Elizabeth Hause has made lifelong friends through the Snowball Express program – though admittedly, they are friends who wish they had never met one another.
“These events wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the tragedy that happened to us,” said Hause, wife of late U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Hause. “We are all so grateful for it, though.”
Elizabeth and her two children — Alexis, 18, and Cody, 15 — of Stoystown, Pa., were among 1,700 individuals selected as part of the 14th annual Snowball Express event that kicked off on Saturday. The Snowball Express sends families of fallen military members, known as Gold Star families, to Disney World for a five-day, all-expenses-paid trip.
Funded by the Gary Sinise Foundation and sponsored by American Airlines, this year’s Snowball Express included 13 chartered aircraft operated by American Airlines employees departing for Orlando from airports across the country, including Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas Fort-Worth, Charlotte and Pittsburgh International.
In Pittsburgh, American Airlines Flight 9428 departed on Saturday at 9:35 a.m., but the festivities began even earlier. American Airlines staff volunteers, members of the Patriot Guard Riders, American Legion Riders and the 316th Army Reserve gathered at the airport at 6 a.m. to give 11 Gold Star families a warm send-off.
For Eric Mortimer, a customer service manager for American Airlines and U.S. Army veteran, being involved in the program is a personal matter.
“I was in the military and I’m fortunate that everything worked out for me, but [the holidays] can be a sad time for families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Mortimer. “We want to give them a positive experience, something to remember, and something to help them get through the tough times.”
Locals representing the military and various riders’ associations escorted the families through the airport and spent time at the gate before the flight left for Washington, D.C., en route to Orlando. Activities at the gate included photos with Santa, cookie decorating, face painting and even a snowball fight.
“I’m [surprised] by just the amount of volunteers and the level of service they’re providing these families. It’s amazing,” said Sgt. Nicola White, one of several representatives from the 316th Army Reserve who participated. “[The military] is not just about being a team, it’s really about being a family. These are the people that you work with, you go to the gym with, and you live with. Even though they’ve lost their service member, they still have military as their family.”
Families Receive Counseling, Scholarship Info
Along with offering a fun-filled getaway, the trip supports Gold Star families through counseling services and provides information on educational scholarships and financial counseling, among other resources. Children of fallen military members between the ages of 5 and 18 are able to participate in the event for a total of five years.
This year marks the fourth Snowball Express trip for the Hause family, who has found the experience beneficial through connections made in years past.
“They’ve been able to build their own little support system,” said Elizabeth Hause. “It’s been 11 years for us, and being able to come to these things and feel that they are still remembered, it’s pretty amazing.”
Becca Dobbins of Pittsburgh, wife of late U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Cody Dobbins, hopes to have a similar experience with her 5-year-old daughter, Delaney. This is their first Snowball Express trip.
“I don’t really know what to expect right now, but I hear it’s a nice get-together with people who are in the same situation as us,” Dobbins said. “We’re all grieving and going through different emotions, and someone who hasn’t gone through that doesn’t exactly understand how you’re feeling. These families know.”
The more than 1,700 people attending this year’s Snowball Express represented 87 cities worldwide, according to the Gary Sinise Foundation. Additionally, more than 2,000 individuals volunteered to make the event possible.
“[Snowball Express] is about honoring our fallen heroes, and their families, who continue, day in and day out, to endure the cost of war,” said Elizabeth Fields, Chief Operating Officer of the Gary Sinise Foundation. “While we can never truly repay the debt we owe these families, we can strive to show each of them our appreciation and gratitude whenever and wherever possible.” Click here to view more photos.
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