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Second graders mark Kansas Day with balloon launch
balloon launch 1
A youngster tries to follow a balloon after it was launched, at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. - photo by VERONICA COONS Great Bend Tribune

Gassing up the Helium supply

According to a Jan. 24, 2013, story by Omar Mouallem, writing for Avenue Edmonton online magazine, helium, the gas that makes balloons soar, was happened upon accidentally in 1922, when it was discovered during the process of liquefying natural gas. It is a finite substance, and in 2013, was in really short supply around the world.
“There are just six helium-focused factories in North America slowing that clock, with some closing for maintenance every summer. Rushing to mitigate the shortage, new factories in Algeria and Qatar produce it from natural gas with less than half the helium potency. “I wouldn’t say there’s a worldwide shortage, but there’s a worldwide accessibility problem, both geographically and financially,” says Webb, who was asked last year to send his helium allocation to a Maritimes hospital.”

At  14:30 hours Central Time Wednesday afternoon, several small aircraft launched from the playground at Great Bend’s Lincoln Elementary School, blew across the ball field and the newly planted grass, and a few lucky spheres were lifted on the wind. Within a week or so, second-grade students in Susan Young’s and Meredith Ramsey’s classes should receive responses to their messages with letters and maps of where the remnants of these tiny aircraft were located, if history is any guide.  
It’s been happening for over a decade now, and this year, for Young, there was a bittersweet feeling that has accompanied the tradition she has built, from the day she began collecting supplies, to the final notes of Happy Birthday sung on the edge of the ball field by 60 young voices in honor of Kansas Day. In January, Young announced she will retire from teaching at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. She has been a teacher for USD 428 since 1988.

The tradition is born
In 2001, the year she came to Lincoln, Young organized the first launch. A friend arranged for a donation of helium from Central Kansas Medical Center, enough for each student in her class to launch one balloon. Tags were attached with the address of Lincoln Elementary on one side, and a brief note from the student sending it on the other. They launched the balloons from the playground, and within the week, the first response was received.
Each year since then, the school’s second grade has observed Kansas Day with this tradition.
Some years, several tags made it home, while others, only one. And the responses were always quick, within a day to a month.
Young observed the responses always came from the east or southeast. Some responses came from as close as a block away, while others traveled to farmers, hunters, and oil and water scientists as far away as Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Not only did the students get a kick out of the launch itself, from each response they received, their interest in geography was heightened.   
“I’m thrilled people take time to write, map and share their knowledge of Great Bend with the students,” Young said. “When you consider all the fields and open space out there, it’s amazing we get any back at all.”
Laminated letters complete with the original tags and maps or pictures of where the balloons were found line the hall to Lincoln’s library this week.  

Helium shortage a problem
Over the years, the crucial component — helium — has come from different donors. After several years, the hospital could no longer supply it, but another friend, Kevin Ensley, stepped in. But a helium shortage in 2013 meant the class had to improvise. 
“I even tried going to stores like Party America, and was told that I could not get the quantity of helium-filled balloons we needed,” she said.   
So, she and the students attempted the launch without the high-flying gas. The result was predictable. The balloons barely made it across the street.  Still, Great Bend residents, and even some of Lincoln’s staff collected the balloons that rolled about by the front doors and in the bushes around the school, and took the time to write to the kids.  

Could 2014 be the final launch?
This year, two small helium tanks were purchased from an area store, each advertising enough gas to fill 30 balloons. That was just enough for both Young’s and Meredith Ramsey’s second-grade classes to carry on the tradition. Still, the balloons were already flying low just hours after being filled by her “balloon brigade” which met at 7 a.m. that morning to inflate and tie strings to the 60 bright yellow balloons.  
The attached laminated tags caused some drag. But that didn’t bring down the enthusiasm the students had for a chance to take part in what had over the past decade become a tradition.
In recent years, information about the environmental concerns that go hand in hand with balloon launches like this have troubled her, Young admits.  
“I kept doing it because each year, the third graders would come to me and tell me how much fun they had, and older brothers and sisters would talk about it too,” she said.  
She doesn’t know what will happen next year. But as the students lined up to go back to class, Young and Ramsey could be overheard discussing ways to improve next year’s launch — from the size of the tags to the way they are attached. For now, the memory of a sunny but chilly afternoon punctuated with running and laughter and singing will linger.

To view some of the letters that accompanied returned tags from the past decade, visit the photo gallery here