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21 Balloons. A Million Memories

Remembering Austin

21 Balloons. A Million Memories

On the birthdays of deceased relatives, some visit cemeteries to lay flowers on the earth. Some pass the day in quiet reflection.

But Kim Benscoter, whose son Austin Blankenship died in Dec. 2010 — killed by a driver who plowed into their home — honors him in a unique way. Every year on his birthday (which falls on St. Patrick’s Day) she and her family send heavy-duty helium balloons into the sky. Each contains a note sharing a bit of Austin’s personality and a request to visit his memorial Guest Book.

“We release one for every year of his life,” said Benscoter. “The first year was 17 balloons because he would have been 17 that year. This year he would have been 21.”

The memorial balloons have sunk from the sky to land in towns on both coasts of the United States and in Canada. Those who find them have been deeply touched.

Angela G., a 55-year-old widow from Lakewood, Washington, was preparing dinner one evening in December 2014 when she noticed the sounds of her granddaughter playing in the backyard had gone silent. She peered out the door and saw the girl quietly playing with a giant balloon.

“[The balloon] looked like it was made of ice with tiny crystal snowflakes all over it,” she wrote in Austin’s Guest Book. “Attached to it was a strip of what looked like blue silk and at the end of the silk was a tiny scroll that opened up to say ‘Pop me.’” She followed the instructions, and inside, found a picture of a young man and woman, both smiling. She also found scroll which, unrolled, described some of the things that made Austin so special (his baby blue eyes, offbeat sense of humor, and artistic talent, to name a few). The words were scripted in beautiful handwriting.

“We’re just keeping him alive. Showing that no one has forgotten him, that someone knows his story.” - Kim Benscoter

Angela found herself laughing and then crying. She handed her daughter the scroll and soon after, she, too, began crying and hugging her own daughter, the child who’d found the balloon, telling her how much she loved her.

Another person found a balloon in University Place, Washington, in Mar. 2012. Afterward, they posted anonymously in Austin’s Guest Book. “My two boys Jacob (4) and Myles (2) happened to notice a green balloon tucked behind some drift wood,” they wrote. “As I grabbed the balloon for them to see, I noticed a note attached to the string. For some reason I kept the note attached and looked up the young man’s name written on it. I must say I am very sorry for your loss. I read the memorial page on your son and cannot express how it has for some reason touched me deeply. I can only think now how for a moment in time, your son, who we never knew of, brought happiness to my family.”

Byron M. Jackson of Victoria, B.C., found another balloon in March 2011. “I wanted to let Austin's parents and loved ones know that this morning while walking on the Albert Head Beach outside of Victoria, B.C I found one set of balloons that were set adrift in honor of Austin's birthday,” he wrote. “The balloons were snagged on a log that was on the beach. The attached notes and photos were wet but intact and I brought them home from my daily morning walk on the beach. My wife and I were touched by the notes and photos and we commiserate with Austin's loved ones over the tragedy that befell him in December. We have two sons in their late twenties and we love them dearly. Best wishes to your family and Austin's loved ones. We wish you well.”

Kim Benscoter treasures these kindhearted communications from strangers. “I could write books and still never be able to describe Bowdy (Austin’s nickname) for how much he meant,” she said. “When we began getting the notes from people who found the balloons, we were stunned… we had one from Vancouver, one from Federal Way… the latest one was in Lakewood.”

“We’re just keeping him alive,” she said. “Showing that no one has forgotten him, that someone knows his story.”

Benscoter has found some comfort through releasing the balloons, perhaps releasing a fraction of her grief as they float away. And today, she helps other parents who’ve had to bury their children. “I’m trained as a violent crime victim advocate now, because of this,” she said. “I work with parents of murdered children… We advocate for the families, we go with them to court and act as a support person for them. There’s a crime victims’ fund in most states, and most people don’t even know they exist. We help them navigate therapy, burial funds… you don’t plan to bury your child. We listen a lot through the grief process.”

Want to help support families who have lost children to violence? Head to Crime Victims Advocacy Network or Violent Crime Victim Services to see how you can help.


Halley Burns is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Connect with her on Twitter at @halley_rosetta.