NEWTON, MA. — A memorial balloon’s journey from Eaton to Newton, Massachusetts went viral on social media last week when the woman who found it took to Facebook to return it to its owner.
Heidi Schwartz of Needham, Mass., said, “On Tuesday, I was walking to pick my son up at his school, and I spotted a yellow balloon on the grass next to the roadside. I could see there was writing on it, so I picked it up, and I saw that was from Eaton, Ohio.”
The message said, “I love and miss you daddy/Eaton Ohio/5-25-16,” and bore the name Elizabeth.
“I figured it was a Memorial Day thing,” Schwartz said, “because the date was so close to that, and I thoughti t would be nice to see if we could find the person who sent it.”
Schwartz posted a photograph of the balloon on her personal Facebook page, but gained no traction since none of her friends knew anyone in the Eaton area. Making the Memorial Day connection, she posted the photo to Eaton’s VFW Post 8066 Facebook page, hoping someone could connect her with the family of the presumed veteran mentioned in the message.
Her caption read: “Does anyone know who Elizabeth is? I’d love for her to find out how far her balloon went.”
Within hours, the post had reached the attention of Elizabeth’s grandmother, Diane Helmig Salisbury, and the VFW page posted that that Elizabeth and her sister released the balloon for their late father, Army Private First Class Gustavo Adolfo Rios-Ordonez, who was killed by enemy forces during a 2011 tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“They talk to him, we write on balloons and then we fill them with helium and they send them out so they can reach him in heaven,” wife Tiffani Rios told Boston CBS affiliate WBZ-TV.
Daughters Isabella and Elizabeth were babies when they lost their father, but Tiffani works to keep his memory alive.
“It makes me feel good that they want [to] try to talk to him,” she said.
Both Isabella and Elizabeth released balloons. After they drifted up and out of sight, Elizabeth’s slowly floated east for the next 13 days, covering more than 800 miles and traveling over the countrysides and occasional cityscapes of the entire states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, parts of West Virginia and New York, and possibly parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, or even New Jersey before gradually descending over Massachusetts, quietly drifting across a suburban street and coming to rest on a grassy shoulder in Newton, about three hours west of Boston.
Quite a journey for a child’s balloon. The distance certainly surprised Tiffani.
“I figured maybe Kentucky or Indiana or something, close to where we’re at,” she said.
Born in Pereira, Colombia, Pfc. Rios-Ordonez joined the Army in 2010 as an infantry mortarman, according to an Army press release, and deployed to Afghanistan in February 2011 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He was on dismounted patrol near the southern village of West Pashmul when he hit an IED and died from wounds sustained. Rios-Ordonez was 25.
After learning the balloon had been found, Tiffani privately contacted Schwartz via Facebook.
“We had a very brief typing exchange, and that was about it,” Schwartz said. “She said she has two girls who each let a balloon go, and they were happy one was found, and would like to receive it back.”
Schwartz’s Facebook post on the VFW Facebook page went viral over Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, garnering 27,000 reactions and over 2,000 comments, and being shared around the globe nearly 70,000 times. News about the post and Schwartz connecting with Rios to return the balloon was picked up by outlets such as CBS, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press, in turn read by several thousands more the world over.
“I’m preparing to send it back to them tomorrow,” Schwartz said by phone on Sunday, June 12. “It’s looking a little worse for the wear now. It was still a little puffy when I found it, but it’s deflated now.”
Tiffany sees the incident as a sign.
“We told [Elizabeth and Isabella] that he was sending a message back, that he received the balloon and that he still loves them. It’s really nice for people to even wonder about him, because he wasn’t even from here and he died for this country.”