As has been the case for most moms during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jessica Garda has been spending more time with her children.

Of course, that means coming up with more ways to occupy their time. And the North Franklin Township resident has found that her creative knack with inflated pieces of pliable plastic provides plenty of entertainment for her daughters, especially 4-year-old Abby.

“She became fascinated with it. She was like, ‘Mommy, can you make a balloon this? Mommy, make a balloon that,’” Garda said. “I started sharing some pictures, and people were saying, ‘Hey, can I buy that?’ And so I thought, why not?”

With the pandemic impacting her business as a wedding planner, Garda has drawn on what had been a hobby to provide balloons for special occasions. During the holiday season, for example, she assembled many a not-quite-Zeppelin-sized “pop” balloon, ready to burst forth with confetti and other celebratory doodads.

“Those were a hit,” she said. “I spent all of New Year’s Eve making deliveries.”

Her latest deliveries have been to the Mt. Lebanon retirement community Asbury Heights, providing residents with cheery Balloon Buddies. They’re bear-shaped creation that, uh, bear the message: “You are loved.”

“I decided to do a teddy bear, because there’s a Winnie-the-Pooh quote that I love: ‘Nobody has ever been uncheered with a balloon,’” Garda explained.

A onetime resident of Mt. Lebanon, Garda has connections with Asbury Heights through husband Brant’s family. His late grandfather served as chaplain there in the 1990s, and a great aunt spent her final years in Asbury Place, of the community’s two secure locations for memory support care.

“Actually, my daughter Abby took her first steps at Asbury Place, toward her,” Garda said. “There’s a lot of emotion there. So I knew that if I was going to do something for a nursing home, it would be Asbury.”

Her inspiration or brightening the lives of residents came from a national #AdoptAGrandparent campaign, her discovery of which prompted her to think:

“You know what? That sounds like a beautiful way to spread some joy. I’m a wedding planner. Joy and love is at the heart of what I do.”

Calling her campaign “Send a Smile,” Garda has the goal of making enough Balloon Buddies for 233 Asbury Heights residents, a task that may seem to be somewhat Herculean.

“People are like, ‘You’re making all of these?’ But they’re not that hard to make. They don’t take that much time, and my daughters are helping me, too,” she said, including her younger girl, Maddie. “I have these special balloons that link all together, and it’s like the twisting balloons that you see at kids’ parties. It’s like a grownup version of that.”

She has received messages from appreciative family members whose contact with their loved ones has been curtailed by the pandemic, such as a woman who wrote about her grandmother: “I see her through a window, but I haven’t been able to give her a hug in almost a year now.’”

“So I feel like it’s really resonating with people,” Garda said, “which is wonderful.”

As far as planning weddings, COVID-19 curtailed much of what she had going in 2020.

“I’m having couples now who are hiring me solely for the purpose of helping them reschedule or cancel their weddings, because they need help navigating those contracts,” she explained. “I’ve been fortunate, I guess, in some regards in that most of my couples did not cancel. They just postponed.”

That type of situation is making for an interesting 2021.

“Now, all of the weddings that were supposed to be last year are this year, and I’m still trying to book new business,” Garda reported.

Plus there is her business, and her colleagues in the closely knit Pittsburgh-area events industry have helped her with contributions toward covering the costs of supplies and transporting Balloon Buddies where they need to go.

“They are very fast to show support for each other,” she said, “which is awesome.”

For more information about the “Send a Smile” campaign, visit jessicagarda.com/send-a-smile.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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