, the festival’s activities kept everyone looking up. A kite team steered their colorful kites to the sound of music, making them appear to dance. Small children dipped big bubble wands into large buckets of solution, and twirled and skipped, releasing dozens and dozens of bubbles into the air. Skydivers descended toward the ground and landed at a full run where the balloons had once been. The Patriots Jet Team performed aerobatics while children tethered to bungee ropes spun and flipped a little closer to earth.
Meanwhile, Air George attracted a crowd on the field below. The Hospital’s beloved giraffe mascot, dressed in a superhero cape, decorates the Bell 407 helicopter. Air George travels the entire state to provide emergency transport to over 300 patients annually.
A large crowd attended this year’s two-day event packed with activities, entertainment and plenty of good things to eat. Hundreds of generous sponsors, vendors and volunteers helped raise needed funds to benefit Children's Hospital Central California. As attendance and support grows at the balloon festival each year, ill and injured children in the North Valley and throughout Central California benefit from the high-quality healthcare services available at Children's Hospital. As a result, Color The Skies helps give Valley families a reason to keep looking up.