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Nine-year-old Gretchen Scheele got her first hot-air balloon ride last Monday evening, and she's not shy about sharing her excitement.
"It was the best day of my life," she said. "I saw the ground and I waved to the crowd and it was awesome."
The ride was part of The Lutheran Church of Mahomet's Vacation Bible School program. Organizer Alicia Ekhoff said that she started looking into arranging a visit from a hot-air balloon to coincide with this year's VBS theme, "Sky."
She soon found a Mahomet couple, Dave and Kathy Reineke, and their balloon "Sunsational."
Arranging the visit was "pretty easy," Ekhoff said, after a few insurance and logistical formalities.
As the week began, Ekhoff and her fellow organizers kept an eye on the weather forecast, knowing that conditions had to be perfectly calm for a tethered launch. Last Monday evening proved perfect.
The balloon was tethered to a few pickup trucks lent for the occasion, in the grassy lot east of the church.
All of the kids in attendance that night got to go up in the balloon, in groups of three or four, as well as most of the adults and even some neighborhood residents who came to watch. The launch was such a success that Ekhoff is looking into making it an annual tradition.
For most kids, "there was just no fear," Ekhoff said.
Third-grader Lauren Schnepper said that she was excited for her first balloon ride.
"I didn't actually see any clouds," she reported. "But we saw a lot of birds flying over us."
She said that she was also surprised by the size of the craft. "Hot air balloons look really tiny, up in the air," she said, adding that up close, the balloon was huge.
"Most of the time I had my eyes shut, because I was scared," fifth-grader Isabelle Farm said, but added that, like Scheele, she felt it was a great experience.
It was also Ekhoff's first time in a hot-air balloon. Floating 50 feet above Mahomet, "it was very peaceful," she said.