What would you do if you had the chance to help and inspire children suffering with serious medical problems? Rick Unger took his interest in photography and ballooning and started Lift Your Spirits High. The non-profit group visits hospitals and distributes color photos of hot air balloons, posters, puzzles, coloring sheets and anything else they may have in their bag of tricks that week. For those out-patients who are able, LYSH arranges hot air balloon rides.
It all came about in 1985 when, Chatra, daughter of Sacramento residents Rick and Jenny Unger was diagnosed with leukemia. With a loved one in the hospital, the Ungers spent many hours visiting Chatra as their daughter entered the revolving door of in-patient/out-patient care. The entire family had recently fallen in love with ballooning after a trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta where Rick had gone on a photographic safari. During Chatra's hospital stays, Rick began to decorate her room with balloon pictures.
Over the following year he noticed the photographs of distinctively shaped Mickey Mouse (Ear Force One), Donald Duck (Zip-a-dee-do-Duck), and Tony the Tiger were attracting the attention of hospital staff. Unbeknownst to the Ungers, they had injected an element of color and excitement into the normally staid and drab University of California at Davis Medical Center. Soon, the hospital staff were bringing other children into Chatra's room to see the photos.
Rick and Jenny instantly recognized that something was missing from these other children's lives. They wanted to do something about it and figured their new passion for ballooning offered a way to help other people while dealing with their own concerns over Chatra's treatment. The Ungers saw ballooning as an opportunity for them to give something to children who were having to deal with the adult emotions of illness, loneliness, and fear.
From these beginnings evolved the organization now known as Lift Your Spirit High. Simply stated, LYSH is a group of balloonists dedicated to bringing joy to children in hospitals. They do this by conducting weekly, in-hospital visitations and delivering, whenever possible, 8x10" color photographs, posters, puzzles, coloring sheets, anything pertaining to hot air ballooning. In 1989 LYSH was officially organized as a California non-profit organization with 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.
The photos, gifts, and other accouterments of ballooning were a simple way to divert the hospitalized children but Rick wanted to do more. He wanted to take the kids up in a real balloon so they could experience the same exhilaration he felt floating high above the ground.
Without a balloon of his own, Unger asked other pilots if they would take kids who were able for a balloon flight. The balloon community in northern California and Nevada responded with enthusiasm.
Rick at that point could only hope that some day LYSH would have a balloon of its own to fly children. A balloon that one day, when he had his balloon pilot license, he would be able to take his own daughter for a ride. The reality of the Unger's financial situation made it only a dream.
In December of 1991, balloonist Wendy Ceccherelli came up with an idea. Together with Connie Hough and Carol Lancaster-Mingus, they began soliciting donations from interested balloonists, seeded with a $500 donation from Mark Jacques. They raised $2600 to purchase an old balloon and setup a modest fund to cover first year expenses. Trouble was, the envelope was in bad shape and not repairable. As word of the project spread through the balloon community a second envelope, which was repairable, was donated by Rob and Cassy Rawnsley.
Enter Mark West, with Aerostar International, Inc., who donated fabric to repair the old bag. Dozens of people volunteered to cut fabric and sew this balloon together. A trailer, inflation fans, picnic basket, and CB radio were also given. In all, more than 100 people made contributions of cash, equipment, and/or their time to work on the project. By late 1992, Wendy had found everything to operate and transport a balloon and pay insurance for one year.
Then the real fun began. Everyone involved with the project believed this was the kind of gift that needed to be given with pomp and ceremony. They also wanted it to be a surprise to Rick. When Wendy was hired for a new job, a plan was born. Rick and Jenny Unger would be invited to a going away party for Wendy. Of course, the real reason for the party, and everyone but Rick and Jenny knew it, was to present the newly remodeled balloon to its new owner-Lift Your Spirit High. It goes without saying that the party was a success, the surprise complete, and a good time was had by all.
Now, fast forward four years. They still deliver lots of ballooning goodies to hospitalized kids and they've taken over a hundred of these kids on flights throughout the Sacramento Valley. There are branch offices in Portland, Maine, and Fort Worth, Texas. The idea has certainly grown and spread with a close cadre of 90 pilots, nationwide, who take part in Lift Your Spirit High.
Rick Unger says, "When I first started LYSH, it was a therapeutic goal for me. I needed something as a distraction from the things we were experiencing at home with Chatra." Always interested in flying, even as a youngster, Rick discovered after his first flight at Albuquerque that, "I knew it stuck a string in my heart." He says, "It was everything I was looking for; everything that flight was supposed to be."
That all has changed and Rick doesn't fly for "fun" anymore. "I've found a way to take that love and share it with kids. Some of them don't know it, but they don't have a whole lot of future to look forward to." He doesn't fly for money either: never. "The only time I go up now is when I have a child to fly." But that original balloon, old and tired as it was back in 1992, is about to finally give up the ghost. And so, Rick Unger finds himself in the unenviable position of finding a way to replace it.
Lift Your Spirit High is trying to raise $25,000 for a new system. Unlike most non- profit organizations, nobody in LYSH gets a dime in salary or compensation. All the money they raise goes to the program, which in addition to equipment expenses, costs $75 a flight. They need a new balloon and trailer so pilots will be able to travel to more areas, protect the balloon from the elements, and quadruple the number of kids they fly every year. "We work a lot with trauma centers," Unger says. "Kids come in to these hospitals, which are regionally-based, often times from as far away as Asia, the Soviet Union, and other far-distant shores. Because the kids don't know anyone, they're, lost, lonely, and depressed and badly in need of a lift of spirits."
Through the years, LYSH has received generous support from Aerostar, Tower Records, Sound Stream Technologies, and with donations of propane from Empiregas. One day they would like to create an endowment to support the organization, but with an organization completely run by volunteers, LYSH has been unable to set up a donor program for individuals or corporations to make donations.
Choosing the kids to go up in a balloon is done by hospital staff. Nurses and doctors have been briefed on ballooning. "We meet with the staff, show them what we do, and answer all their questions," Unger says. "Then they send the kids to us."
The role of Lift Your Spirit High doesn't end with the conclusion of a flight. They publish a periodic newsletter and invite the children and their families to a series of yearly events. The whole idea is to stay in contact with the kids. "We want the kids and families to know that just because their flight is over, that we still support and care about them." Their special events include last year's Father's Day candle glow which treated 250 kids and their families to a catered dinner.
With cynicism running rife these days, it is truly gratifying to see people involved in something for the act of giving. Unger says, "This isn't done to promote the sport of ballooning even though we are balloonists active in the sport. Because we're not into competitive events, we've found something that we like to do and a way to give it to other people." Idealism like that is hard to find in this world and it's great to see it coming from the ballooning community.
For more information about or to contribute to Lift Your Spirit High, write to LYSH, c/o Rick Unger, 275 Silver Eagle Road, Sacramento, CA 95838, (916) 929-6735, or e- mail to LYSH@poboxes.com.