The Snowball Express

At the beginning of December, I had the opportunity to join the Patriot Guard Riders of Florida (PGR) as they took part in the 18th year of Snowball Express. This has now been held at Disney World since 2018. This is an effort by the Gary Sinese Foundation, American Airlines, and many other generous businesses to bring Gold Star families to Florida to offer support and a chance to have a good time for a few days.

American Airlines commits 11 aircraft to bring 1800 parents and children from all over the country, and a few from overseas, to this totally free event. The families fly in on Saturday morning welcomed by Patriot Guard members and leave on Wednesday morning. They are provided with accommodations, meals, secure "play rooms" for the kids with the latest games (this year Amazon provided the teen kids with a shopping store to "buy" gifts for their parents), various kinds of support services for the parents, and buses that transported them into Disney World. On the final night they are treated to a special concert by Gary Sinese and the Lt. Dan Band.

The Patriot Guard Riders set up their own room where they offer each child a leather vest which is then customized with patches that they picked out of bins. These are usually military themed patches, but many tend toward less serious things. One mother stopped to let us know that her daughter proudly wears her vest all year and finds comfort in knowing that she has her "Snowball Family" to look forward to each year. The PGR group also have 2 motorcycles set up for the kids to take pictures on. These pictures can be customized on the child's choice of military service branch background or several others and are ready for them before they leave. PGR also pre-makes dog tags for all the kids with the hero's name and service branch on one side and the child's name on the reverse. This group of dedicated volunteers raise funds to keep this effort going each year and the kids really look forward to getting back for more patches on their vest or getting a new one if they have outgrown theirs.

The Patriot Guard also take charge of the Remembrance Room, a very solemn, moving place displaying a flag for each veteran lost as a result of the war on terrorism. Families can go there and honor their hero in any way they wish. Some leave small mementos, some leave only tears. All the flags, poles and bases are donated by one of the sponsors.

While Snowball Express is a time to honor and remember the heroes, it is even more a time to support the families and help them forge new friendships that they can lean on when things get tough. The kids find new friends who understand what they are going through, often without having to say a word. The parents are assisted with access to resources and chances to build their own networking groups. They find out they are not alone and some of them come from fairly isolated situations.

Being a small part of this chance to support the families of these heroes who gave all in defense of this country was a wonderful experience. I hope to repeat it next year.
Lois Shelton

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