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January/February 2021 -   -  

Snowball Express: 
Love in the Time of COVID


At last count, more than 11,500 American children have lost a parent in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. 

The tolls of those wars have mostly faded from the 11 o’clock news, but not everyone has been so quick to forget. A growing band of volunteers has been moving mountains to bring some joy and healing to the children and families during their darkest days. Their charity has a curious name borrowed from a 1970s Disney screwball comedy: Snowball Express.  

The holiday season is without a doubt the most difficult time for families recovering from the loss of a loved one. That realization begat the very first Snowball Express in December 2006. That year some 900 military families from across the country traveled to Southern California for a welcome, if temporary, escape from their grief at the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth: Disneyland. The children and widows enjoyed an all-expenses-paid weekend packed with fun and entertainment, and they also discovered for the first time that they weren’t forgotten and didn’t need to grieve alone. 

Happily, the enormous generosity of individuals and corporations has allowed those families to continue to come together every year since for Snowball Express events in Southern California, Texas, and elsewhere.

Sadly, a fresh crop of faces joins the familiar ones each year.

Photo courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation/Snowball Express

A Famous Name

Snowball Express, which was an independent all-volunteer charity when we first wrote about it in these pages in the November/December 2008 issue, became part of the venerable Gary Sinise Foundation in 2017. 

VVA has been deeply rooted in the organization from its very inception. Members of VVA Chapter 785 in Orange County, California, were among the event’s very first volunteers, with former chapter president Bill “Monsoon” Mimiaga serving as a onetime Snowball Express trustee. But it’s no surprise that Sinise, whose involvement can be traced back to the early Snowball Express events when his Lt. Dan Band served as part of the entertainment, is now its steward. 

For nearly 40 years the actor and musician has worked with seemingly boundless energy to support America’s service members, veterans, and their families. What began with his involvement with Vietnam veterans’ groups in the Chicago area in the ’80s blossomed with his portrayal of Lt. Dan in the film Forrest Gump. That role helped forge an enduring connection between Sinise and the military community.

Photo courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation/Snowball Express

After participating in several USO tours, he formed the Lt. Dan Band in 2003 and began entertaining troops at home and overseas. Over the years, the 13-piece cover band has given hundreds of performances for fundraisers supporting wounded veterans, Gold Star families, first responders, and active-duty troops around the world. In 2011, he created the Gary Sinise Foundation to expand those efforts.

With the resources and exposure the Foundation brings to Snowball Express, the number of attendees has grown steadily from those first 900 families. Nearly 5,500 children attended the 2019 Snowball events at Walt Disney World in Orlando and at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. 2020 was expected to be bigger yet, with Gold Star families once again slated to be treated like celebrities at Disney World the first weekend in December.

But the coronavirus changed that.

‘Get-Together’ Redefined

With air travel off the table, the event organizers faced a huge dilemma: How to not only salvage the celebratory nature of the event, but also preserve the all-important camaraderie and support Gold Star families receive from being among those who share their grief. 

The resulting “virtual celebration” held online over three days relied heavily on holiday spirit, surprise celebrity guests, and an awe-inspiring opening ceremony—along with peer-to-peer support groups and counseling services, educational scholarship application support, and financial counseling and assistance mixed in with the fun and games. Gift bags were sent in advance to the homes of the 2,054 participating families, with instructions when during the weekend each was to be opened. 

The virtual celebration borrowed from two of the most moving moments of the in-person events: the Remembrance Garden and the Walk of Gratitude. Planners created a 3D interactive virtual walk-through of the Remembrance Garden with a flag representing the fallen hero of each Gold Star family. Using virtual reality technology, families were able to search for the flag and placard honoring their loved one. 

The Walk of Gratitude ceremony was led virtually by Sinise, who was joined from Disney World by Mickey Mouse. Families wrote personal messages to lost parents on virtual scrolls, with the children ringing bells when the time came to send the messages—with some digital magic courtesy of Disney Interactive.

Events like virtual dance parties and karaoke continued throughout the weekend. (And of course an online concert from the Lt. Dan Band.) But it was the surprise celebrity guests that seemed to mean the most to those who participated. 

“Hey everybody on the Snowball Express, COVID-19 virtual version,” beckoned a video clip from Forrest Gump himself, Tom Hanks, “I hope everybody has a really, really great time. Disney World will always be there in the future. Have a great time, throw some snowballs around, and all aboard the Snowball Express!”

Also appearing by video were actors Angelina Jolie, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pratt, Keanu Reeves, and Kaley Cuoco; athletes David Beckham and Michael Strahan; musicians Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Shania Twain, and television personalities Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, and Robin Roberts.

“We owe so much to military families. More than we even know,” said Jolie. “So I am deeply grateful and thankful to all you.”

Wahlberg told the families: “I keep you in my prayers and know that the family members you lost are always in your heart.”

‘Something Greater Than Ourselves’

Events of this magnitude demand the time and energy of countless volunteers. Typically, families are met by local Snowball volunteers at one of a dozen or more departure-point airports to welcome them and to ensure their journey to the event goes smoothly. Snowball volunteers are also on hand to greet families when they arrive at the Southern California and Florida airports.

The volunteers drive the families back and forth to the hotels and serve as “hotel captains”—part chaperone, part concierge. And volunteers often dress as kid-friendly television characters.

The newfound exposure brought about by the association with the Sinise Foundation has helped bring in more volunteers. Word has traveled fast, and scores of people and organizations—including many VVA chapters—have been eager to volunteer.

“What better way is there to live up to the VVA founding principle of ‘Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another’?” Mimiaga asked. “We simply can’t let the same thing happen to this generation of military families that happened to ours.”

Photo ©American Airlines

The main ingredients fueling this machine are in-kind donations from Snowball Express’s corporate sponsors: Two thousand or more airline tickets provided free of charge by American Airlines and other carriers, including donated time from pilots and aircrews; hundreds of hotel rooms in host cities from major hotel chains; and free admission to Disney properties and other theme parks and attractions. Not to mention meals and treats all weekend and a wealth of presents in grab bags to take home.

No matter where these families may be in their grieving process, Snowball Express aims above all to be a joyous experience—an escape where Gold Star families will not only receive support, but also form new bonds, make positive memories, and build a community with the only people who can truly understand their loss: each other. 

“Our role is just to let them know they are not forgotten, that we are there for them, around the clock,” said Gen. Robin Rand, CEO of the Sinise Foundation.

Despite the pandemic setbacks, it is clear that Snowball Express is in good hands. “Anytime you have an infusion of new blood into a project like this, it is only going to make it better,” Mimiaga said. “There is no greater feeling than knowing we were the catalyst for something great—something bigger than ourselves.”

Photo courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation/Snowball Express

To learn more about how to support Snowball Express, go to www.garysinisefoundation.org/snowball-express




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