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november/december 2008

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Most soldiers carry a letter they hope no one will ever read.
The military encourages everyone in combat zones to compose a letter to be delivered to their loved ones should they fall in battle. It’s a final goodbye of sorts, words they never had the chance to say aloud, a modicum of comfort for the loved ones left behind. Some are addressed to unborn children, others to small children too young to remember them.

The letters are painful to read. The sad fact is that more than 4,200 families have read those bittersweet letters and more than 8,500 children have lost a military parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This December, 1,600 of those children and their families will converge on the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth—Disneyland—for a welcome, if temporary, escape from their grief.

The event is the third such trip made possible by Snowball Express, an all-volunteer charity. Its mission is to provide happy memories and camaraderie for the children of servicemen and women who have died in the Global War on Terrorism.

This year’s all-expense-paid trip includes visits to Disneyland and the Universal Studios theme park and a day-long event called “A Day in the Life of California.” All travel, hotel, and food costs are free. “They don’t pay one penny,” explained the event’s chairman, retired USAF Lt. Col. Roy White, a Southwest Airlines pilot. “They’ve already paid everything they need to pay to this country. The purpose of the trip is to let the children know their sacrifices aren’t forgotten.”

Members of VVA Chapter 785 in Orange County, California, are doing all they can to ensure there are many more trips in the future. Former Chapter 785 President Bill “Monsoon” Mimiaga is a Snowball Express trustee and VVA’s liaison to the organization. He speaks of the group’s work with the enthusiasm of an evangelist: “This is something greater than all of us. The amount of goodwill from ordinary people from across this nation is awe inspiring. You can’t help but be transformed by it.”

The chapter has been involved from the very beginning. The first Snowball Express event took place in December 2006, when 900 family members from all across America came to Southern California for an unforgettable trip to Disneyland. It was there that the children and widows discovered for the first time they weren’t alone and they weren’t forgotten.

As one mother later wrote: “My husband had only been gone two months, and I had not seen my son smile since the day we got the news. Standing in line at Disneyland, he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I guess we can still have fun even though Dad is gone.’”

In 2007, more than 1,100 participated in Snowball Express. They were welcomed to California with a dinner and a concert by actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band. They spent the next day as guests at Foothill Ranch, the 42-acre home of sunglass maker Oakley, Inc. There they were entertained by sports demonstrations, a pirate-themed playland, exotic animals, a computer music lab, celebrity visits, and free food and gifts. Once again, Disneyland was the perfect finale.

Events of this magnitude require large numbers of volunteers, and Chapter 765 members love to “get their hands dirty.” They are the ones who greet participants as they arrive at John Wayne, LAX, and Long Beach airports. They drive the vans back and forth to the hotels. They serve as “hotel captains”—part chaperones, part concierge. You can even find chapter members dressed as Elmo and other kid-friendly television characters. Word has traveled fast, and nearby VVA chapters have been eager to volunteer.

“In southern California, everyone knows the name ‘Snowball’ and everyone wants to chip in,” Mimiaga said.

The key to Snowball Express’s success is its sponsors. American Airlines has donated the use of charter aircraft; and its pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews have donated their time for the weekend. Many other companies, such as Oakley Eyewear, Quiksilver Surfwear, Panda Express, Taco Bell, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott, Best Western, Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways, JetBlue Airways, and Disney also have contributed. Local clubs, churches, and schools also have donated resources. “It simply could not have happened without them,” White said.

The recent distressing economic news would be a convenient excuse for companies to scale back their involvement, but the opposite has happened. American Airlines, for example, has increased the number of chartered aircraft at Snowball Express’ disposal from three to six. The hotel industry has donated an unprecedented $500,000 worth of hotel rooms.
White says the reason is simple: “We believe we are being good stewards of our donors’ money.”

“It speaks volumes that so many corporations want to participate, and participate to the extreme level they do,” Mimiaga pointed out. “There are so many worthy causes out there, and companies are extremely choosy about where they donate their money these days.”

Last year the children also received gifts from clothing company Quicksilver and Oakley sunglasses, along with American Express gift cards to use at the Irvine Spectrum Shopping Center, where many vendors offered the children a 50 percent discount. UPS shipped these gifts directly to the children’s homes free of charge.

Snowball Express knows its strong ties to VVA will help to spread the word to new families. VVA president John Rowan agreed. “Our network of local chapters located in communities across the nation will help spread the word about this special week for the children of the fallen,” Rowan said. “We want to make sure that no children are left out because the word has not reached their families.”

Chapter 785 members hope this will open the door for VVA members to feel confident to donate, participate in, and organize Snowball Express activities in their communities. “What better way is there to live up to the VVA founding principle of ‘Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another’?” Mimiaga asked. “We simply can’t let the same thing happen to this generation of military families that happened to ours.”

Snowball Express is “interested in long-term mentorship of these kids,” he said. “We want to help these families become stable, functioning family units again.” That is why participating families are invited to come back year after year. The hope is that they will forge new and lasting bonds and that they will find comfort in those who are going through the same emotions.
Planning is already under way for next year’s event, which will be held in Texas. The new location is more centrally located and reduces the number of air miles required to fly in participants, allowing more families to participate. It also enables Texas-based companies to participate in the same way the California companies have.

“Anytime you have an infusion of new blood into a project like this, it is only going to make it better,” Mimiaga said. “I’ll hate to see it move away from California, but we understand that we were the catalyst for something great—something bigger than ourselves.”

Snowball Express also has plans to publish a book with stories told by the children, parents, volunteers, and donors about what the trips have meant. The book will be sold as a fundraiser and also will be given to each Snowball Express family as a souvenir.

For more information, contact Snowball Express, 2973 Harbor Blvd. #401, Costa Mesa, California, 92626-3912; 714-662-2033;



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