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Sugar House Journal

Dream Catcher Balloon allows children in wheelchairs to fly high

Sep 23, 2019 14h24 ● By Deserae Dorton

Annika Ellefsen is strapped in with her brother and Captain Crystal Stout for the hot air balloon she’s been looking forward to all week. (Deserae Dorton/City Journals)

By Deserae Dorton | [email protected]

Four-year-old Annika Ellefsen, who was born with spina bifida, has been in a wheelchair as long as she can remember. So, riding in a hot air balloon, which typically has a wicker basket for riders, didn’t seem like a possibility. But thanks to S Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City  which hosted Dream Catcher Balloon, a hot air balloon with a custom-built base to accommodate people in wheelchairs, Annika did just that. She was all smiles after coming down from her early morning ride in August, exclaiming, “It was fun!” 

Jennifer Ellefsen, Annika’s mom appreciated the opportunity to attend the balloon event. Her daughter is so used to being left out of a lot of fun summer activities her able-bodied peers participate in. “She’s normally the one who is different, especially with her age group—they walk and run and play and go to the park and do slides,” Ellefsen said. She added that Annika had been waiting all week to come from their home in the Foothill area for the special event. 

Bringing this specialized experience to Salt Lake City

Laura Lewis-Hollingshead, recreation therapist at  Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City , invited the Dream Catcher Balloon to come to the hospital all the way from Washington State as a special way to cap off the summer camps program which groups patients of similar age and medical conditions together. The theme was “Around the World” in which each week they visited a different country.

“I can’t take all these kids on a plane,” Lewis-Hollingshead said, “but I thought, maybe I can take them up in a balloon. So, I contacted Captain Crystal Stout and it came together.” Lewis-Hollingshead loved seeing the kids’ faces when she told them we were going up in a balloon. “I love that about our patients. They aren’t afraid of having some adventure and having some fun.” 

The morning of the balloon ride, the recreation therapist observed some of the kids were anxious, but pushed past their fears and went for it. “Our patients are so good at pushing themselves and pushing boundaries that maybe even other people would put on them,” Lewis-Hollingshead said. “It was awesome to bring that little bit of summer adventure. And maybe when they all go back to school and their teacher says, ‘What did you do this summer?’ they can say, ‘I rode in a hot air balloon!’”

How is something like this possible?

Stout has been flying hot air balloons for over 35 years. Before forming Dream Catcher Balloon, she was tired of not having an answer when people with disabilities asked over and over, “How can I fly?” 

“I had a lady with no arms, no legs,” Stout said. “I had a senior who, at 4-feet tall couldn’t jump over a basket. I’ve had people with cerebral palsy. My best answer was, ‘I don’t know.’” At the time, no type of accommodations existed for people with disabilities in the hot air balloon industry, so she started searching for ways to be able to create something that would work. 

Through a combination of collaborating with an Italian company and local welders, a base was designed that looks nothing like what you’d typically see attached to a hot air balloon. The basket was abandoned and replaced with a metal base which the pilot and rider are strapped to. Sitting 22 inches from the ground, the aircraft allows those in chairs to easily slide comfortably into the seat. “The Dream Catcher Balloon Program is the opportunity to give everyone a chance to fly,” Stout said. “Not just those in wheelchairs. We’ve been in operation since October 2015 and we have since given close to 900 people a chance to fly.”

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