CHICAGO - On an unusually warm day for a holiday celebration, no one wore snow boots and short-sleeved shirts replaced the down-filled coats; jingling bells could be heard throughout terminal three of O'Hare International Airport.
Army Reserve, Navy and Marine Corps members from the greater Chicago area had come to send off the families participating in the Snowball Express, minus the actual snow, on Dec. 12.
The program is sponsored by American Airlines, coordinating flights from 84 cities via nearly 60 chartered and commercial flights.
The Snowball Express is a nonprofit organization established in 2006, providing an all-expenses-paid trip to families across the United States with a mission of brining hope and new memories to the children of military heroes who have died while on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
This year marks the 10th annual celebration, 13 Gold Star families from Northern Illinois were on this flight to Dallas for a weekend getaway of festivities and a memorial service for those family members that have been lost.
"I have been participating in this event for more than five years now," said Jim Frazier, Army National Guard Survivor Outreach Services Support Coordinator, Woodstock, Illinois. "It's hard for the families this time of year. It's especially hard for the children. We hope that this weekend brings a little bit of happiness for them."
In Dallas, approximately 1,700 Gold Star family members will spend an extended weekend together in hope to find cheer during a Christmas season without their mom or dad at home.
The plane from Chicago traveled to St. Louis and Kansas City to pick up more families before arriving in Dallas. During their visit to the Lone Star State, they'll experience a Walk of Gratitude honoring their sacrifice, a tour of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, a "knight" of jousting fun at Medieval Times and a private concert by Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.
"This opportunity, this time, affords these children to come together and to be in a place with other children that have gone through similar situation as losing a parent. It provides them a level of comfort. It gives them a chance to make life-long friendships, which a lot of these kids have," said Linda Kozma, president of the Veterans and Military Employee Resource Care for American Airlines.
Before the families boarded the plane, the military, police, firefighters and airline members formed a line on the jet way to clap, cheer and shake hands with the travelers to send them off in fashion on their journey. Clark the mascot of the Chicago Cubs was also there providing comic relief and "photobombing of selfies."
Once all were securely onboard, Santa and Mrs. Claus lead the pack that lined the jet way down to the tarmac to wave and salute as the plane taxied out.
As the plane slowly made its way to the runway the fire trucks that had been stationed at-the-ready along the taxi-way opened their hoses and saluted with their water cannons. The service members held their salutes while others clapped and cheered until the American Airlines jet was no longer in sight.
"This is one of our biggest events of the season for the military families," said Franco Tedeschi, vice president American Airlines - Chicago. "I'm glad all of the service members were able to take time out of their schedules to see the families off."
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