Gary Sinise opened up about how his namesake foundation teamed up with Snowball Express to treat Gold Star families to Disney trips for the holidays.
In a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Sinise, 63, revealed that Snowball Express was started in 2006 by "a few people that wanted to focus on healing and to help the children of our fallen heroes." The founders teamed up with American Airlines to send several hundred kids to Disneyland that year.
Well aware of the "Forrest Gump" star's longtime support for veterans' and military families' causes, Snowball Express came to Sinise in spring 2007 and showed him a video of the event. He signed up to support the December 2007 Snowball Express, in which they brought more children to Disneyland, and Sinise performed for them with his Lt. Dan Band. In 2011, he went on to found the Gary Sinise Foundation, into which Snowball Express eventually folded.
"They’re dealing with the grief and the loss of a loved one, a mom or a dad who have died in military service, and all these kids are going through the same thing, so the power of all of them in the same place at the same time, many of them — hundreds of them — was very healing for a lot of them," Sinise said.
"You cannot underestimate the power of bringing all these kids together in a happy environment because we’re trying to bring joy to them right before the holidays, right before the Christmas holidays, which is a difficult time for a child who’s lost a parent — so bringing all these kids together at the happiest place on earth in Disney World was very, very special," he continued.
The trip to Disney was a combination of free roaming throughout to go on rides, but it began with an opening dinner and ceremony on Main St. approaching Cinderella's Castle.
There's also a flag garden with more than 600 flags for each fallen member of the families in attendance.
"There's a lot of healing that goes on. We have counseling, we have all kinds of communal activities that focus on the healing aspect of a gold star family member who's grieving, but we also want to provide hope and happiness and joy and all of that."
"It’s heartwarming because it makes you feel good to see the kids laughing and having a fun time, but it’s also heartbreaking because you know why they’re there," he explained of the Snowball Express trips. "They’re there because of loss and grief, and because they are a military family who's paid the ultimate price."
"You will see children walking around with buttons of their fallen hero, their father or whoever it was, sometimes they have T-shirts with pictures ... Some of the kids I will see every year. They'll come back and they'll be just a little bit bigger every year, and they'll be wearing that button or that T-shirt. I'm just there to honor their loved one and to show them that we love them."
Aside from bringing joy to children of fallen military members, Sinise says his foundation works with other aspects of the military and veteran experience, and that he'd like to expand their work into preventing military and veteran suicides and improving mental health among military members and vets.
"Prior to the Gary Sinise Foundation, I was engaged with so many military charities who do all kinds of different things, that I saw a lot of need in all these different areas," he said. "When I sat down to structure my own military need nonprofit, a legal folks said, 'What's going to be your mission? What's going to be the one thing that you do?' I said, 'We're gonna do a lot of things!"