SEQUIM — Hot air balloon pilot Captain Crystal Stout is a good example of the idea that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Stout was named Ms. Senior United States as part of the Ms. Senior Pageant Group in a contest Oct. 8 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Through the next year, she’ll travel the nation, barring COVID-19 restrictions, to work with the Shriners Hospital for Children, advocate for senior women and promote the Dream Catcher Balloon Program.
“My whole goal for this thing was to share my story,” Stout said.
Part of her winning effort included a nearly three-minute talk on stage of The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas about her balloon and how it helped improve others’ lives.
The Dream Catcher Program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provides vertically challenged individuals, seniors, veterans and others a ride in a hot air balloon supported by a seat rather than a basket.
Stout, who lives in Sequim, has provided tethered rides around the world for people of all abilities. She won the Ms. Senior United States title two days before her 60th birthday, which also happened to be the pageant’s contestant cutoff, with the division open for women ages 55-59.
While audience members were limited to family and friends, Stout had a small crew help her present the balloon to a camera crew for judging.
Stout was convinced to try out for the title by Port Angeles’ Cherie Kidd, last year’s Ms. Senior USA, a different title and age bracket.
“She told me it empowers senior women, and it gives them opportunities to go out and make a difference,” Stout said. “I have no talent; I don’t sing or dance, but she told me I’m a storyteller.”
At the Global Beauty Awards last year, Stout said her concept of a beauty pageant flipped as she saw so many innovative women.
“It changed my heart,” Stout said. “You’re not a beauty queen. You’re trying to change lives, and I realized that’s what I want to do.”
The Dream Catcher crew made it round-trip from Sequim to Las Vegas, Nev., and back Oct. 1-17 in their bus and support vehicle. They stayed in hotels via support from Nancy Merrigan, general manager of Quality Inn & Suites, in Choice Hotels along the route.
Stout said the “whole thing went on faith” because a sponsorship for the trip didn’t come through due to economic struggles.
“We thought about it and felt we were just going to do it,” she said.
“We got a lot of donations through Facebook and Paypal. It’s exciting to see the community rallying around this, especially those who donated to us.”
Due to current health and air quality conditions, the Dream Catcher only set up to fly one time at Craig Ranch Regional Park in Las Vegas. They gave rides to 38 people, mostly disabled veterans.
“It was an awesome event,” Stout said. “I realized there are a lot of veterans who need an extra uplifting moment, especially in this time.”
For the free fly day, she and crew installed a protective plastic shield between her and the rider to limit any possible exposure.
“People can take off their mask if they want (in the air) out in the open and not worry about anyone around them,” she said.
Stout said one of her hopes is that community groups will see they’re trying to be safe and “it’s one (rider) up and one down, not a big group in a basket.”
“Next to me, they’re completely guarded and protected,” she said. “We want to give them that special thing they would never experience otherwise.”
On the night of her achievement, Stout learned their bus’ catalytic converter, an exhaust emission control device, was stolen at the same time. She said her team viewed it as a positive because they got help the next day rather than having to wait another week or more if it were the weekend.
Stout attributes much of the trip’s success to her team, Bob Holt, Brian St. Ours, Teresa Stout (no relation), Jeff and Katherine Perry, Steve and Ginger Johnson of Las Vegas, and Stout’s therapy dog Lucee Light.
“Sequim went down (to Las Vegas) and made it an amazing event,” she said.
Organizers from various organizations have reached out to Stout about bringing the balloon program to them, she said, and her plan is to get word out that the national title of Ms. Senior United States is on the North Olympic Peninsula.
One private event is scheduled for the balloon soon after Veterans Day, and she’s planning on another in the near future, too.
As for where she’ll go, that will depend how areas across the world handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
During her recent trip, Stout was set to visit a Shriners hospital and provide children rides, but she learned just before she left that it wasn’t going to happen.
She said she hopes what she saw in the Las Vegas veterans can be shared with children, too.
“We want to help change the world and bring back a sense of normalcy and lightening of hearts,” Stout said.
“We believe there are more places we need to be.”
For more information about the Ms. Senior USA program, visit msseniorusa.org.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].