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Snowball Express Packed With Purpose, Emotions

flags in the Remembrance Garden at Snowball Express

The Remembrance Garden, where more than 700 flags are marked with a plaque for each fallen hero at the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express in Orlando.

WoodmenLife member Bernadine Stanaland and Robby Molony, WoodmenLife's Director of Community Partnerships.

Robby Molony is Director of Community Partnerships at WoodmenLife. He joined other associates and member volunteers in Orlando for the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express. WoodmenLife supplied flags for the event’s Remembrance Garden, where a sea of 700-plus flags honors the parents children at the gathering lost in combat. Families are guided to their loved ones’ flag, each marked with a plaque noting the name, branch of service and date of death. Read what it was like for him to be at this poignant event:

more than 700 flags stand in honor of all the mothers and fathers killed in combat. Families are guided to their loved ones’ flag, each marked with a plaque noting the name, branch of service and date of death. Read what it was like for him to be at this poignant event:

Friday, Dec. 6

I am here at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in preparation for the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express, and there are so many different emotions surrounding the Remembrance Garden. There is an immense sense of purpose for what we’re preparing for. Everyone is grateful and humbled by what these families have sacrificed and endured. It gives the preparation team energy knowing the smiles that are coming.

However, we also know the tears that are coming and what each individual flag represents to each family. So we iron each flag to make sure wrinkles aren’t a distraction for the family. We display the flags so that they hang as beautifully as possible and wait in great expectation for the families to arrive Saturday. It’s exciting and daunting — and absolutely incredible — what this event achieves. What a privilege for me to be part of this.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve these families.

Saturday, Dec. 7

Gold Star families are arriving on buses, escorted by Patriot Guard motorcycle riders and welcomed by a high school band and cheerleaders. Beyond that, swarms of volunteers are cheering and clapping as they step down into something that will be unforgettable for many.

The smiles we’re getting are so meaningful. The courage of these families is inspiring and adds so much perspective to my life.

I am posted in the Remembrance Garden and bracing myself to see their expressions change. If what we’ve done — posted more than 700 flags with a plaque with the lost parent’s name — brings any happiness or connection, then we’ve spent our time well.

I am humbled by the choices these heroes made and grateful for their service. I’m privileged to get to thank their families, and I hope these families know it’s an honor to be here for them. I am and will forever be in awe of them.

Sunday, Dec. 8

Sunday was an amazing day. I was “coined” by a Medal of Honor recipient. He thanked me for volunteering and gave me a coin that commemorates his heroism in the Vietnam War. I thanked him for his service and studied the coin he gave me.

Afterward, I Googled his name and learned he saved eight men — what an act of heroism. The appreciation I have for the U.S. military has grown exponentially since I arrived here. The decision so many men and women have made to offer as much as their life in exchange for my freedom is humbling.

Later on I guided two little girls — maybe 5 and 7 years old — to the flag for their dad, who died in February. They told their mom they were going to the kids’ room, but they showed up at my door instead, promptly asking to see their dad’s flag. After I left them to write their letters and cry, I needed a few minutes to myself to pull it back together.

These kids are so strong, and my hope is that this strength stays with them through their long life. More adversity is surely on the way, but they’ve proven capable of so much already. I’m so impressed with all of them.

Snowball Express is just beautiful in every way.

Monday, Dec. 9

Families spent Monday at the Magic Kingdom, so it was fairly quiet in the Remembrance Garden.

I have walked the flag aisles dozens of times and each time I find a new connection. Someone that has passed on one of my loved one’s birthday or a name that’s familiar. Maybe I heard of their passing on the news. That was just a flash of their lives and it is truly a privilege to work in this room.

I am told tomorrow will be very busy and, even after 4 days of experience, I’m sure I’m not ready for the emotions that are to come.

Tuesday, Dec. 10

It was a great day. The families enjoyed another day in the park, but there were plenty of people who stayed behind and spent time in the Remembrance Garden. Many waited until this final day to visit their hero’s flag. One woman stopped at the door, knowing what was ahead of her, and just cried. I didn’t know her but I wanted to hug her and try to ease her grief. Soon one of her family members got to her side, and they proceeded together.

It was like this most of the day, until about 4 p.m., when families started to request their name cards. The process to remove the cards was solemn. We reverently put cards and other notes that were written into an envelope for the family and thanked them for their service. And almost every one brought me to tears. Their sacrifice is beyond my grasp. I’ve never had anything this tragic happen to me, and I don’t understand their loss.

Snowball Express does a wonderful job making this event about the families, as it should be. Every need is anticipated, and every process is conceived with the families’ experience in mind.

Wednesday, Dec. 11

This morning there are more name cards to hand out. As I’m met with smiles, it’s clear many families are truly grateful for this experience.

It has been a wonderful week, and one that has inspired me. Maybe that’s the 3:30 a.m. wake up call talking, but I’m grateful for this experience and eager to see where it takes me.

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