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June 15, 2012

Student goes from watching balloons to working with them

MEADVILLE — Nicole Cappellino says throughout her life, the Thurston Classic’s hot-air balloons have always loomed large over her family’s north-Meadville home — and in more ways than just by the sight of them flying nearby.

Watching “the Thurston has always been a big thing in the Cappellino house ... balloons are always flying over (during the Thurston weekends),” she says.

And seeing those sort-of-otherworldly aircraft just overhead “kind of signifies the beginning of summer for me,” says the 17-year-old who (once the end of this summer is reached) will be entering her senior year at Meadville Area Senior High School.

Looking back into her childhood, Cappellino says for her, thrilled and amazed was the way she always was about the Thurston — and still is. “That feeling never really went away — that big-eyed, little kid excitement,” she said, is still there — “it’s always (like) the first time.”

But this year is different for Cappellino. Not only will she get to gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the Thurston Classic’s balloons and balloonists, she’s now getting even more up-close to see everything it takes, from the ground up (and up, and up), to get the event from its first announcements to its final lift-offs. For her MASH senior project, Cappellino is serving in a variety of capacities as one of the volunteers who help make it all happen, on the ground, in the air and behind the scenes.

The Thurston “is the biggest thing I look forward to every summer,” says Cappellino, so she figured “why not (get involved with) it as my senior project?”

MASH’s general direction for its seniors’ projects, Cappellino goes on, encourages students to “pick what interests (them) the most. ... It’s more of a hands-on” approach, she says, and less of the busy-work inherent in a research-a-subject-then-write-a-big-paper type of project.

But don’t get her wrong: At the Thurston, “I’ll never be not busy,” she says.

Cappellino’s already been attending meetings with the Thurston’s main organizing committee in advance of this year’s event, and, now that it’s here, the next few days, she says, are all about being there to “do anything I can to help them. ... I want to really get into it, meet the balloonists” and work in different aspects of the all-volunteer operation “to get a concept of how much work they really do.”

That’s no small amount. Along with the participation of committed volunteers as well as continued cooperation from Mother Nature — no small things in and of themselves — what has to take place for the Thurston to be a go, according to its organizers, involves a year-round, in-advance process of meetings, fundraising, inviting top-notch balloon pilots and more involving planning, planning and more planning.

And when it’s time for the Thurston, it’s all hands on deck — whether that’s on the ground or in the air — for a busy schedule that lifts off around 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t come to rest until sometime around midnight each day of the event, according to Joyce Stevens, the Thurston’s assistant coordinator.

Cappellino seems “more than willing” to pitch in, says Stevens. “She’s excited — and we’re excited to have her help. ...We’ll have her working all over the place, so she gets an idea of everything that goes into it.”

For Cappellino, it’s a way of learning through action — “writing (about a subject) on paper is a lot different than actually doing it,” she says — and achieving a more personal goal, too: “I’m really excited to be able to help the Thurston out, and contribute back to the memories they’ve given me” over the years, she adds.

With her hands-at-work involvement in this year’s Thurston — and the prospect of her own first-ever hot-air balloon flight in sight — it’s likely Cappellino will have plenty of new memories to take away from the beginning of her summer. And beyond that, she’s already signed on to volunteer for next year’s event.

“I’m kinda pumped” about the whole thing, she says.

Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at

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