A debilitating disease isn’t slowing 78-year-old Irby Blakesley down. The Mesa resident, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) several years ago, achieved her lifelong dream of touring the Southeast Valley 1,000 feet above the ground – thanks to the efforts of a local high school club.
Although ALS causes muscle weakness and slurred speech, Blakesley stepped foot into the carmine red hot-air balloon at Gilbert’s Hospice of the Valley early Jan. 2.
Her son, Jim Blakesley, and daughter, Carol Scarpitto, also joined.
Roping the Wind Hot Air Balloon Company Owner and Pilot Scott Nicol lifted the trio into the crisp blue sky, where they remained for around 45 minutes before landing near Higley and Ocotillo roads.
“It was a very smooth and easy ride,” said Scarpitto. “It was just like standing on the ground.”
The event was part of Red Mountain High School DreamCatchers Club’s larger mission to grant “final dreams” to terminally ill patients around the Valley.
The club, part of a national foundation founded in 2009, seeks to not only “grant end of life dreams that are as unique as the individuals [we] serve,” but also to bridge the generation gap, according to its website.
“I’ve been a part of it for about three years,” said Sage Liu, president of the Red Mountain High DreamCatchers Club. “I fell in love with the idea of creating a final dream for someone.”
The students host a variety of fundraisers to make the dreams possible and team up with local businesses for donations or discounts.
A typical hot air balloon ride rings in at around $1,000, explained Ashley Trussell, the club’s adult liaison.
But with a donation from the Arizona Rock Products Association and a discount from the hot air balloon company, the students helped Blakesley realize her dream.
“If they can dream it, we hope to fulfill it,” said Trussell. “Businesses are very kind and generous and donate products and services.”
“It really takes a community effort the dreams to happen,” she continued.
The club partners with Hospice of the Valley and East Valley Hospice but is open to helping anyone who reaches out.
Trussell routinely checks in with the centers to identify possible “dreamers,” she said, and then the process begins.
For Blakesley, the opportunity was a no-brainer.
Scarpitto told the East Valley Tribune her mother was preoccupied with the idea of a hot-air balloon ride ever since she flew in a helicopter with her son.
“She had gone up in helicopter with my brother at some point in time,” she said. “I think it’s just the feeling of being up in the air and it being peaceful looking down on everything that’s around.”
Blakesley’s sense of adventure and her determination have followed her throughout her life, said the daughter.
She was born and raised in Georgiana, Alabama, where she lived on a small farm with two older sisters.
“They had some farm animals and she used to churn butter,” said Scarpitto. “She would churn the milk, sell the butter and keep the money.”
After high school, Blakesley pursued a business degree and worked as a secretary on the side.
In 1965, her husband, Robert Blakesley, was assigned to the Williams Air Force Base in Maricopa County.
Once the couple settled in Arizona, Blakesley started working for Motorola – unearthing a newfound passion.
“She was dedicated to her job,” said Scarpitto. “She started in the math department and then worked with the engineers to develop the circuit boards.”
“She did really well with and enjoyed it a lot,” Scarpitto added.
Blakesley spent 30 years with the company.
Scarpitto described her mother as determined, independent and someone who can “be extremely stubborn” at times.
But her independence suffered a devastating blow in 2017 when she was diagnosed with ALS.
“We knew something had been going on for a couple of years, she felt her body was failing physically,” said Scarpitto.
“She started losing a lot of weight and had to get a feeding tube because eating was so difficult for her to even swallow,” she added.
“But her mind is still there and is functioning fully.”
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.
It often begins with muscle twitching and weakness in a limb or slurred speech.
As the nerve cells are destroyed, according to the ALS Association, it eventually affects chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing.
There is no cure.
Last March, Blakesley moved into the Citrus Manor Assisted Living Center in Mesa.
But it didn’t stop her personality from shining through.
“She’s very stubborn and definitely likes to do what she likes to do,” said RN Carolyn Adams. “When I first met her, you were not allowed to do anything for her she could do for herself.”
“But you could tell she was a little depressed because she was out of her own home,” said Adams. “So, the way her eyes just lit up when this [hot air balloon ride] was offered to her was amazing – she’s always wanted to do this.”