JoyFest balloon rides uplift memory of fallen hero

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Joy Ranch celebration honors balloonist killed while saving others

By Staff Reports

WOODLAWN — Three years ago, when the Joy Ranch children’s home in Carroll County added a quilt auction and children’s inflatables to its annual open house and alumni reunion, organizers wanted a catchy name and an appealing attraction for the newly created event.
Thus “JoyFest” began, with the theme of “Up!” in its first year and hot-air ballooning activities as its leading feature.
Key to the event’s success and growth was the involvement of the late Ed Ristaino, a hot-air ballooning enthusiast who operated the Lake Norman Balloon Company in North Carolina.

“Right from the beginning, Ed pledged his support and came with one of his balloons to give tethered rides at JoyFest,” Brent Carrick, Joy Ranch program director, remembers. “Ed not only participated, but added more activities each year, including skydiving, and became a true friend to Joy Ranch.”
As a result of his participation in JoyFest, Ristaino also made friends in the local aviation community and launched a balloon ride from the Twin County Regional Airport, soaring out over the Blue Ridge escarpment and down into Cana.
Tragically, on March 16, Ristaino died at age 63 in a ballooning accident at the Wild Chicken Festival in Fitzgerald, Ga.
Hailed in national news media and among the balloonists worldwide as a hero, Ristaino had calmly directed five skydivers to safety before his balloon was destroyed in a fierce thunderstorm that suddenly appeared out of a clear blue sky.
Brian Wesnofske, one of the grateful skydivers, said they all would have died if they had remained in the balloon’s gondola for another minute.
“Ed loved Joy Ranch, and loved ballooning in the Blue Ridge,” Carrick said. “His goal was to help create an on-going balloon festival as part of JoyFest.”
That dream will continue, thanks to the help of Ristaino’s son, Damien, and other ballooning friends. Tethered rides and skydiving will be featured this Saturday at the fourth annual JoyFest, all in Ed Ristaino’s memory.
The skydivers, which will include Damien Ristaino, will descend at around 3:30 p.m., after which a large hot-air balloon will be raised to begin offering tethered rides at 4 p.m.
Born in Monmouth, N.J., Ed Ristaino was employed in the cardiology research lab at Duke Hospital and as a perfusionist at CMC Northeast in Concord, N.C., helping start and develop the cardiac surgery program. He also was a nationally ranked swimmer.
JoyFest, hosted on the campus of Joy Ranch at 813 Joy Ranch Road in Woodlawn, begins at 11 a.m. Saturday with a benefit auction featuring donated quilts and local crafts.
The Children’s Circle, from 1 to 4 p.m., includes wagon rides, inflatables and a dunking booth, with face-painting and ballooning tying by the Froot Loop Clown Troop, regular favorites who have come every year to JoyFest.
Throughout the afternoon, entertainment at the amphitheater stage will include the Kinders southern gospel Trio, Never Fret youth bluegrass gospel band, Live Wire contemporary Christian band, drama from the Cornerstone 180 Youth Group from Sparta, N.C., and Joy Ranch’s own Drama Club made up of residents of the non-profit Christian children’s home.
Joy Ranch, founded in 1961 by Richard and Mary McHenry, is supported through donations. It has been home to over 5000 needy children in crisis situations.

Admission to JoyFest is free. Concessions will be sold. Tethered balloon rides are $10, or $5 for ages 12 and under. For info, call (276) 733-3674, or go to www.joyranch.org.