Balloon rides celebrate joy, freedom for disabled

By Lindsey Collom
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 14, 2002

A smile and laugh from 17 years ago continues to inspire Gary Waldman.
It was then that his 2-year-old daughter, Serena, had a day of firsts: her first hot-air balloon ride and first visible sign of joy. Serena, born with severe cerebral palsy, had seemed incapable of showing emotion before then.

"We were pretty much dealing with a comatose child; she was having seizures every 60 seconds," Waldman said. "To see her break out of that was just amazing for me."

Today and Friday, Waldman will share that wonderment with disabled Valley residents and their families as part of Serena's Song, a free hot-air balloon ride at Margaret T. Hance Deck Park, one block south of McDowell on Central Avenue, Phoenix. Rides will begin at 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

One out of every 500 babies born in the United States has some form of cerebral palsy. Children with mild cases often recover by the time they are school age, but for most, it's a lifelong disability. Today, Serena, 19, is still living with cerebral palsy.

Waldman and his crew travel to about 20 cities a year with a wheelchair-accessible hot-air balloon, the first of its kind approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. About 12,000 disabled children and their families have participated in Serena's Song since 1991.

"It wonderful for them (families) to see their children reaching out with courage," the Iowa resident said.

The event is one of many outdoor activities sponsored by Easter Seals of Arizona.

"Once they've conquered a week in the back country of Lake Powell, they get back to their community and realize that getting on a bus and going to a job is of little consequence after they've accomplished something," said Mike Tufty, director of adaptive respite and recreation for Easter Seals.

Information: (602) 252-6061, Ext. 102 or www.azseals.org.
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