Snowball Express brings holiday cheer to children of fallen veterans

SALT LAKE CITY -- It is a club no one wants to join. "Gold Star" families are the ones left behind when a parent is killed serving in military.

On Monday, the Snowball Express supporting Gold Star families made a stop in Salt Lake City.

“Seeing other kids who’ve gone through the same things that I have and relating to them and seeing that I’m not the only one,” said Maddie Smith, a teenager who lost one her parents.

Maddie is on her last trip with the Snowball Express. The event, in partnership with American Airlines and others, gathers kids from around the country on chartered flights and brings them together for a week of fun. This year’s event is in Dallas, Texas.

Stopping in Salt Lake City, one of twelve charter jets picked up 13 Gold Star kids. While on the ground in Salt Lake City, volunteers gathered to make sure the stop would be remembered.

“We have a hundred teddy bears that we are bringing on board,” said Patti White, a volunteer with the Air Force Association.

During the stop, the kids got off the plane to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus. A crowd of volunteers brought gifts.

“They need to know that we still care. They need to know that people have not forgotten them or their family,” said Peggy Morrill, a volunteer with the Patriot Guard.

Beyond a fun week to brighten what can be a difficult holiday period, the event connects kids going through a similar experience. Maddie Smith has been on the Snowball Express before, meeting friends who are a support well beyond the holidays.

“I’ve made a bunch of friends," she said. "I have some friends that are from Puerto Rico that I went to visit over the summer."

2016 is her last trip, and she had some advice for other kids who are making their first Snowball Express trip since losing either mom or dad.

“You’re not the only ones," she said. "There are people who have gone through the same things and gotten through it, and you can do it too."