FARMINGTON, Minn. -- A good hunter knows the smallest clues sometimes lead to the biggest prizes. Ben Januschka is an expert at that. He has hunted the backwoods of Hinckley for more than two decades.
"Normally I would take this trail here," he said.
But last fall he decided follow a different path. As he made his way through the brush he spotted what he thought was a feather. He walked closer and realized it was a deflated balloon attached to a faded letter.
"I walked over and picked it up and read it," he said.
The letter had a Park Rapids address and the words "If found please return." Months went by before Ben's his wife finally sent the balloon to its owner. Then came a second letter.
"It says 'Dear Ben and Peggy thank you so much for returning the balloon...my wife and I release balloons every year on July 5th in memory of our daughter Andrea's birthday,'" the letter read.
Inside was a copy of Andrea Flynn's kindergarten photo and a note about her short life. Ben understood the sadness.
"Losing my mom or so just a little over a year ago it's still a little fresh," He said.
He took that empathy and did the only thing he knew. As the principal of Farmington Elementary, he wanted this to be a teaching moment.
He shared the card with his staff which turned into a lesson on empathy. After learning about Andrea, students wanted to write their own letters to Andrea's parents. More than 100 kids wrote letters for a special delivery postmarked for Park Rapids.
The box made its way to Brian Flynn's front steps where he cried reading each letter.
"Alan sent this to me," Flynn said looking through the letters.
All of the children who wrote him were roughly the same age as Andrea when she died. Andrea was born happy and healthy but less than six months into her life things started changing.
"It's kind of like she slipped backward into her development and then she just kind of stayed there," Flynn said.
Doctors diagnosed Andrea with infantile myoclonic, a rare form of epilepsy.
She never learned to walk or talk. But Brian was determined to give her the best life he could until Christmas Eve nearly 17 years ago when Andrea had trouble breathing.
"We never saw it coming that it was going to be our last time with her," he said.
Andrea died in Brian's arms on the way to the hospital. She was just six years old. Each July, her family releases balloons in memory of her birthday. Brian estimates they've probably sent hundreds into the sky.
Each balloon has a tag asking for it to be returned. It wasn't until January when someone finally sent one back to him.
"When I opened it up there was the tag and the balloon," Flynn said.
This delivery was heaven sent, not only was it the first balloon to come back it was probably the last balloon Denise, his wife, released.
Denise passed away in August. A month before her death she sent up one last balloon to Andrea. Instead of writing the address with a pen, which fades over time, she decided to attach a label.
"I think either Denise or Andrea had a hand in this I really do. It's just another way of them letting me know that they're okay," Flynn said.
Flynn said he now has a lot of new friends all thanks to small find that ended up being a big blessing.
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