Balloon bonanza

SOUTH KINGSTOWN—Hot air balloons will be on bright display this weekend, as families flock to the University of Rhode Island for the Wakefield Rotary Club’s biggest annual fundraiser.

Founded in 1957 as part of Rotary International, the Wakefield Rotary Club held its first balloon festival 39 years ago in an effort to raise funds to help South County residents in need of assistance. 

“It started as a couple balloons in cow pasture and it’s just grown and grown and grown to what it is today,” Spencer Seitz, former president of the Wakefield Rotary Club, said last week. 

Seitz attended the Rotary’s balloon festival for the first time 25 years ago. 

“You had the balloons, you had the crafters and five or six food vendors—that was it,” he added. 

By the time the festival’s original organizers passed the torch to the next generation of Rotarians 20 years ago, the festival had already seen a significant size increase, he added. 

Staying true to the Rotary International motto, “service above self,” the goal of the Wakefield Club’s balloon festival remains a charitable one. 

The club’s other motto, Seitz added, is “improving and saving lives.”

“We’re trying to do things that will make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.   

The festival raises approximately $50,000 each year. Those funds then get distributed among various charity and nonprofit organizations within South County, with some of it also going toward international efforts. 

“It really goes to three places,” Seitz explained. “Scholarships to local students, grants to local charities—such as Habitat for Humanity, Domestic Violence Resource Center, Galilee Mission, Welcome House—and then we take $10,000 a year and use that in international projects.”

The Rotary’s global network makes it easy and safe to donate internationally, he added.

Among its international initiatives, Seitz provided the example of Rotary International’s Clean Water Project, which strives to provide access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. He explained that it costs about $50 to supply clean drinking water for a year to a family in Cambodia. 

“We have our own people on the ground,” Seitz said, “so we get a lot of value for the dollar.”

“With these water filters disease and childhood deaths [are reduced], kids are healthy and able to go to school, get educations,” he continued, “it makes a huge difference.” 

All the work for the festival is done by volunteers. Seitz also credited the event’s chair Jay Shartenberg and co-chair David Baud and the current Wakefield Rotary Club president Pam Anchetta with working tirelessly planning this weekend’s festival. 

The festival will include a carnival, complete with rides, a bouncy house, a fish pond, face painting and a rock wall. Several family-friendly entertainment acts will take place over the course of the weekend, including Bwana Jim’s Wildlife show, comedian Robert Clark and the Anastasini Family Circus. A fireworks display will also light up the sky Saturday at 9 p.m.

“It’s really a family-friendly type of event,” Seitz said. “And that’s what we’re going for—we’ve got something for everybody.”

Roomful of Blues, the Rhode Island-based blues and swing revival band, is slated to perform Friday at 6:30 p.m.

Seitz said the band performed at the festival a few years ago and was a hit among attendees. 

The event will also feature around 60 vendors, including around 14 food vendors and several artisans.

Then, of course, there’s the main attraction. 

Weather permitting, the balloons will launch at dawn Saturday and Sunday and dusk Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wind provides for unsafe flying conditions for the balloons, which are anchored to vehicles, Seitz explained. 

“It’s always safety first,” Seitz added. “Perfect weather is 70 degrees and no wind. We’ve had years like that and it’s tremendous.” 

And as long as the weather cooperates, there’s a chance attendees can catch Roomful of Blues from 100 feet in the air. 

“There’s nothing better in the world,” Seitz said.  

Although the balloon festival is the biggest and most well-attended of the Rotary’s annual fundraisers, the Narragansett Art Festival—which took place for its 35th year last month and featured around 100 arts vendors—is of equal importance, Seitz said. 

Attendees to the balloon festival are encouraged to park in the parking lot on the north side of the Ryan Center, and anyone interested in lending a hand as a volunteer at the festival should register at southcountyballoonfest.com by tomorrow, July 20.  

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