Photos © Courtesy of Mikki
By Raye Mocioiu and Alex Carter
In 1994, Gary Sinise played the role of Lt. Dan Taylor in the award-winning film Forrest Gump—a role that changed his life forever. As the military community embraced the character he brought to life, Gary discovered his calling: a life of advocacy for America’s military veterans.
More than 26 years later, Gary Sinise keeps the spirit of his famous character alive through the Gary Sinise Foundation, working to see that those who defend this country and its freedoms are never forgotten. For over a decade, Gary Sinise proudly supported Snowball Express, an organization dedicated to serving the children of our fallen military heroes, surviving spouses and guardians. In 2017, the Snowball Express became an official initiative of the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief & Resiliency program, expanding the program’s impact to support even more Gold Star families.
“The roots of all this go back to the ‘80s and supporting our Vietnam veterans and then in the ‘90s beginning to work in support of our wounded after playing Lt Dan,” Gary Sinise shares. “After the tragic and devastating attacks on September 11, 2001, I began devoting much of my time to supporting the men and women who were answering the call to duty. I personally felt called to service in some way and wanted to do more. I began volunteering my time with the USO and many other non-profits supporting our nation’s heroes, gold and blue star families, firefighters, police officers, and wounded veterans. I’ve entertained our troops across the globe and all over our country, playing over 500 concerts since 2003. Over the years, it became clear to me that my journey was now a lifelong service mission to keep all of our defenders, first responders, and their families strong in difficult times by serving and honoring their needs. All of the programs at the Gary Sinise Foundation were born from a personal experience supporting our defenders.”
Beyond supporting veterans and military heroes, the Gary Sinise Foundation takes its impact one step further by creating a safe environment for the families of fallen military heroes to spend time honoring their loved ones while creating new memories with other families. Snowball Express, which takes place every December, is one such program.
While the holiday season is a joyful time for many, it can be incredibly challenging for grieving families. Snowball Express is a five-day experience at Walt Disney World Resort for 1,750+ children and their surviving parent or guardian. Snowball Express provides a supportive and understanding space for healing and celebration, surrounded by other families who understand. With time to honor their fallen loved ones and a blend of fun entertainment and inspiring programs, these families can lean on their peers for support.
No matter where these families are in the grieving process, the goal of Snowball Express is to inspire them to believe that anything is possible.
Mikki Frison and her ten-year-old son Christopher have been attending Snowball Express since 2015, before it became an official program of the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2017. The two have been a team since the loss of Christopher’s father, Lt. Demetrius Frison, in 2011.
“Our very first Snowball was in 2015, in Dallas, Texas. Gary Sinise would do his show with the Lt. Dan band, out of an airplane hangar in one of the military bases in Texas. It was always really cool, the kids loved going up on stage to sing with Uncle Gary.”
Chris was one of the youngest kids at that particular Snowball, and Mikki recalls feeling nervous about how he would fare on his own.
“A friend of mine was there with her son, and they had been to the Snowball before, but this was our first one. Her son, Kevyn, decided to hang out with Chris in the kid lounge, even though he had the option to go into the teen lounge. I joke and call my kid a limited edition because he’s my only child. There’s only one of him, and there will never be another kid like him ‘cause his dad is gone. He’s never really too far away from me. I was so thankful that Kevyn stood by him that entire experience, kind of like a big brother.”
Part of the power of these experiences is the unspoken bond between the families and the opportunity to bond with people who understand what you’re going through. In 2018, Mikki and Chris went to the first Snowball Express held at Disney World, where Mikki saw that bond at work once again.
“My son had never been to Disney World before; that was his very first trip. He had been going to the kids’ lounge for years at that point.” Mikki recalls seeing a mother with her young son attending the Snowball for the first time. The pair reminded Mikki of her first experience with Chris back in 2015. “I grabbed Chris and said, ‘do you remember your first Snowball and how Kevyn hung out with you when you didn’t know anyone? Well, here’s this new little boy…’ I didn’t even get to finish what I was saying. He immediately went to the little boy, and they ran into the kids’ lounge together. We still keep in touch.”
In addition to the magic of Disney each December, the Gary Sinise Foundation also hosts intimate Snowball Express community events around the country year-round, from basketball games to educational opportunities. These events are essential for children and surviving spouses to develop bonds with the only people who can truly understand their loss: each other.
“Support and empathy mean so much more when they come from someone who deeply understands what you’re going through,” Mikki shares. “It’s comforting to know that somebody has been there before and will hold your hand if you need. You don’t have to explain yourself, you just know someone’s been there, and that they can help you, and you’ll get the opportunity to give it back. People were there for me when I needed it, so why wouldn’t I turn around and do the same?”
By providing fun experiences and beneficial resources in an emotionally safe and inclusive environment, the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express serves the children and surviving spouses of fallen military heroes. Throughout the year, community-focused programming and support make it possible for families to honor their fallen heroes while also helping create new memories as they move forward.