In the days after she lost her husband, Spc. Kyle Little, Tiffany Little turned to the Disney classic “Mary Poppins” for a spoonful of sugar to help the grief pass.
Eleven years later, thanks to the Gary Sinise Foundation, an emotional Little had the opportunity to meet the Disney character that helped her through.
Little, along with her daughter Kylee, 11, and more than 1,700 Gold Star families paid a visit to Disney World Dec. 8-12 for the Snowball Express 2018, a Gary Sinise Foundation program. The annual outreach provides children of the nation’s fallen heroes, as well as their surviving parent/guardian, with an opportunity to relax and enjoy fun and therapeutic activities alongside others who know exactly what they’re going through. About 25 Gold Star family members from the Redstone Arsenal Survivor Outreach Services program attended.
“It was a time for my daughter to be with other children like her without having to actually talk about the pain,” Little said. “She gets to be herself with no judgment. Everyone there knows what happened, but they give her this great experience without her having to talk about it. Other times she does stuff that is Gold Star-related it’s like she is out on display, which we understand, but Snowball is different. It’s a break from being out there to educate and honor. Snowball is just about this common thread of people who get to have fun together and make happy memories for themselves – not just honoring their parent.”
Open to children ages 5 to 18, of service members who died while on active duty, the five-day experience is timed each December with the knowledge that the holiday season can be especially difficult for those who have lost a loved one.
“It allows them to be around everybody who understands what their lives are like and what they’re going through,” said Kerrie Branson, SOS program manager, who helped staff the Resource Room at this year’s event. “Other kids can see that they‘re not the only ones out there who have that missing father or mother. They can be themselves. They can cry – the ugly cry – because everyone understands. No one wonders why, because they know why you’re doing it.”
The event, presented by American Airlines, was free for the Gold Star families. With accommodations at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, activities not only included ample time to enjoy the Disney Theme Parks without the crowds, but special programs to help the kids through their grief, as well as a concert by Gary Sinise himself, with the Lt. Dan Band. Disney employees lined Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom, waving American flags and cheering, as the kids completed the Walk of Gratitude on their first day. A Garden of Remembrance at the resort held an American flag for each fallen hero.
“It was a time for the kids to be kids – smile, laugh and have fun – with other kids that understand their loss while honoring their fallen hero and making lasting friendships,” said Sarah Bowen, mother of Christian and Kaitlyn.
“It’s all about being happy and getting away from that sadness and having fun and being amongst people like you,” Branson said.