As University of Virginia graduates walked down the Lawn on Saturday, many stopped to hand off colorful Mylar balloons.
Inflatable cartoon characters, creatures and champagne glasses have become a recent hallmark of UVa Final Exercises, but the balloons often end up as environmental hazards a few hours later.
So this year, for the first time, staffers in President Jim Ryan’s office dreamt up a solution: ask graduates to donate balloons to children and their families at the UVa Medical Center.
“Almost everyone who gave us a balloon thanked us, and they were the ones giving something away,” said Leah Sumrall, an assistant director of events.
In all, UVa will award 7,090 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. They are sometimes called a “Bicentennial class,” marking the anniversary of UVa’s charter in 1819.
Staffers and volunteers shepherded the balloons to classrooms in New Cabell Hall — eventually taking up the whole fourth floor — where they separated balloons into themed groups and popped age-inappropriate balloons. Workers who typically spend days climbing trees and power poles to catch stray balloons were happy to help transport them on box trucks to a better home, said Matt Weber, a senior assistant to Ryan.
Weber estimated that more than 1,000 balloons traveled to the hospital, quite a feat for an idea first floated last week.
“Kids like the balloons, and it’s a win for the environment; really, it’s a win-win,” he said.
Marvin Escoto-Shelton, who is 9 years old, picked out a dog balloon he said reminded him of his dog at home, Hunter.
Volunteers, nurses and parents picked out favorite princess, animal and action figures for children. Ryan showed up, as well, walking balloons down the halls of the children’s hospital.
Weber said this weekend’s donation is a trial run, but he hopes staff can make the donation a recurring event during graduation season. He also noted that the number of balloons donated Saturday and expected Sunday may far exceed the number of patients at UVa — if other services or nonprofits have a suggested use or need for balloons, they can contact him at email@example.com.