The 13th annual Snowball Express made its way through the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, bringing the magic of the Christmas season to families awaiting a trip to Disney World at Terminal C.
Together, American Airlines and the Gary Sinise Foundation made it possible for over 1,700 children and family members of fallen military personnel to enjoy an all-expense-paid, five-day getaway to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ which also served as a healing experience and holiday retreat. Before the Gold Star families boarded, the celebration began at the airport where a number of superheroes, from the Incredible Hulk to Captain America made an appearance,along with Santa Claus and his wife.
Snowball Express started in Los Angeles in 2006 when a letter from a fallen soldier was published in a local newspaper and touched the hearts of many. The fallen soldier wished to ensure his wife kept their promise of taking their children to Disneyland for him. The Gary Sinise Foundation promised to keep the soldier’s wish not only for his family, but for over thousands of families who have lost military heroes throughout the years.
Throughout its 13-year-existence, Snowball Express’ goal has grown. For instance, after a 44-year career as a U.S General, the now retired Robin Rand wanted to keep growing support for the Snowball to help children and families dealing with great loss. Earlier this year, Rand was hired as Gary Sinise Foundation’s new chief executive officer.
“We’re carrying out Mr. Senise’s vision to give these children the opportunity to enjoy this special time of the year together,” Rand said. “This week is all about the Gold Star children and families.”
This is the first time in Snowball Express’ history that Gold Star families will travel to Disney World. All of the American Airlines flight attendants and pilots volunteered their time for the Snowball Express to put other’s happiness in front of theirs.
“All of our crew members that are helping to fly these trips and make these trips possible, they’re all volunteering,” Ashley Anthony,Corporate Communications Specialist at American Airlines said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to give back and to support our military and veterans. The Snowball Express is all about providing a healing retreat for our Gold Star families – families that have experienced a loss of a spouse in the military.”
Captain Jim Dees, director of flights for American Airlines for DFW, was one of the American Airlines staff members who volunteered his time to the Snowball Express.
“We do so many military incentives through the years, but this is our favorite,” Dees said.
Brooke Peterson, senior communication specialist at American Airlines, will experience the joy of the Gold Star families firsthand as she traveled with them on the flights.
“It’s an incredible honor to show these Gold Star families that we remember and care for them,” Peterson said. “We are proud of the work their family members have done for the nation. For these kids and parents, who have lost their family members, to come together and to be able to be relate to one another on a level where other kids don’t understand is incredible. They have this commonality that is unfortunate but also beautiful for them to be able to talk to each other and care for one another.”
For Aurora Chuca and her two kids, losing their father was the hardest thing their family has ever had to go through. But in their first year with Snowball Express, they were amazed to see how much the community shares their sorrow and cares for them.
“It’s a mix of emotions,” Chuca said. “It’s emotional for us, but this means a lot to us that there’s so many people that do this for all us and our children.”
Written by Mike Flores