By Scott Wittig
Imagine you just walked into a surprise party and you are the guest of honor. The people in that room would most likely be those who know you the best, right? Family. Close friends. Neighbors and co-workers with whom you are tight.
Now imagine I walked in just after ‘SURPRISE!’ was yelled, put my hand on your shoulder and asked the group this question, “What should this person be doing with their life that they are not doing?” They would all have an answer and most of them would be the same. The answer is typically going to be something you are extremely passionate about yet are not in action upon.
My friend’s answers would be that I should be serving seriously-ill children in some way, shape or form. Or, should I say, their answers WOULD have said that until June 10, 2017 – the day The Red Balloon Project held its first party.
At the beginning of the week of her 5th birthday, my daughter’s dear friend was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor on her brain stem and was given weeks to months to live. In their grief, Ella Newmiller’s parents could only ask for one thing when asked by their friends, “What can we do?” They simply wanted Ella to have an awesome birthday party.
I quickly found myself on the planning committee that put together the 5th birthday party to surpass all 5th birthday parties.
After arriving in a horse drawn carriage with her family, Ella and her friends enjoyed a princess themed party that included a DJ, bubble machine, interactions with mascots, a magician, cake…and a crowning by a real princess (a Miss North Carolina contestant in full pageant attire). That day will never be forgotten and I feel certain it was one of Ella’s top memories that she took to Heaven with her.
If being witness to the passion that stirred and went into action in all who planned and executed the party wasn’t enough to stir my passion for serving little kids who are fighting a health battle, serving as a pallbearer at a little girl’s funeral certainly was.
After sharing this passion with my dear friend Allen Smith (who happened to be sitting with me when I received the call from my wife about Ella’s diagnosis), we started to devise our plan to create an organization that would pay us with smiles at parties, just like those we got from Ella at her party. We started by reaching out to organizations in our area that already served families like those we aimed to serve; that is where we started to learn many lessons:
- It is NOT true that you can never expect anyone to be as excited about your idea as you are, especially when it comes to seriously-ill children and their families. We were received with open arms and were immediately supported by organizations like the MeFine Foundation and Ronald McDonald House.
- You must pay attention to details you never knew would be factors in your mission. In our case, one of the first of those details was that kids may be on restrictions during the cold weather months, restrictions that may keep them from being able to attend one of our parties. It is just like starting a business – certain information needs to come in before you can take the next step.
- You do not always have to form your own 501(c)3. We are so thankful to have been introduced to what became our parent organization – “Together We Can” – very early on in the process. They handle all that “money stuff” for us so we can stay focused on our mission.
The Red Balloon Project is the culmination of a few years’ worth of casual, occasional conversation between two 40+ year old dudes who wanted to serve kids living through a serious health challenge, paired with the passion and drive of a few select friends who round out our leadership team. “Our vision, your execution” were the words I used when I addressed our leadership team and our 60+ volunteers at our first party on June 10th of this year.
We served 11 sweet little princesses that day. Many are living through childhood cancer, one has Cystic Fibrosis, others have very rare conditions – all paid us with huge smiles as they followed the lead of the “Unbirthday Party” scene in Alice in Wonderland and celebrated for no reason at all. Our name is inspired by the desire to help their worries float away for a day, like a red balloon.
Passion became project, just as it does with so many organizations that exist to do good.
Scott Wittig wears many hats. He pays the bills as a twenty-plus year veteran of mortgage originating. When he is not writing mortgages, he is writing books and running "The Red Balloon Project" with his wife, Jeanne, and two children in Apex, North Carolina. More info about the program can be found at www.redballoonprojectnc.org