Balloon pilot gives tethered rides to special crew

Published 12:49 am Monday, October 19, 2009

NATCHEZ — Jon Friedrich passed up the chance to race for the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race title to carry some special cargo.

Friedrich, of Gordonville, Mo., was sponsored by Jones Web site Services and Natchez Clay and used Sunday morning to give tethered rides to a half-dozen Special Olympics children and their family members from Natchez.

Donna Jones, co-owner of Natchez Clay said after hosting a clay workshop for the children, she wanted to do something else special for them.

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“I just fell in love with them over the summer,” Jones said. “They are so endearing and just light up.”

So Jones, who has sponsored a balloon for the past several years, invited the children to come out and help crew during the balloon races.

Friedrich sweetened the deal when he agreed to give tethered rides to anyone brave enough to go up.

On Sunday every child was brave enough, and some even climbed into the basket for two rides.

“At first some were apprehensive, but eventually they all went up and loved it,” said Connie Gamberi, a Special Olympics parent. “Some were a little shaky when they got back on the ground, but it was an exciting experience for them.”

Sadie Saunders wasn’t scared at all.

“I’m going to go again,” she said. “I’ve already been once and it was fun.”

Ricky Warren, whose son Chandler Warren was one of the last to build up the courage to fly, said keeping the group active and exposing them to new opportunities and activities is part of creating a better life for their children.

“If we didn’t organize things for them to do, they wouldn’t have anything else to do,” Warren said. “We try to find fun things for them to do so they can have a life.”

On the ground, the children cheered on their friends and even encouraged and coaxed some anxious parents into the basket.

When mom Mandy Wisner was hovering above the Tracetown shopping center parking lot, daughter Haley Freeman was her biggest cheerleader.

“Go mom,” Haley shouted waving and blowing kisses toward the balloon.

“They enjoy being together,” Wisner said. “When they are alone they can be quiet and shy, but when they are together it brings out their personalities and gives them more confidence to try new things.

“We’re like one big happy family.”