SARC hot air balloon festival in Bel Air area draws crowd

Under a mostly overcast sky, the second annual SARC hot air balloon festival kicked off Saturday at the Harford County Equestrian Center near Bel Air.

The festival was dubbed "rising above it," and was put on by SARC, which stands for Safety Awareness Resources Change, to raise money for the organization whose mission is to end sexual and domestic violence.

The festival boasted vendors and activities geared toward children.

"It was good," 7-year-old Sierra Simmons said as she hopped to the ground following her ride around the ring on a pony.

Kelly Smith, of Forest Hill, explained she brought Sierra and her brother, who are Smith's neighbors, as well as her own children to the festival on the recommendation of her father-in-law.

"It's a really fun time and there's so much to do," Smith said. "Everyone found something they liked."

She said be it a sweet treat or a pony ride or seeing the inside of a hot air balloon, the kids each found something they enjoyed.

Smith was not alone in that sentiment.

Stacey Williams, of Baltimore, and her friend, Zakia Greene, of Baltimore County, brought their kids to the festival and were amazed at the variety of activities and vendors.

As the children stood in awe of a snake, the women talked about the table offering tutoring opportunities and another that inspired ideas for birthday parties.

"They had an opportunity to ride the horses, they really liked that," Williams said of the children.

As the sun peeked from behind the clouds, both women commented on the day's heat and humidity.

"I'm loving it though," Greene said.

From moon bounces, to hula hoops, to music, educational pirates and interaction with animals, there were plenty of activities at the festival.

Charles Smith, Kelly's father-in-law, was manning the animal area for the Maryland Zoo.

He said the stream of visitors had been steady and "more than I expected."

Kids were able to come face to face with a ball python, green-winged Macaw and a red-footed tortoise in the zoo area as well as goats and ponies in other areas on the grounds.

Jenni Berger, of Bel Air, said she works for Harford Mutual, one of the companies that sponsored the event, and decided to bring her two children and their two friends on Saturday.

"It just seems like a great event for a great cause," Berger said.

Berger explained she and her family were not able to attend last year, and said she was glad the crowd was not overwhelming and added she plans to come back next year.

"I loved them being able to walk in the balloon," Berger said.

For just $1, kids were able to get inside and run around a partially inflated balloon on its side that was strapped to the ground. The balloon was one of the main attractions and small children played inside with beach balls and posed for pictures for their parents.

"It is a great family event, there is so much to do," Berger said.

While the balloon on its side was the only inflated balloon around 2 p.m., the main event was yet to come.

Around 6 p.m., the "hare and hound" balloon race was scheduled to take place overhead.

Mike Gerrod with Light Flight Balloons Inc., who would later pilot the lead balloon, explained the leader starts first creating a path that the following balloons have to imitate. The path involves changing directions and altitudes. At the end of the race, the balloon closest to the leader wins.

"The first year we were winded out," Gerrod said.

He explained the business has been in Harford County for years and the event is just one of the ways to give back. He said Harford County has been good to him and his business, one that depends a great deal on cooperative property owners because the balloons are so unpredictable.

"Our business depends on that goodwill. This is our way of giving back," Gerrod said. "It's a great organization. Who can argue with the work they do?"

He said the Baltimore Grand Prix, the Maryland State Fair and that it's a holiday weekend likely draw people elsewhere.

"It's nice to have these homegrown things and they're doing well considering what they are up against," Gerrod said.

Stacie Beard, a three-year member of SARC, said the event is a low-cost day of fun for families in the area.

"No rain, no hurricane, no earthquake, I think we're doing good," Beard said.

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