Serena's Song gives those with special needs an experience of a lifetime
The nation's first wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon creates magical experiences for everyone lucky enough to ride in its gondola.
The exhilaration of the balloon's occupants is contagious for onlookers who watch from the ground. Serena's Song seems to generate enthusiastic grins, bright eyes and warm fuzzy feelings.
Each year, Serena's Song and SEASPAR, the Southwest Association for Special Parks and Recreation, team up to register special-needs participants for a free tethered ride at the Lisle Eyes to the Skies Festival.
Among the dozen hot air balloons at the Lisle festival, the royal blue nine-story one has a distinctive large white access symbol of a person seated in a wheelchair on its front. On the figure's chest is a simple red heart.
"I tell others if you want to experience some cool sights, try to be brave and go for it," said Molly Sosnowski, a Special Olympian who won a silver medal in alpine skiing in Nagano, Japan, in 2005. "It is nice to be up high in the sky where I can see houses, rivers and baseball fields."
The Lisle resident has taken a number of rides aboard Serena's Song since 1995 when the balloon first came to the Lisle festival.
It was another special young lady who gave heart to Serena's Song 20 years ago. However, the story actually begins a few years earlier with the birth of Serena Waldman.
"I don't believe in accidents or coincidences, and this story had a bigger hand on it than we did," said Serena's father, Gary Waldman, recently from his home in Iowa.
Waldman and his wife, Cher, were told their infant daughter died at birth, but 21 minutes later, that decision was reversed. Born with cerebral palsy and other issues, the little girl remains nonverbal to this day, but her message was clear when her father took her at the age of 2 to share a ride with him in a hot air balloon.
"I had never seen (Serena) so excited and beaming," Waldman said. "Her squeals of delight were amazing."
The experience gave birth to Serena's Song because the Waldmans wanted to bring that same joy to others with special needs. The journey was an arduous eight-year challenge to create an FDA-approved, wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon.
"In the initial stages, I called the balloon 'The Impossible Dream,'" Waldman said. "But when (balloonist) Phil Gray was able to build an approved gondola, I knew the name would need to change. A friend came up with the name 'Serena's Song' since Serena is not verbal; this balloon is her song."
"The balloon needed to be approved to fly using unique engineering," said Phil Gray, picking up the story when reached by phone last week. "The basket itself needed to be 15 times stronger than another basket without the door."
Serena's Song's aluminum superstructure has an uncommon door that allows wheelchairs to board and special aircraft bolts to secure the chair once inside. The balloon itself is made from 1,600 yards of Ripstop nylon.
Waldman and Gray now take the special balloon across the country to hot air balloon shows where special needs children and adults may take 15-minute tethered flights free of charge. Sponsorships that help defray costs are always a need.
For a period of time, another incredible coincidence helped finance Serena's Song's travels. Bob and Beverly Lewis from California were the owners of a successful racehorse also named Serena's Song.
The champion-caliber filly was winning major races when the couple met the Waldmans. Was it a coincidence that the couple's American thoroughbred shared the name with a hot air balloon?
The Lewises were so moved by Waldman's story and efforts to bring joy to disabled children that they gave a percentage of each winning purse to help defray the costs of the hot air balloon. Serena's Song the filly was inducted into the Horse Racing National Museum's Hall of Fame in 2002.
"The horse Serena's Song is now retired and having colts," Waldman said. "She was wonderfully successful and everything went well."
The Waldmans have had to struggle financially to purchase the specially designed hot air balloon and keep it flying, but they refuse to charge for any flight because they know there is no shortage of magical moments waiting to happen.
"When we were in Tulsa, a 16-year-old girl with a spinal defect whispered 'Thank you' and at the end of the flight was shouting 'Thank you,'" Gray said. "Her parents came to the balloon with tears in their eyes, because those were the first words their daughter ever said."
"The person who gets into the balloon is never the same person who gets out of the balloon," Waldman said. "The balloon represents a challenge of courage every time."
"I have done all kinds of things with balloons and won many races, but experiencing Serena's Song is the best thing ever," Gray said.
SEASPAR schedules all Serena's Song rides while in Lisle and provides volunteers to the area.
"It has been a wonderful experience for so many people," said SEASPAR executive director Susan Friend, who doesn't miss an opportunity to be on the Lisle field. "The most fliers we had in a single year came in 2010 with 189. Our youngest rider was 23 months old and our oldest was 93."
Special needs children and adults may reserve a ride in Serena's Song by contacting SEASPAR at seaspar.org or (630) 960-7600 for a registration form. Rides will take place 6 to 7:30 a.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, June 29 to July 1. All rides depend on weather conditions. There is no festival admission charge for the early morning flights.
The 30th annual Lisle Eyes to the Skies Festival tickets are $5 and include admission to musical entertainment, lumberjack shows, children's area, food court, craft fair, fireworks and more in Lisle Community Park, Route 53 and Short Street. For details on parking, admission and mega tickets, go to eyestotheskies.org.
On the surface, this column appears to be a story of a hot air balloon, but it is really a love story about the strength and compassion of the human spirit.
• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. Her column appears twice a month in Neighbor.
If you goWhat: Serena's Song wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon at Eyes to the Skies
When: 6 to 7:30 a.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, June 29 to July 1
Where: Balloon field at Eyes to the Skies in Community Park, Route 53 and Short Street, Lisle
Details: Children and adults with special needs can take 15-minute tethered rides
Info: eyestotheskies.org or seaspar.org