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Frank Gray

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Kammy Updegrove will take a hot-air balloon ride with her sister.

Pathfinders grant a sister’s wish

Way back in 1982, a Fort Wayne woman now named Kimm Leowen went on a hot-air balloon ride for her birthday.

As excited as anyone was her older sister, Kammy Updegrove. The two were as close as could be, and Kimm tended to take care of Kammy, who had something called mosaic Down syndrome, a variety of Down syndrome that wasn’t even diagnosed in Kammy until about 1963.

Kammy’s mother, Darlene Updegrove, talks about how hard it was to have a child with Down syndrome 50 years ago. There was absolutely nowhere for families to turn for support.

But when Updegrove went to Africa as a missionary, Kammy, who attended a school run by the English, seemed to blossom. She learned to talk, read, write, and even learned some math.

Eventually, Updegrove and her children returned to the United States and settled in Fort Wayne, where Kammy, who is now 54, lives in a group home in Huntington run by Pathfinder Services.

So what does all this have to do with that balloon ride 32 years ago?

Kammy, despite her handicap, always remembered that event from her sister’s birthday. In fact, eight years ago she proposed buying her sister another hot-air balloon ride for her birthday, but she didn’t have the money to pay for it.

Then, not long ago, Kammy mentioned to someone at Pathfinder that she really would like to get her sister another hot-air balloon ride for her birthday. It struck the people at Pathfinder as a truly unusual desire.

But there was something important about it. Kammy is now suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing this, Kimm has been spending more time than ever with her sister, and Kammy’s short-term memory is fading.

Except, that is, for her thoughts of going on a balloon ride with her sister.

So Pathfinder Services decided to make things happen.

For a few years, the organization has had a small, informal fund that had been set up by the family of a client who had died. Over the years, employees would step up and help deliver on the desires of clients. The fund was just a way to help grant a wish when a little bit of money was needed.

So Pathfinder elected to dip into the fund and pay for the fare for a balloon ride for Kammy. Her sister will pay her own fare, but the two will be able to take that balloon ride that Kammy has wanted to give to her sister for years. It will take place Friday in Huntington.

Meanwhile, Pathfinder has decided to start accepting donations to its wish list fund. The fund until now has been supported largely by employees.

“It’s always been a grass-roots thing, but we are reaching out to the public,” said Anita Yamanaka, marketing director for Pathfinder.

In the case of Kammy Updegrove, though, the fund and the balloon ride will help create a lasting memory for a woman whose day-to-day memory is fading.

Donations can be made to Pathfinder by going to or calling 1-800-833-1571.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.