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A little girl in pigtails waits behind the door, crown on and new puppy in hand, for her mom to come in and see her.
A boy’s lips curl into a smile as he proudly presents the turtle he made to his teacher.
A young child laughs as he watches a balloon transformed into exactly what he wanted. He claps and hold out his hands – too excited for words.
Nothing says “happy” like a kid with balloon animals.
I’ve always loved balloon animals. Whether it’s at carnivals, fairs, or birthday parties they bring that little extra touch of magic and joy. The first memory I have of getting a balloon animal was when I was five years old: I was at a church carnival and I chose a dog.
I was fascinated by the way the clown folded and shaped the balloon, transforming it. When I got older, I took some classes and later spent several years practicing and expanding my repertoire.
It wasn’t until later I discovered most of the population is terrified of clowns. But as long as you don’t wear a crazy costume, it seems everyone loves balloons.
Now I’ve had a chance I never would have expected, to make balloon animals for special needs children here in Ukraine. It has been amazing to see their expressions of surprise and delight when an ordinary day at class is transformed by inflatable wonder.
I’ve learned a few new tips as well. So next time you find yourself in a foreign country with a hand pump and about a hundred balloons, here are a few things to keep in mind…
Tip #1: Learn the Language
Very quickly I learned the deadly pitfall of “meeshka, mooshka, myshka”. Meeshka is a bear. Mooshka is a fly. Myshka is a mouse.
I had the misfortune of not knowing how similar these words are. I thought they were all the same word, the word for “mouse”. My conversations with children quickly reached Abbot-and-Costello proportions.
“would you like a meeshka?”
“yes, a meeshka.”
“I want a moosha.”
“myshka it is!”
“yes, a myshka.”
Conversations like these not only frustrate children, but render your interpreter useless as well – they’ll be laughing way too hard.
Tip #2: Leave Your Helmet at Home
I’ll never forget the party of ’09. It started like any other day of balloons, children cheerfully picking out their inflatable treats, gleefully running about with flowers and swords and hats.
Suddenly, they where everywhere. Crazed children with a taste for more than balloons, they were out for blood. Pulling, pushing, grabbing, demanding. The orderly line was gone, chaos reigned, and every child wanted THEIR balloon and they wanted it NOW. I was lucky to escape unscathed. Many inflatable puppies were lost that day.
I wish I could say that was the only time, but as veteran of many a birthday-party-gone-sour, I know how quickly American kids can go from pushing and shoving in line into all-out war.
Forget saying “thank you” without coaching. In my many tours of duty I’ve seen balloon events resemble more war-zone than wonderland, and I have ruefully wished for a helmet and padding under my colorful costume.
But here all the children I worked with were incredibly polite. They quietly waited their turn. They said “thank you” unprompted. There seemed to be almost as much wonder and joy in watching someone else’s balloon be made as in receiving their own.
These kids are great.
Tip #3: When they pop, the fun don’t stop
Balloons do sometimes pop. But contrary to my expectations, the most common reaction I saw was laughter, not crying.
When a new pet mouse or friendly dog disappeared with a bang, the children here looked around to try and see where it went. Instead of tears the kids clapped their hands and said “again, again”.
You may encounter a big deer-in-headlights look as if they might have done something wrong. But when they see you smile, they’ll realize it’s all part of the show!
Tip #4: You will never have enough pictures. Never.
There is no way to convey how cute and joyful children are when they receive an unexpected gift. You will find yourself taking picture after picture in rapid succession until your camera memory resembles more of a flip-book than portrait collection.
You can try to fight this urge. You can tell yourself “they won’t be that cute”. But it is a lie. They will be that cute and there is no hope for you or your camera’s memory card.
After seeing how the children and staff are able to face unexpected hardships unflinchingly, it was a wonderful change to offer some unexpected delights.
And with several of the teachers learning to make balloons themselves, perhaps a single day of silliness will have the chance to become a regular expression of the fun and delight here at MTU.
It just goes to show you that every talent has a place in God’s kingdom. And when you dive in, you might just learn something yourself.
“Meeshka! Mooshka! Myshka! Bear! Fly! Mouse!”
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.