WESTERLY — When 9-year-old Gabby Santana learned that the balloons she set afloat from her from home in upstate New York landed in the courtyard of the Washington Trust Bank in downtown Westerly a day later, she was more than surprised. It never occurred to her that her balloons could get caught up in a strong southeast wind and travel the roughly 160 miles to one of her favorite places.
“I thought they were going to land in the Hudson River,” said Gabby, a fourth-grader at the Randolph School in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., via telephone one night last week.
On Sunday, Jan. 19, Gabby’s dad, Erick Santana, a disc jockey who had just finished up a job at a Sweet 16 party, came home with a big bunch of leftover party balloons for his daughters, Gabby and 4-year-old Gracie. The girls’ mom, Maggie Santana-Gomola, encouraged the girls to set the balloons free the next day.
“My mom didn’t want them in the house because there were too many,” said Gabby, “so I had an idea to put a note on them and send them into the sky.”
Gabby chose a red marker and wrote in big letters: “Please open and read.” She put her name and phone number on the other side, put it inside a baggie, attached the baggie to the balloons, and let the wind take them away.
On Jan. 21, Larry Orlando, vice president of building and facilities for the Washington Trust Company, was walking through the courtyard area of the company’s main branch in downtown Westerly on his way to work at about 6:30 a.m. when something caught his eye. There, in a bush, he spotted three deflated, Mylar balloons stuck in the branches. He reached up to pull them out and put them in the trash when the small plastic baggie caught his eye. He untangled the note, placed it in his pocket and went in to work. When he got home that night he gave the note to his daughter, Rachel, a student at New England College in Hennicker, N.H., who was home on break.
When Rachel read the note, she immediately called the number listed on the note in Milton, N.Y., the home of the Santana family, but nobody answered. She left a message on the answering machine, but since she had to head back to school, she returned the note to her dad. When her dad mentioned it at work the next day, news spread to Dennis Algiere, the bank’s senior vice president, chief compliance officer and director of community affairs.
“The balloons left Milton, New York, on January 20th and landed in Westerly on January 21st,” said Algiere with amazement. “That’s better than Amtrak. There must have been some massive headwinds that day.”
For the Santana family, the fact that the balloons landed in Westerly within 24 hours was certainly an amazement. But what amazed them more is that they landed in Westerly.
“You’re not going to even believe this story,” said Gabby’s dad from Milton, just north of Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River. “Westerly is our favorite place in the world. Everything goes back to Westerly. Those balloons could have landed in trillions upon trillions of places but they landed in Westerly.”
“We come to Westerly every year on vacation,” he continued. “We stay at the Sand Castle Inn in Misquamicut. It is our getaway place. Westerly has a big heart for us. It is where we have our memories, where we go to escape the craziness of life. It’s our favorite place and sort of our last hurrah. We’ve had a very rough year as far as the girls’ health.”
Santana explained that it was last summer, on their visit to Misquamicut, that he and Maggie began noticing some health changes in their youngest daughter, Gracie. The next week, on Gracie’s first day of kindergarten, they found out why.
“She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes,” he said. “She will be insulin dependent for the rest of her life. Our last vacation in Westerly was the last time she could eat whatever she wanted. The last time she was carefree.”
Weeks later, Gabby was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid gland and is related to Type 1 diabetes.
“What’s funny about this all,” said Maggie, “is that after all that news, and all the waking up every two hours to check Gracie’s blood sugar, we made a pact that we can’t go anywhere else but Westerly for our vacations.”
“There we were, on the beach all together, having fun,” she said, noting that all the while, Gracie was deathly ill. “I feel like there were angels all around us on the beach in Misquamicut. I feel like angels helped those balloons land in Westerly.”
Larry Orlando said he plans to send a package off to Gabby filled with Westerly goodies and mementos, courtesy of the bank’s marketing department.
“It’s really an amazing story,” he said. “There must have been some wind that night.”
Rachel Orlando, who has been exchanging emails with the Santanas, said, “I think it is very cool how far it traveled from the time that they let it go. It’s amazing.”
As the Santanas passed around the telephone one night last week, sharing their piece of the story, little Gracie asked if she could have her say.
The 4-year-old wanted to say that she not only liked the beach in Misquamicut very much but it was there that something memorable occurred.
“It’s where I got my hermit crabs,” she said.
But it was big sister Gabby who had the last word.
“Guess what,” she said. “Tomorrow is my birthday.”