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Ripons Color the Skies lift spirits
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A balloon lifts off from the Color the Skies festival at Ripons Mistlin Sports Park. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

The second day of the Color the Skies over Ripon fundraiser Sunday saw Ripon’s young cancer survivor Riley Simmons, 10, treated to her first hot air balloon ride as the “Free Spirit” ascended out of Mistlin Sports Park with her grandfather Kurt Hodges at her side.

Simmons was somewhat tentative about the experience as San Jose pilot Dana Thornton assured her she would be alright and have a good time floating over her school, the City of Ripon, Salida and north Modesto.

Thousands of onlookers were on hand to watch the colorful balloons take flight both days.

Riley and her family were the focus of the entire community over a year ago when it was learned the young fifth grader at Colony Oak Elementary School had what was first thought to be inoperable brain cancer.  That community effort raised enough money to allow the girl’s dad to be with her in a San Francisco hospital – they in effect paid his salary while she went through numerous surgeries with both mom and dad at her side. 

She has been credited for her strong desire and drive to recover learning to speak and walk again after her surgeries with months in the hospital and finally returning to her classroom.

She was quick to tell of the things she is most happy about today including the Make a Wish Foundation’s trip to the Disney hotel at Oahu, HI, where she was given her wish to swim with the dolphins.

On Saturday Riley, 10,  and the poster girl for the Children’s Hospital of Central California, Tiffany Garland, 24, of Manteca, met for the first time at the rear of the “Air George” helicopter that had flown into Ripon’s Mistlin Sports Park on Saturday – both unexpected survivors.

Garland had a form of Spina Bifida at birth in Sacramento’s U.C. Davis Medical Center.  Doctors had told her parents they didn’t expect her to survive and, if she did, she would probably be a vegetable, at best in a wheelchair and unable to walk for the rest of her life.  She proved them wrong and is now on a track to go into nursing and is currently finding  special ways to help children in need. 

She said her parents told her she had to be airlifted by helicopter from Davis to the Children’s hospital in Madera where the important state-of-the-art technology was available that made a difference in her survival and recovery.  Tiffany has a special talent in remembering numbers – once she sees or hears the numbers she never forgets them, her aunt said.

Both girls hugged and agreed about the importance of fighting against the negative odds they both faced in their lives.  Garland is currently in the Caps Plus educational facility program located on Manteca’s Union Road.

About a dozen hot air balloons were inflated both days at day break including the 100-foot-wide Wells Fargo Bank entry that awed the many early risers that turned out to witness the envelopes filling up and the balloons flying off into an almost windless sky at about 7 a.m. both days.

There was a never ending line of people waiting to get a ride in the one tethered Re/Max balloon at a charge of $10 a ride.  The balloon ascended with its basket 50 to 100 feet in the air with fire putting hot air into its envelope for what was described as a thrilling experience. 

A pancake and eggs with sausage breakfast was served both days – cooked and served by volunteers with the National Anthem sung by Nykea Miles.  On the other hand a group of Boy Scouts were miffed while trying to sell popcorn in their fund raising booth – being asked numerous times by festival goers for Girl Scout cookies.

A highlight for Sunday afternoon was an ice cream party with Mickey and SpongeBob.