Snowball Express Gives Military Kids a Magic Holiday

Snowball Express is a program that offers special experiences to children who have had parents die in military service.

At first glance, it may look like any other scene you'd see at the mall around Christmas time: Kids sit on Santa's lap; elves help guide them along; parents snap pictures.

This is no ordinary event, however.

This is part of an extraordinary program for extraordinary kids whose parents made an extraordinary sacrifice.

The scene is taking place in a terminal at LAX as part of Snowball Express, a program that offers special experiences to children who have had parents die in military service. Snowball Express is sending these children and their surviving parents on a five-day, all-expense paid trip to Disney World.

"They're giving this opportunity to kids who felt like they lost everything," said Camilla Gutierrez, whose stepfather died in military service.

The children meet as strangers, but they learn they're connected by the extreme test of losing a parent.

Actor Gary Sinise, known for playing a disabled veteran in "Forrest Gump," began supporting Snowball Express more than a decade ago. He was so impressed with the program that he made it part of his personal charitable foundation.

"We want to give them as much joy, love and light as possible," he said.

When Sinise spoke with NBC4, Snowball Express was sending more than 1,000 kids from all over the country to Orlando.

He is quick to give credit for the program's success to volunteers, many of whom are connected with the children through their own military experiences.

John Baca received a Medal of Honor for saving his colleagues from a grenade. He said he loves participating in Snowball Express.

"It's one of the most beautiful events in my life," he said.

The program meant so much to Chelsea Briggs when she was younger, she has now become a volunteer.

"After Snowball Express came into my life, we learned we can have fun again and enjoy the holidays, so I'm very grateful," she said.

The excitement builds as boarding begins. Faces light up. Smiles flash across the faces of children who have known so much pain. Snowball Express serves as a means of offering a measure of gratitude for the sacrifice they and their parents have made.

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