The Gatesway Balloon Festival prepares to light up the sky in support of the Gatesway Foundation and the special individuals it serves.
J.T. Jones is a “customer maniac,” according to his employee name tag.
Always armed with sunny quips for customers, he sees putting smiles on others’ faces as one of his job responsibilities. “I don’t work today,” Jones corrects gently with his wide smile. “I live today.”
Pretty soon, he’ll be headed to his job at Taco Bell, where he works Mondays through Fridays. Jones has been employed there for about a decade — first in Okmulgee, now in Broken Arrow. It’s just a short drive from where he lives on campus at the Gatesway Foundation, a nonprofit agency that provides opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities to lead normal, happy lives.
“It’s an angelic, heavenly headquarters for God’s innocent children,” explains Jones, who resides with a few roommates in one of Gatesway’s group homes.
“It’s like a guardian angel,” he adds, pointing his right index finger toward the ceiling. “A heavenly opportunity.”
To help Jones, his roommates and the organization’s hundreds of other clients continue to live as independently as possible, the Gatesway Foundation will host its 21st annual Gatesway Balloon Festival Sept. 15-17 at Broken Arrow Events Park, located at the intersection of East 101st Street and the Creek Turnpike, just east of Northeastern State University-Broken Arrow.
Aside from the several-stories-tall balloons to gawk at or ride in, the event will feature balloon competitions, a sanctioned 5K and fun run, live music, arts and crafts vendors, and food.
Fittingly, the idea for the festival was dreamed up in the air — midflight, specifically.
“As Gatesway approached its 30th anniversary in 1994, I was asked to develop an event to celebrate the milestone,” says Louise Short, a longtime Gatesway advocate and former board member, who was on a flight in 1993 from Chicago when she just happened to sit next to the development director for the American Diabetes
Association in Dallas. The director shared with Short some fundraising events that were successful for her organization, and mentioned her hobby as a hot-air balloon chaser.
“I came back and shared the idea with Nina Honeyman, the executive director at that time,” Short says, “and the rest is history.”
First held in August 1994, the balloon festival’s success apparently stunned organizers.
“They didn’t think many would show up, but the staff and volunteers were surprised when more than 100,000 people attended the event,” says Anita Pousson-Williams, chairwoman of this year’s festivities. “Now, it’s grown into one of northeast Oklahoma’s most anticipated events.”
The sky over Broken Arrow Events Park will glow on Friday and Saturday evenings with about 30 big, beautiful hot air balloons from across the country — including three special ones Pousson-Williams is excited about: “A huge pig, a larger-than-life owl and a delightful cat chasing a mouse.”
An event this size demands quite a bit of support — approximately 250 volunteers, Pousson-Williams estimates.
“Clients can always be found at the balloon festival,” she says. “Some choose to volunteer, and others look forward to coming out to enjoy the activities and fabulous balloons. Also, we usually have a group of our transition students — high school juniors and seniors — who crew the balloons, an activity they always enjoy.”
Usually, when folks hear Gatesway mentioned, the usual response Pousson-Williams hears is, “Oh! You guys put on the balloon festival!” she says. “While this is true, our mission for the past 54 years has been to provide living and work opportunities to individuals with intellectual disabilities. With the expected crowds this year, our goal is to further educate the community about our mission.”
It’s a mission dear to Pousson-Williams’ heart.
Her sister, Angela, has Down syndrome, and lives in a facility like Gatesway in Texas.
“Our family has been blessed that she has had excellent opportunities to travel, work and be surrounded by so many people she loves,” says Pousson-Williams, adding that Angela lives a happy, productive life. “But not all parents of special individuals have that peace of mind.”
Locally, such parents have the Gatesway Foundation.
“It offers so many people the opportunity to learn, work, live up to their potential as productive citizens — much like the life my little sister has been able to live,” Pousson-Williams says. “Helen Gates created a beautiful organization to meet the needs of thousands of special people who may not have access to resources they need to flourish. I would love to see the Gatesway Balloon Festival continue to secure and enable our organization to serve thousands more.”
Thousands more like Jones, a shining, perpetually smiling example of the success stories brimming at Gatesway.
“He’s a workaholic,” says Traci Williams, Jones’ program coordinator at Gatesway. “He works all the time. He’s faithful.”
“That’s how you’re supposed to be,” he quickly chimes in, high-fiving Williams.
Smart and talented, Jones also is an advocate for individuals like himself, as well as his fellow clients, who all deserve to be treated just as anyone and everyone else wants to be. “We’re all part of the human race,” he says. “That’s what we all are: human.”
He has dreamed of being a counselor, strives to set a good example, makes and spends his own money and takes care of his health — and his skin, he is proud to point out.
Jones is an athlete, too, having competed in multiple sports at Special Olympics Oklahoma. He has more medals than he can count.
“Even though I don’t get to be my own guardian, I do get to make my own decisions,” he says, referring to different domestic responsibilities, like cooking — at which he’s awesome, by the sounds of ingredients he rattles off for an omelet.
Don’t be surprised if you run into Jones at this month’s balloon festival.
He’ll be the bespectacled, clear-skinned, slender young man with the brightest smile — one you might see on TV someday, if his script for a Taco Bell commercial goes as his planned. He has some cool one-liners and slogans worked up already. One example: “Let’s give our customers something to taco ’bout.”
Every plan, every minute of his day, is about being the best he can be and living the best life possible — something inherent to Gatesway’s efforts in the community.
“It’s really fun being this person,” Jones says.
Gatesway Balloon Festival
Free admission; $5, parking. Some activities additional cost. Balloon rides: $20, adults; $15, kids under 12. Benefits Gatesway. Balloons inflate at dawn and dusk. Broken Arrow Events Park, 21101 E. 101st St., Broken Arrow. gateswayballoonfestival.org