WESTFIELD, NJ — Let’s face reality: America’s collective balloon has popped. Yet, in this suburb, the endless void of newfound nothingness is being momentarily filled, as air rushes into colorful tubes of all shapes and sizes.

Dante Longhi, owner of Kenilworth-based Dream Factory Balloons, had been feeling particularly deflated several weeks ago. The coronavirus pandemic hit his business hard. In less than one week, Dream Factory Balloons had lost most of its orders to party cancellations.

“I didn’t know what I was going to give my kids to eat next month,” Longhi, the father of three young boys, said over the phone.

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At the big-chain grocery and retail stores that remain open across the country, shoppers are free to run the risk of do-it-yourself alternatives to local professional balloon shops. Peruse the bottom shelves and you’ll find packages of red, white blue and yellow in generic shapes and sizes, perched precariously next to plastic pumps that will run an extra $20 at self-checkout. But Longhi and his Dream Factory is nothing like any uninspired competition.

An immigrant from Brazil, who speaks English as his third language, Longhi has built what some might call a mythical reputation in Union County. With 23 years and-counting of craft-mastering, Longhi is known for his towering balloon displays.

“I’ve done balloons my whole life. I don’t have a background in anything else,” Longhi said. “The best part is I feel like I’ve never worked in my whole life. Every day, it’s still just balloons, but every day is a different day, a different design.”

Longhi found one of his most notable canvases in the Westfield home of Danielle Roofener, her husband, Ted Roofener, and boys, Chase, 11, and Drew, 9. In what has become a Halloween tradition, Danielle Roofener commissions Dream Factory to redesign her front lawn.

Past displays have included larger-than-life dream scenes from Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park and Wreck-It Ralph. The yearly attraction doubles as a fundraiser for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, benefiting young people like Roofener’s oldest son Chase, who lives with Crohn’s disease. Over three years, the displays have raised over $50,000.

“He doesn’t even consider bigger things to help promote himself,” Roofener said of Longhi’s involvement with the fundraiser. “He has always just supported us. We feel like the designs he does on our house are priceless. He goes way above and beyond anything we can ever afford, just to share that joy with the community.”

Roofener and Longhi’s creative collaborations have fostered a kinship that runs on more than just air. Their kids are friends. Their families visit each other on Christmas. They stay in touch. As COVID-19 approached, and local parents became increasingly inundated with cancellations of children’s birthday parties, Roofener thought of her favorite muse and called him up.

Longhi immediately got back to work. In front of the Roofener house, Dream Factory Balloons constructed archways framing the door, composed of balloons that furnished rainbows, puffy white clouds and Easter bunny ears. No matter the day’s theme, in the middle the archway stood a consistent message, one validated in decadent gold: “Stay Strong.” 

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Westfield resident Nicole Carnucci is both a friend and a fan of Danielle Roefener and her balloon antics. After noticing yet another hard-to-miss display outside her neighbor’s house, Carnucci gave Roefener a call, who put her in touch with Longhi.

Amid a global pandemic, a new business model was percolating among two Westfield moms and a local balloonist: “Community Support” messages, for sale. 

Splitting work on the initial advertising and flyers (as well as enlisting the endorsement of local event planning company Mix + Mingle), Dream Factory Balloons and its biggest fans quickly started offering a variety of positively messaged balloon arrangements, meant to show support to fellow community members suddenly out of reach due to social distancing.

Longhi’s latest dream creation imagined a variety of rainbows, connecting Westfield residents through a sense of optimism. The asking price for balloon displays starts at $100 a piece. 

“He is so thankful that the town is embracing him right now, and thankful that his business is still afloat,” Roofener said. “This went from tragedy to a success story for him. Nobody deserves it more.”

Longhi estimates that he now inflates more balloons than ever before. Every day, Dream Factory Balloons is filling between 15 and 20 orders, which includes new options for children’s birthday displays — a convenient alternative for kids who now must wait before eating pizza and cake with their friends.

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Longhi and his team, including incoming college freshmen-turned salesperson Rae Mauro, typically fill orders from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., the legal time he must stop working under New Jersey mandates.

“It kind of makes me laugh sometimes. We’ll get one order for one block, an address we haven’t been to before, and then the next day four more just from that street,” Mauro said. 

While positivity continues to spread throughout streets and neighborhoods, Longhi is careful to not spread that other thing (he wears masks and gloves). As balloon activism radiates outwardly from her doorstep, Roofener is continuously inspired by Longhi’s ingenuity, warmth and work ethic. 

“He will show up to the house with a flower bouquet made out of balloons for me,” Roofener said. “No thanks ever needed. He’s just always there, working in the background.”

Even through his continued success, Longhi has not forgotten where he was only several weeks ago, deflated, preparing for a pile of unpaid bills and with a panoply of balloons that had seemed unsellable.

To support local businesses unable to circumvent the current economic ecosystem, Dream Factory Balloons has pledged to donate 20% of sales to the Westfield United Fund, at the initial suggestion of Carnucci, who operates Westfield Health and Rehabilitation alongside her husband, Dr. Todd Carnucci.

The Fund’s “We Love Local” campaign has already raised more than $200,000, with checks of $500 to $2,250 starting to hit the mailboxes of over 110 small businesses. Dream Factory Balloons made an original donation of $1,500, and then another of $1,200.

“We are bowled over by their generosity,” said Deirdre Gelinne, executive director of The Westfield United Fund. “These businesses have been the backbone of our town for years, and now Westfield residents are giving back to them and showing everyone why this town is a special place.” 

Longhi said he is humbled by the opportunity to extend his rainbow to his neighboring local businesses.

“It feels amazing that we can help everyone out,” Longhi said. “When we started making money again, I thought of all the more people we can help with that.”

In a world of bursting bubbles and omnipresent uncertainty, Dream Factory and its balloons continue to embody momentary excitement. As cars pass by, and residents go on their daily walks, they can catch a glimmer of joy. We’ll get through this. For a moment, you can feel re-inflated.

But what do the Roefener children themselves think of all of this?

“They think I’m embarrassing, quite honestly” Roefener said with a sigh. “But they love Dante.”

Mack Liederman is a senior in college graduating from home in Scotch Plains, NJ, like many others. If you have a COVID-19 community story you think should be shared, please start our conversation, at mliederman@vassar.edu.

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