Gold Star families get festive sendoff at O'Hare before Disney World trip
The send-off for Gold Star families boarding the "Snowball Express" flight on Saturday morning at O'Hare International Airport featured a parade, singing, Santa and lots of twinkly lights.
Nearly 200 parents and kids from all over the Midwest and beyond were headed to a five-day stay at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Another more than 1,500 Gold Star family members from across the country, and as far as England and Guam, were to join them in Florida, all courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
"It feels really cool," said 15-year-old Josh Grieco of Bartlett, who was with his sister Angeli, 13, and their mother Rashmi. "You feel like a celebrity, almost."
This was the family's second time on the "Snowball Express" since the children's father, Kevin Grieco, a staff sergeant with the Army National Guard, died in 2008 in Afghanistan. "We are really thankful for what they are doing for Gold Star families," Rashmi Grieco said. "It helps to get out and meet other people, and do something different."
American Airlines, a longtime partner of the Gary Sinise Foundation, supplied volunteer crews and staff members to transport the families from 87 cities via chartered and commercial flights.
This was the 6th Snowball Express for 15-year-old Leila Bernal of Joliet, who was traveling with her aunt Erica Uribe of Shorewood. It was also going to be her second visit to Walt Disney World Resort after her first at age 4 with her father, U.S. Army Spc. Rudolfo I. Bernal Jr., who died after he was injured in Afghanistan in 2009.
"It's a really great experience to have other children understand the pain of losing a parent, because it's such a different type of loss," Leila said.
Snowball Express started as a nonprofit in 2006 and used to take Gold Star families to Dallas, Texas. It started taking them to Disney World after it became an official Gary Sinise Foundation initiative in 2017. "Gary really wanted to take the families to the happiest place on earth," said foundation Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Fields. "So this seemed like the best place."
The Florida trip was to include a lineup of activities and entertainment, such as a concert from Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band, and opportunities for the families to connect to resources such as counseling, financial services, educational scholarships and medical benefits.
The send-off at O'Hare's Terminal 3 included music from a U.S. Army band and a performance of the national anthem by Wayne Messmer, best known for performing at Chicago Cubs games. Other travelers stopped to watch the festivities, many taking out their cellphones to record. Among them was Margaret Strecker, a U.S. Army staff sergeant from Iowa on her way back to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
"It hits home to watch this, because of my grandparents who were both in the military, and because I have friends I lost in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," Strecker said. "I think it's awesome. It's a very nice gift to give them (the Gold Star families) for everything they have been through."