Lorraine Thoms and her neighbors at Good Samaritan Society-Bethany have new friends staying with them, but don’t worry, they’re not breaking any COVID-19 protocols.

“Mine is sitting in my chair, and I can see it whenever I’m in my living room. It’s got a red head, a red balloon and a big happy smile on its face,” Thoms said during a phone interview Friday, Feb. 12.

Eighty-three-year-old Thoms and and the rest of the 35 residents at the long-term senior care facility in Brainerd all received balloon buddies, complements of a community effort spearheaded by Party World.

As a certified balloon artist, Party World owner Kelli Mankowksi belongs to a group of balloon masterminds from all over the world, which is where the idea came from. She said a group member thought up the initiative after listening to an assisted living facility employee talk about how sad and downtrodden many of the residents were at not being able to have visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“So it kind of took off there, and it’s actually quite literally being done internationally,” Mankowski said Feb. 10.

For $20, community members can purchase a balloon buddy to be sent to a resident at an assisted living or long-term care facility in the Brainerd lakes area.

Mankowski is working facility by facility and hopes to bring the buddies to as many places as she can. Along with Good Samaritan Society-Bethany, all residents at Diamond Willow Assisted Living and Edgewood in Baxter received balloon buddies.

“It made me want to cry,” said Diamond Willow Registered Nurse Director Alisha Ambriz. “It’s just really heartwarming in such hard times, too, to see them smile and bring joy to their day. It’s worth everything.”

Balloon buddies, without arms are packed together on a table at Party World Friday, Feb. 12, in Baxter. A tag telling the story of balloon buddies will be attached along with the arms before being presented to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Balloon buddies, without arms are packed together on a table at Party World Friday, Feb. 12, in Baxter. A tag telling the story of balloon buddies will be attached along with the arms before being presented to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

With limited visitors, the pandemic has been hard on the residents, Ambriz said, especially during the cold winter when they can’t even get outside for socially distanced music performances and other events.

“I just want to thank the community for such a nice, warm gift. We’re so appreciative,” she added.

At Good Samaritan Society-Bethany, Housing Manager Kelli Parker said it was amazing to see her residents’ reactions to the balloons.

“It’s been a difficult and long road through the pandemic, and just to see the smiles and hear the giggles coming from them when those balloons entered the building, it was awesome. It was so heartwarming,” Parker said. “I wouldn’t have expected a balloon to make that much of a difference, but the smiles ear to ear, it was so cute. It was like kids in a candy store.”

And that reaction didn’t just come from the residents.

“It was the staff, too. We giggled and giggled and giggled like little kids as we brought them into the building,” Parker said. “It was such a sweet gesture.”

That gesture was possible thanks to community donors who have funded the project. Some of the littlest sponsors came from Baxter Elementary School.

Party World owner Kelli Mankowski (left) and Alaina Whittenton create the balloon art that make up the balloon buddies Friday, Jan. 12, in Baxter. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Party World owner Kelli Mankowski (left) and Alaina Whittenton create the balloon art that make up the balloon buddies Friday, Jan. 12, in Baxter. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Tamie Swanson, a first grade teacher in Baxter, heard about the initiative on the radio and decided to see if her colleagues wanted to help. The first graders have been focusing on the theme of kindness since getting back into the building after distance learning, so Swanson thought this would be a perfect project.

All five first grade teachers at Baxter were on board and explained the project to their students.

Swanson said she already talks to her kids about the community and different places in the area that need help.

“Some knew what a nursing home or assisted living was, some didn’t,” Swanson said. “And I had to explain how this has been weird for us. We can’t go to our friends houses, but think of (seniors). They haven’t had anybody to even visit them or hug them.”

Party World owner Kelli Mankowski (left) Alaina Whittenton and Taylor Thiery assemble balloon buddies Friday, Feb. 12, at the store in Baxter. The business has embraced the international balloon buddies trend to use balloon art to brighten spirits of residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Party World owner Kelli Mankowski (left) Alaina Whittenton and Taylor Thiery assemble balloon buddies Friday, Feb. 12, at the store in Baxter. The business has embraced the international balloon buddies trend to use balloon art to brighten spirits of residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The first graders stepped up to the challenge after their teachers asked them to bring whatever money they could, with the goal to fund five balloon buddies. Not all students were able to contribute, which was OK, Swanson said, but together the roughly 90 first graders raised $196 dollars. The teachers pitched in to bring the total up to $200. But when any one place sponsors 10 balloons, Party World will throw in two more, meaning the first graders contributed 12 balloon buddies to the effort.

“It was amazing,” Swanson said. “It’s pretty cool when a 6 or 7 year old can get excited about doing something where they’re not going to get a tangible thing in return. They just have to wrap their head around, ‘This is making somebody else so happy.’”

Somebody like Thoms, who even gave her new buddy a name.

“I called mine Little Lima because I’ve nicknamed my little great-granddaughter that’s going to be born next month Lima as a joke because when I saw the ultrasound I just saw a little lima bean floating around,” she said.

Lorraine Thoms, a resident at Good Samaritan Society - Bethany, poses with her balloon buddy, Little Lima, she received from Party World. The Brainerd business is taking donations and hopes to provide balloon buddies to as many assisted living and nursing home facilities in the lakes area as possible. Submitted Photo
Lorraine Thoms, a resident at Good Samaritan Society - Bethany, poses with her balloon buddy, Little Lima, she received from Party World. The Brainerd business is taking donations and hopes to provide balloon buddies to as many assisted living and nursing home facilities in the lakes area as possible. Submitted Photo

And Little Lima had the exact effect Swanson told her students the balloon buddies would bring.

“It was really something special, to think that somebody on the outside thinks of us in here,” Thoms said. “... It’s been a long time, and we don’t know if we’re ever going to get about and about. Even here, we are not to where we can eat together, where we can have meetings together or anything like that. … To get something like that is wonderful.”

Other residents have called Party World to thank Mankowski for the gift as well, expressing how special it made them feel.

“I had one resident from one of the facilities who called and she said, ‘I actually named my buddy, and I brought up a chair to sit next to me because I like it when people watch TV with me, and I've been so lonely,’” Mankowski said.

She knows the goal of getting balloon buddies into every assisted living facility in the lakes area is lofty, but she’s slowly plugging away, one facility at a time.

“We're getting such good feedback and it's having such a positive result that we're trying to do more and more,” Mankowski said.

Anyone who wants to sponsor a balloon buddy can visit partyworldballoons.com/balloon-buddies or call Party World at 218-828-2127.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.