By Hillary S. Meeks
Killeen Daily Herald
Startled shouts burst from a crowd of children Wednesday morning as flames suddenly shot into a partially inflated red, white and blue hot-air balloon on the grounds of Fowler Elementary School.
Their surprise turned to amazement as the nylon material filled out and stretched upward, like a sleeping giant, towering 90 feet over the school playground.
"When it started going up in the air, that was cool," said fourth-grader Gillian Bowle.
Fowler principal Sue Cummings arranged the special event to reward her students for their United Way fundraising efforts.
"This school has traditionally raised more money per student than any other school in the district, and we're one of the smallest schools," she said.
Prior to the balloon inflation, Cummings addressed the students and commended them for selling hot dogs, pickles, nachos and other items to raise United Way money. By Wednesday morning, she knew the school had accumulated more than $4,000 for the charity.
While Wednesday was the last day for the school's drive still more fund-raising activities were planned for the afternoon, so a total dollar amount was unknown, she said.
"We are certainly the small school with a big heart," she told the throng of students.
Cummings' inspiration to have a balloon inflated in front of the children came from a hot air balloon ride she and her husband took.She thought watching a balloon inflate would delight her students, so she called local real estate company, RE/MAX Platinum, which willingly obliged.
"The balloon is available for special events. All they have to do is contact our office. If we can coordinate it, we'll do it," said Copperas Cove RE/MAX Platinum employee Brian Hawkins.
The massive balloon took about 40 minutes to inflate while students waited in anticipation, listening to songs such as "Up, Up and Away" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Even on a calm day, Hawkins said, it takes awhile for a balloon of that size to be inflated. While clouds threatened bad weather Wednesday morning, he said it ended up being a perfect day for the event.
"It was fun setting it up for an audience," Hawkins said with a chuckle. "I've set it up twice before, but never for an audience."
Cummings said teachers already had plans to incorporate the fun morning event into classroom studies.
"The teachers are going to have some great activities on this," she said.
Some of the teachers got involved in unexpected activities, helping to hold ropes that kept the balloon from flying away. Even though it had been tethered to a park bench and a basketball goal, the teachers worked hard to keep the balloon in place.
Hawkins said he suspects they won't know how difficult it was until "they can't close their hands because their forearms are so sore tomorrow."
Contact Hillary S. Meeks at firstname.lastname@example.org