Chattering nonstop, they’ll tumble out of cars, with backpacks strapped on and stuffed toys in arms as their moms lug suitcases and extra gear and try to hold everything together for boarding the M80.
All Aboard for Snowball Express
Some such scene of happy holiday commotion will happen at Norfolk International Airport (ORF) on December 9 at 8:00 a.m. It’s called the Snowball Express, and it’s American Airlines’ (AA) Christmas present to children of fallen military heroes.
The plane is one of several in AA’s fleet chartered especially for the purpose of picking up families to take them to Dallas for four days of fun, including a visit to Six Flags, a rodeo, “button busting” (lamb round-ups), celebrity concerts, and many other activities guaranteed to create “hope and new memories,” as Snowball describes its mission.
Forty-eight children and parents from Hampton Roads and outlying areas are expected to fly out of Norfolk. All totaled, some 1,700 families from throughout the nation will be traveling to Dallas, with nearly 300 of the non-charted flights on commercial AA airliners being coordinated by Air Compassion for Veterans (ACV). Several ACV staff members sporting the charity’s red logo wear, along with city officials, military supporters and other well-wishers, will be at the gate to send the children off with fanfare.
“It’s a four-day party,” says Neil Raaz, an AA pilot and member of the Snowball Express board of directors. “The best thing about Snowball is the relationships that are built with other families. They understand that they are not alone.”
The annual holiday program began in 2006 to help military children facing the loss of parents who have died since 9/11 while serving on active duty. According to SnowballExpress.org, “It was a totally volunteer effort which came together in just a few months to create the largest all-expense-paid gathering” for these families of fallen warriors. The event, hosted for three consecutive years in a given city, with Dallas in its third year, is supported by an impressive list of volunteers and donors. These include companies like American Airlines (billed as “the Official Airlines of Snowball Express”) and Neiman Marcus, to nonprofit groups like Fisher House and ACV, to celebrities like actor Gary Sinise with his Lt. Dan Band, and Las Vegas ventriloquist Terry Fator.
Raaz went on to say that 30 volunteer counselors from TAPS and SOS would be available on the spot if needed. (TAPS stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. SOS is short for Military Significant Other and Spouse Support.)
To bring a smile to a hurting child’s face is a priceless gift. Snowball Express and supporters like American Airlines and its partner, Air Compassion for Veterans, are honored to uplift the children of military heroes at this special time of year.
Smiles replace tears at the Snowball Express.