By Ariel Graham
The Snowball Express came roaring through the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Saturday, December 9th, and turned Terminal C into a winter wonderland.
Almost a dozen charter flights landed at DFW Airport throughout the day, carrying the children and family members of fallen military personnel. This year, over 1600 family members from 87 different cities all over the world were flown in for a week of fun and some much-needed holiday cheer in the metroplex. Upon their arrival, the children and families were welcomed and cheered on by over 1,000 American Airlines staff members and volunteers before departing in chartered buses for their hotels.
Buck Kern, executive director of Snowball Express, explained just how important Snowball Express is to these often-times grieving families.
“Each of the kids you see here has lost a dad or a mom on active duty since 9/11,” Kern said. “And we have the privilege to bring them here to DFW each December and introduce them to each other, and they get to meet other kids who are just like them, going through and dealing with the same tragedy in their life. And through this process of connecting them and bonding them, they get a lot of healing out of it, they make friends for life, and hopefully grow up and carry on the same great legacy of their dad or their mom and make them proud.”
Snowball Express first started in Southern California in 2006, with a letter from a fallen solider in Iraq that was published in the local newspaper, asking his wife to keep the promise he made to their kids and take them to Disneyland. A group of individuals got together and made it happen not just for that soldier’s family, but nearly 500 other families of fallen military personnel, and the organization grew from there.
This is the eleventh year Snowball Express has brought these kids to DFW, and American Airlines has been partner with Snowball Express from the start.
“We started 11 years ago with three aircrafts we used to bring people in,” said Doug Parker, Chairman and CEO of American Airlines, at the kickoff event. “Today we have eleven airplanes flying all around the country through some difficult weather getting these amazing families here and we couldn’t be more proud to do it.”
April Trent from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, has flown on the Snowball Express for the past 5 years. She said the experience has been life-changing for herself and for her kids.
“[Snowball Express] is a healing process, and it is a bonding for our kids,” Trent said. “They get to spend five days with kids who truly understand what they have been through. It is a life-changing event that very few get to experience.”
But the fun didn’t end at the airport. From there, the kids went on to a number of fun activities all over the metroplex throughout the week, including an evening at Medieval Times and a private concert from Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band. Sinise was also in attendance at the kickoff party, and his organization, The Gary Sinise Foundation, has been a long-time supporter of the Snowball Express.
“Snowball Express is one of those annual events I just would not miss,” Sinise said. “The chance and opportunity to show my appreciation to the families who have scarified so much is truly a blessing for me, and I am always so humbled and impressed at the number of people who come out and support this wonderful organization.”
Snowball Express’s Buck Kern said that, at the end of the day, the most important rule of Snowball Express that the kids must follow was this: have fun.
“It’s really about the kids having fun,” Kern said. “It’s about these kids who, many of them have shut down because they’re grieving. It’s a sad time for them and they sort of take on a different role in the family. And they feel uncomfortable having fun. But it’s a funny thing – when you bring together this many kids, it is impossible not to have fun and smile and laugh again.”