LAFAYETTE -- Diann Bussell has watched legions of kids lose their grip on balloons.

They've stood there watching the helium-filled spheres sail skyward.

The amazing thing though is that sometimes, Bussell is fortunate enough to regain possession of those balloons.

Last Wednesday, Bussell started the annual tradition for Macon County's elementary schools of releasing red balloons as part of the Red Ribbon Campaign's Red Ribbon Week. Central Elementary kicked off the event by releasing its balloons.

It's the 19th consecutive year that each the county's elementary schools have released the balloons, which began when Bussell became a guidance counselor after eight years of teaching at Westside Elementary.

"I had seen other people do something similar," Bussell remembers. "I thought it was so cool. Every kid gets to participate and have a part in it. Every kid is sending out that pledge."

That pledge is attached to the balloon's string via a tag that reads, "Red Ribbon Week ... I pledge to be Drug Free," and it includes a line where the student's name is written. On the back of the laminated card, it asks the finder to return the tag to the school, listing the area that it was found.

Typically, the area's elementary schools have 30 or 40 tags returned, often with the string and the deflated balloon attached.

"A lot of it depends on weather," Bussell said. "We've had two to come back from Canada. It was 1,300-something miles."

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It took a translator to assist with one of the messages from a distant locale.

"It was in a Christmas card, and it was in French," Bussell said. "Lots are found by hunters and park-rangery-type people."

In addition to the Kentucky returns, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina have all appeared on the returned mail.

"It's funny when you look up how far they've traveled," Bussell said. "It's amazing, and it's exciting.

"It's fun. The kids have a blast, and the teachers are really good. They do a good job with it. Everybody in the building got a balloon, and everybody gets a kick out of it."

Bussell is the guidance counselor at both Central and Lafayette Elementary and she serves as the co-counselor at Fairlane along with Susan Stevens, who serves as the guidance counselor at both Westside and Red Boiling Springs.

Central actually released its balloons a few days prior to the start of Red Ribbon Week, and the remaining elementary schools were set to have their balloon releases on different days this week.

"It's neat to see all those balloons going up," Bussell said. "That's a big deal.

"They had every kid making that pledge. We talk about what pledge means. They are promising not to do drugs. If it sticks with kids that they promised not to do drugs, that's good."

Red Ribbon Week also consists of other drug-free education, including a video about United States Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA) Kiki Camarena and another film entitled, "The Boy Who Was Swallowed by the Drug Monster."

"We talk to them," Bussell said. "We do videos. We read stories. We have activity sheets. We might read a story and then do an activity sheet that pertains to it."

All the while, balloons will soon start to be returned to Central.

"We post them on the wall near the office," Bussell said. "The kids pass by and look every day. They do get really excited.

"They'll send a postcard or something and say, 'so proud of you for pledging to be drug free.' A guy brought one back and thought it was so cool that he brought the kid $50."

Craig Harris/Macon County Times

Central Elementary School held its Red Ribbon balloon release on Wednesday, Oct., 18.