The Snowball Express, a charity that serves the families of those who have died during active military duty since 9/11, is scheduled to arrive at the Fort Worth Stockyards Sunday, Dec. 2, transporting 1,800 children and their surviving parents to the historic American West for a special day of appreciation and entertainment.
Rolling out the red carpet in their honor is Day Director and Co-Chair for Ground Transportation Bob Wood, an Aledo resident who is also working hard to see that the streets of downtown “Cowtown” are jammed with enthusiastic supporters.
Wood pictures a large crowd cheering, waving American flags and welcoming the grieving families, who have been invited to take a “Walk of Gratitude” down Exchange Avenue at 10:30 a.m.
The name Snowball Express comes from the organization’s grassroots origins in Southern California, Wood explained.
“There was a handful of folks who wanted to bring some of these kids to Disneyland in December, and they were going to express those kids,” he said. “They wanted a name that was kid-related and had to do with winter.”
Wood, a Navy veteran, has been involved with the non-profit for the past four years. Thinking about the children’s losses brings tears to his eyes.
“You only have to look at these kids one time and you’re hooked,” he said. “The first year a little girl introduced herself and sat down next to my wife. Then she turned and said, ‘My daddy’s in heaven. Did you know that?’
“When a parent dies, the surviving spouse and children are not part of the military, and they leave their ‘military family’ to go to a community where people don’t understand what they’ve been through. This event brings them together with others, and they realize they are not alone. Some are really suffering, and Snowball does a lot to help them heal.”
Wood, who likes the unique character of Fort Worth, said he “pushed” to schedule one day of the annual four-day event in the city; the last three events have been held entirely in Dallas.
“I told them, ‘You can’t come to DFW and not go to the FW part.’ I called the chamber of commerce and the city government and they connected me with people who understand the Stockyards and other places where we could do a whole day.
“Then I came up with a skeleton run of the day and turned it in to chairman Buck Kern. Buck is a wonderful organizer who has been the contacts guy, coordinating with vendors and entertainers.”
The children and their parents actually arrive for the event Nov. 30, Wood said, courtesy of American Airlines. The company, a huge financial partner, is providing nine charter jets that will make 20 or more stops all over the U.S. and the world.
The families will stay at the Sheraton in Dallas, Wood said, filling their first day with a children’s parade and a visit to Six Flags, along with musical and robotic events at the hotel.
On Sunday, the Patriot Guard Riders will rev up their motorcycles to lead 40 to 45 charter buses all the way from Dallas to Fort Worth, probably down I-30, Wood said, and then on to the Stockyards.
“Police will shut down the freeway,” he said, “and the buses will come down the middle all the way through. Groups will decorate the overpasses, and some of them will have people waving and cheering.
“It’s going to be amazing.”
During the “Walk of Gratitude” in Fort Worth, TCU cheerleaders and showgirls, in addition to the university’s SuperFrog mascot, will escort the families, Wood said, along with a mounted patrol.
Afterward, the City of Fort Worth will release its herd of Texas Longhorns for a mini cattle drive, and the group will have lunch.
The children — ages 6 to 18 — and their parents will watch Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show — a historical reenactment of the original show that toured in the late 1800s — meet rockabilly guitarist and singer Sonny Burgess and visit an alcohol-free Billy Bob’s, bought out to provide a private venue for entertainment and games during the evening.
Headlining the event will be actor Gary Sinise, of CSI New York, described as the “Bob Hope of the 21st Century,” Wood said, for entertaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with his Lt. Dan Band.
Members of the local community and others always come alongside to support the event, Wood said, often donating their services or products or offering them at a reduced rate.
Last year, the Texas Pork Producers gave bacon and sausage to the Sheraton, he said, and Gallo was a “huge contributor” of wine for the parents’ hotel lounge.
“For the last two years, Neiman Marcus set up a room on one of the floors of the hotel where kids could pick presents for Mom or Dad, and they helped them wrap them,” Wood said.
One determined 10-year-old girl collected more than 1,000 teddy bears to distribute, one for every child.
“Once this thing gets rolling, people say, ‘Me too, me too,’” Wood said. “When the kids leave, we have to provide boxes for all the things people give them. But the airline doesn’t charge any baggage fees.”
For Wood, who served in the Navy for 36 years, retiring as a deputy commander for Navy reserve intelligence command in 2009, working with Snowball Express is a very personal way of giving back.
“Some people serve at homeless shelters or food kitchens,” he said, “but my wife Mary Frances and I have decided our hearts are here, taking care of our troops and families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
“I’d like to tell Parker County that I cannot think of an event that will do more for your heart, when you realize what they have lost for our freedoms.
“Come bring a sign and yell, ‘Thank you.’ Let these families know that their sacrifice is understood and appreciated.”
For information on how to volunteer or make a financial donation, go to www.snowballexpress.org.