Balloon raises empathy lesson at Farmington school

Farmington Elementary students, teachers welcome ‘special friend’

Brian Flynn and his son Matt answer questions from Farmington Elementary first-grade students in Spencer Ruth's class about Andrea. (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

Brian Flynn and his son Matt answer questions from Farmington Elementary first-grade students in Spencer Ruth’s class about Andrea. (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

Farmington Elementary School students were star-struck when Brian Flynn walked into their classrooms on March 22. Students bounced with excitement, raising their hands to ask “Mr. Flynn” lots of questions or just tell him something about their life as they would for any other guest.

But Flynn was no ordinary visitor. He was welcomed as a “special friend” who came to thank the teachers, students and staff who gave him so much.

Flynn became part of the Farmington Elementary School community through a chance encounter.

One day Principal Ben Januschka was hunting in Hinckley and decided to go down a different path. He came across a branch with a deflated balloon. Hanging from the ribbon was a tag with a return address for the Flynns in Park Rapids. It said, “If found, please return.”

Januschka took the balloon, which sat on his desk for weeks until his wife Peggy wrote a note and returned the balloon to Flynn.

A letter back from Flynn expressed heartfelt thanks, revealing the story behind the balloon and included a kindergarten picture of his daughter, Andrea, who inspired it.

Farmington Elementary School students received a wallet-sized photo of Andrea to remember their "special friend." (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

Farmington Elementary School students received a wallet-sized photo of Andrea to remember their “special friend.” (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

Andrea was developing normally until she had a seizure. Doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of epilepsy called infantile myoclonic. The life expectancy is only about seven years, and Andrea only made it 6 1/2 years.

The family did everything it could to make her life comfortable and happy. Andrea had an infection and struggled to breathe when she was rushed to the emergency room the day after Christmas in 1995. Flynn said Andrea took her last breath in his arms about 10 blocks from the hospital.

Since her death, the family has released balloons every July 5, Andrea’s birthday. The balloons had tags on them, but only two had been returned before this one. The balloon Januschka found was the last one Flynn’s wife released before she died Aug. 2, 2012.

“When I read the note from Brian it was a wonderfully worded note. I felt that it just tugged at the heartstrings, and I know he wrote it from the heart,” Januschka said.

He was so moved, he shared the letter with teachers.

Empathy lesson
Andrea’s story evolved into a lesson for kindergarten, first- and second grade-students on empathy.

To honor Andrea Flynn, Farmington Elementary School students have written about ways in which they can make a difference. (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

To honor Andrea Flynn, Farmington Elementary School students have written about ways in which they can make a difference. (Photo by Theresa Malloy)

Spencer Ruth’s first-grade class had talked about empathy before this, so she thought Andrea’s story was a perfect example to make the lesson more real.

She asked her students what they could do to make “Mr. Flynn” feel better.

“They came up with the idea that they wanted to make cards,” she said.

The class brainstormed about  what to say to Mr. Flynn and how they can make a difference.

The students’ posters hang along the windows illustrating how they can make a difference by volunteering, recycling, helping the homeless or helping to “teach my brother math.”

“In second grade, we said this is how life is, and we can help Mr. Flynn,” said Debbie Ruth, a second-grade teacher and Spencer Ruth’s mother. She asked if students had connections to losing loved ones, and the class was able to talk about it.

Ruth said she immediately felt a connection to Flynn as a mother when she heard his story. She said she wrote him a kind note. Just weeks later her father died, and she learned from her own lesson on empathy and that letter she had written.

“It was a way to prepare my heart for that. The outpouring of support from the school was amazing,” she said. “I never really knew how that loss felt, and I realize now how much it helped.”

Spencer Ruth said her students help build that empathy for her when her grandfather died.

“It was a good teaching moment that it’s OK to be sad, cry and make people feel better,” she said.

Ruth said she has had positive responses from parents, even from some students who had experienced their own losses with deaths in the family.

“They have big hearts, and this is a great opportunity, and I am glad we pursued it,” Ruth said. “The kids are stronger than we thought.”

First meeting

A box filled of letters for the Flynn family from Farmington Elementary students was an unexpected gift. So Flynn, his son Matt and sister Sharon, made the long drive to Farmington to thank everyone at the school.

Flynn gave Januschka a huge hug when they met for the first time in front of teachers and staff.

“I’m really honored to be here, and I wanted to come here personally to thank you,” Flynn said. “Who knew what sending up a balloon would do.”

The two exchanged gifts – a Tiger jacket for Mr. Flynn and photos of Andrea and a book written and illustrated by members of the Flynn family. Flynn recounted his emotional story to the teachers who carefully listening, sometimes reaching for a box of Kleenex placed at every table.

Flynn led the students in the pledge over the announcements and then began his thank you tour. Each class had a special way of honoring Andrea. Some had paper balloon cutouts on the door where students wrote how they could make a difference like Andrea. One teacher added Andrea’s birthday to the birthday bags on her wall. Another put Andrea’s picture on the white board, and every day students decide as a class how they can make a difference like Andrea.

The Flynn family choked up as the impact of Andrea’s story sunk in. Andrea taught these children the important lesson of empathy at a young age and empowered students to make a difference.

A second-grade student in Marna Phinney’s class raised his hand and said, “Even though you can’t see Andrea, she can see you, and she’s with you.”

Andrea’s older brother Matt placed a wallet-sized photo on students’ desks while his dad told students, “I want you to know that she’ll always be your friend and a good friend, too. She’ll listen to you.”

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