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Snowball Express

This past December, a project started by three clubs in our District, and with volunteers from almost every club, created Snowball Express in 2006. It was a massive undertaking. We flew almost 900 kids and spouses of veterans killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to Orange County for a three-day fun-filled party – all at no cost to them. They were put up at local hotels, treated to three days of events at the Crystal Cathedral, Oakley and Disneyland. The project was the brainchild of Rotarian Michael Kerr, a member of Costa Mesa Rotary. He asked me to help him with the planning and logistics. Since it was mid-June and the event was early December, I initally thought it would be impossible. But Mike wouldn't quit. Being the brand-new President of Irvine Rotary, I thought we might have a chance. Irvine Rotary had organized the massive "Yellow Ribbon Christmas" even before they were chartered. What started as a small project to provide a few dozen Thanksgiving turkeys for Marine Corps families at Santa Ana and El Toro bases, grew into a massive project that touched every Marine family in the area. It was held in the MCAS Santa Ana blimp hanger and featured entertainment, a Santa with presents for all the kids, a way for spouses and families to videotape a Christmas greeting for their loved one, and lots of other gifts donated for the families. And it was all arranged in 60 days. Once other clubs heard about it, everyone volunteered to help. From arranging electrical generators, the entertainment, free cases of soda, Christmas dinner food packs and toys (lots of toys), the generosity of local Rotarians was overwhelming. So when Snowball Express came about I was confident our clubs would step up. Heck, we had two months more than Yellow Ribbon Christmas. Like Yellow Ribbon, there was a massive amount of mission creep as people volunteered to help and offer new ideas. At first we thought it would be for spouses and families at Camp Pendleton and El Toro. Then it grew to Southern California, and then Mike Kerr said "Why not everyone in the military?" We ended up flying in families from across the United States, and included some families living in Australia, Japan and Europe. Trying to find out exactly who was eligible started out as seemingly unsurmountable. But then the Gold Star Wives organization volunteered to help. Since all their members had been through the process, they knew exactly what to do; which forms the families needed to fax to us. While we had been trying to get names through official channels at the Pentagon, they worked their magic and found everyone. We started with a rudimentary website but to manage the online registration, we had to build a complex database that listed each family member, home information, kids, airline flight numbers, airports, arrival times, and where they'd be housed. My brother Bob Sanford, a world-class database architect, not only designed the system, but did all the coding and modifications we required as it grew. Oakley's travel department did all the reservations and ticketing and Panda Express picked up a lot of the tab for their travel. Even information about emergency contacts, protection from the press, and allergies.

Roy White, a Southwest Airlines Captain came on board early to coordinate all the flights as well as during the event troubleshoot last minute travel hiccups. Marine Corp Major William "Monsoon" Mimiaga, a 31 year veteran, coordinated the veteran's organizations such as Vietnam Veterans, VFW and American Legion. Almost every hotel, thanks to John Mavros making the arrangements, donated free lodging. A bus company provided free transportation to move the families from their arrival to their hotel and all the events. The Irvine Spectrum Shoping Center provided a Christmas Shopping Spree for each family, with donated gift cards. The Crystal Cathedral provided free tickets for their much-in-demand Christmas program on Friday Disneyland provided free run-of-the-park passes for Saturday The Anaheim Ducks gave free family passes to a Ducks hockey game on Monday Oakely, led by Vice President Al Krueger, created an entire day of adventure at their world headquarters. The party kicked off with a skydiver streaming an enormous American flag. That was followed by a military flyover. They arranged for X-Games athletes like Tony Hawk to demonstrate their sports, static and active displays by the military, a Santa Clause, free food provided by Panda Express, Outback Steakhouse and others. Free gifts from Oakley, Quiksilver and donated by Rotarians. UPS volunteered free shipping of all of the gifts received. Rotarians and students from local elementary through high schools lined the streets for miles to wave flags and signs as the families They also greeted each family upon their arrival at one of the airports - Santa Ana, Long Beach, LAX or Ontario. Rotary clubs signed up to offer a concierge service at each of the myriad hotels from Newport Beach to Anaheim. But it was the little things that counted with the spouses. Things we didn't even expect. One of the widows was crying as she got off the bus at Oakley. I asked her what was wrong and she said "Nothing. I had thought that everyone had forgotten about us until I saw the people waving flags along our bus route."

Another said "My son finally smiled. Not only because of all the activities, but because he could hang out with other kids who had lost their Dad. Until Snowball Express, because we no longer were in the military, he thought he was the only one who didn't have a Dad." This December marked the 15th Anniversary of Snowball Express. What started as a Rotary project with just three clubs, rapidly grew to involve all the clubs in our District as well as Rotary clubs across the country. The second year, Snowball Express achieved non-profit status, appointed a Board of Directors and soon moved to Dallas. Soon after, American Airlines stepped up to underwrite the entire event. Recently it became part of the incredible Gary Sinise Foundation and was relocated to Orlando, Florida to offer the families a day at Disney World. What I love about Rotary is that if you have a great idea, it doesn't matter how big it is. Rotarians will step up to make it happen. From conquering Polio to making sure a child who lost his dad or mom gets a memorable Christmas.


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