The goal of the launch was to raise funds to assist veterans
in need, something the Legion does on a regular basis. At that time
they were hoping to collect 1,000 names of local veterans to be
placed in 1,000 balloons to be set aloft in a special ceremony on
They also had hopes of raising $1,000 through
donations that would accompany the submission of names.
However, when the big day arrived, they found they had not just
met their goal; they had exceeded it by much more than they could
ever have imagined.
According to Laura Slayton, who first brought the idea of the
balloon launch to the Legion, the total number of names collected
came to 2,800, almost triple what they had hoped for.
And the amount of money raised went through the roof, ending in a
On the day of the launch, hundreds of people showed up to watch
red, white, blue and gold balloons take to the skies. As the day
went along, the wind picked up considerably, coming in from the
southwest. When the balloons were released, it was a spellbinding
sight as they quickly lifted and headed off in a northeasterly
With the balloons gone, the day done and the money counted, the
group was elated with what they had accomplished. They did, however,
have one more wish: that out in the world there would be a few
people who would find the balloons and contact them.
It took only a few days for that wish to start coming true as
well. The first word that balloons had been found came when Tecia
Hennessey received a call from a reporter of the Herald Argus in La
Porte, Ind. Thirty of the balloons had been found on the lawn of
Helen Hatchel. The La Porte paper ran a front-page report about the
balloons and the Lincoln launch.
This week, auxiliary president Suzann Lolling, Marlene Schrader,
Hennessey and Slayton met with local media and talked about some of
the responses they have received about the balloons.
To date they have received letters from individuals in
Blackstone, Bourbonnais, Chenoa and the Greater Kankakee Airport in
Illinois, and Chesterton and South Bend, Ind., in addition to
hearing from the Herald Argus.
Schrader also noted a few of the balloons had landed at Christian
Homes in Lincoln, some on Madison Street in town, and Dan Bock of
Lincoln had found some on his rural Logan County farm.
In most of the letters, the senders sent back the little pieces
of paper with the veterans' names on them. Among the names that
returned to Lincoln were Lowell and Melvin Aper; Charles W.
Anderson, who was a prisoner of war; Wilbur Baker; Robert Krautz;
Mike Lolling, who was Suzann's husband; Dallas Reinhart; Frank Ryan
Sr.; Noah Schrader, who is currently in the Navy; and Zane Shelton,
manager of the Lincoln Neal Tire -- just to name a very few.
They noted a letter where the finder of the balloons was familiar
with Lincoln and had relatives in the area.
The last letter they received was a very special one for the
group because it came from another American Legion post: Post 143 in
Bristol, Ind. Slayton said it was the one from the farthest away,
but there were other things that made it special as well.
The finder of the balloons was a member of Post 143. He found a
total of 53 balloons, with 53 names, all of which were returned to
When he found the balloons, he took them to the local post. That
post commander, Pete Owens, wrote a very nice letter to the Lincoln
post, and to commemorate their post number, included a donation of
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In addition, they sent their license plate to the Lincoln post.
Schrader explained that every Legion has its own custom-designed
license plate. These are often used as gifts when Legionnaires get
together. In the lounge at the Lincoln post there is a nice display
of all the plates that have been collected by C. Wayne Schrader. The
plate from Bristol has been added to the display.
Marlene Schrader said the Lincoln post plans to return the
gesture by sending the Bristol post a Lincoln plate along with one
of the special balloon launch T-shirts.
With the arrival of all the letters and return of the names, the
auxiliary members said they felt that this experience was coming to
a close, and that it has been incredible for all of them.
The next step is to decide what to do with all the money they
raised. The Lincoln post and auxiliary raise funds annually to
support the veterans homes in Danville and Manteno. In addition,
they use the funds raised to assist local veterans in local nursing
The group said they rarely have the opportunity to do something
truly significant, so they are going to contact the homes in
Danville and Manteno to ask the directors if there is a specific
larger-ticket item that is needed at the home. After they have heard
back from the homes, they will decide how to go forward.
In addition to the large-ticket item, the group also makes
smaller purchases that can be used by individual veterans. An
example of this is what are called "canteen books." The books are
used like cash at the home's canteen or store. Veterans are given
these coupon books and can use them to make purchases from the
Locally, the money is used to purchase gifts for local veterans
in nursing homes, such as gifts at Christmas. The group also
purchases items such as fruit baskets, and they buy postage stamps
for veterans to use.
The group said there were so many who volunteered to help, too
many to name, but nonetheless, they were all greatly appreciated.
They noted they had hoped for 15 volunteers to help inflate the
balloons, and on Memorial Day morning, 38 people showed up to help.
They recalled Paul Schrader by name, saying he had personally put
every name in every balloon. And they also remembered Mike Farnam by
name. He brought his own sound equipment and set it up outside to
assure that the speakers and special music performances were well
So, with this year's event being such a success, will it become
an annual event?
Slayton said no. There will be no balloon launch next year. She
said the group had been very fortunate in that three veterans from
Pekin who owned a gas business donated three large tanks of helium
for this year's event. The value of that donation she estimated to
be more than $600. But Slayton said helium is becoming a rare
commodity because it is used a great deal for medical purposes. This
makes it hard to get and expensive when you can get it.
However, that doesn't mean the auxiliary won't come up with
something new for next year. The group hinted that they are already
thinking about next year, but it's just too soon to say what they
might come up with.
[By NILA SMITH]