LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – Family members of fallen armed forces members are celebrating the holidays in a very special way, thanks to the Snowball Express.
The annual event, organized by the Gary Sinise Foundation, packs 15 planes with Gold Star families who are treated to a trip to Disney World.
“Each one of these children who are going on these airplanes have lost a parent in military services – either combat related or illness or unfortunately suicide sometimes. We wanna take care of these kids and make sure they know we don’t forget,” actor and director Gary Sinise told KCAL9’s Joy Benedict.
About 1,700 people from 15 locations across the country board the Snowball Express on their way to a 5-night vacation in Orlando, Florida.
Santa Claus landed at LAX in style Saturday morning, arriving in a helicopter with Mrs. Claus.
Children had a chance to take pictures with St. Nick and get presents.
Desmond, whose father Army Sgt. Myles Penix died in 2016, and his mom were first in line to meet Santa.
“I [didn’t know] that he would be here in a helicopter – I thought he was gonna be jumping out of there in a parachute,” he said.
Desmond’s mom Jade Penix said the trip, which they participated in last year, is a chance for both children and parents to enjoy themselves and heal during a difficult time of year.
“It’s just important ’cause of all of the bonding that we get to do. He gets to find friends who are just like him, and I get to find ones that have lost just like me,” she said. “It’s easier when you find people who’ve gone through the same thing. So it’s an amazing experience. All of the different tributes they have, and all of the different balloon releases where I get to write a message to my husband; it’s amazing.”
American Airlines sponsors the event, transporting families to the “happiest place on earth.”
“The most important thing about [the Snowball Express] is that these children don’t feel alone. There’s a lot of healing and a lot of bonding and a lot of friendship that goes on that helps them through the rest of the year,” Sinise said.
Click here for more information about the Snowball Express.