More than 1,700 family members of fallen military heroes were treated to an early holiday vacation thanks to actor Gary Sinise.
On Saturday, the Gary Sinise Foundation kicked off its 14th annual Snowball Express, which sent over 1,000 Gold Star children from all over the world to Orlando, Florida to enjoy a five-day stay at the Walt Disney World Resort, Fox News reported. Each child was accompanied by a surviving parent or guardian, bringing the total attendees of the trip to over 1,750 people.
The foundation partnered with American Airlines to donate the flights for the all-expenses-paid “therapeutic retreat” that blended “fun and inspiring programs” together for the children and their family members. The airline donated 13 charter flights — all staffed by volunteer crews — to fly in participants from 84 cities around the world, including Germany, London, and Guam.
“It really is a beautiful blessing to be able to put our arms around these kids who are going through various stages of grief and let them know that we care about them,” Sinise said of the event. “We have counselors, tragedy assistance programs for survivors, T.A.P.S. is with us. They’re a great premiere organization for Gold Star families.”
Photos shared by the actor to social media on Saturday showed one Disney World-bound “Snowball Express” plane from LAX decked out in holiday decorations, including hanging silver snowflakes, garland, and twinkling lights. Sinise was on board as well to greet the families before they left.
BNA airport in Nashville also shared photos to Twitter of its big send off for the participants, which included refreshments, photos with Santa, and a water canon salute.
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Today begins our GSF Snowball Express #14. Over 1000 Gold Star Children travel with surviving parent or guardian, over 1,750 in all, via our travel partner @americanair to Disney World as part of our @garysinisefoundation Snowball Express program. This charter left Los Angeles this morning with 91 kids, 176 in all, and I got to take these photos with them before they left. I’ll join up in a few days. Have fun kids! We love you!
The families visited Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios during their five-day stay at “the happiest place on earth,” and participated in a festive parade down Main Street U.S.A.
Last night at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL, Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express families visited Disney's Animal Kingdom, where they took a prehistoric trip to DinoLand U.S.A. Today, they're visiting the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. #GSFSBE #SnowballExpress pic.twitter.com/v7ymyPUx1v— GarySiniseFoundation (@GarySiniseFound) December 9, 2019
The event concluded on Wednesday with a concert by the Forrest Gump actor’s LT. Dan Band — another one of the program’s annual traditions that began when Sinise first became involved with Snowball Express in 2007, when it was still a non-profit.
“I remember the feeling after doing the event and seeing the children, how moved I was, what it felt like just to do something positive and see them dancing and jumping around and having a good time. It was infectious,” he said of the first time he performed with his band at the retreat.
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At the finale last night playing annual concert for gold star children, the conclusion of a tremendous @garysinisefoundation Snowball Express event. Thank you to Disney, all our sponsors, supporters and volunteers, and especially our special families. Final picture here, one flag for each fallen hero family 689 flags, 715 cards for each of the fallen. God bless them all.
The actor went on to start his own foundation in 2011. In 2017, the Snowball Express became an official program of the foundation.