Last summer, Hannah Hanson lost a very important person in her life.
Her dad, Lt. Commander Keith Hanson, died July 1 due to injuries from a car accident. The 1991 Fremont High School valedictorian and naval officer had aspired to become an astronaut. His death hasn’t been easy for family members, which include 8-year-old Hannah.
But from Nov. 30-Dec. 4, an organization called Snowball Express provided some happy moments for Hannah and her mom, Jennifer, who live in Frisco, Texas.
Snowball Express works to create hope and new memories for children of fallen members of the military who have died since 9-11. In conjunction with corporate sponsors, it paid for children and surviving parents or guardians to come to Dallas for five days. It’s specifically scheduled between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because the holiday time is traditionally more difficult for families.
“Families that come pay nothing out of pocket for the whole weekend, including their transportation,” Jennifer Hanson said.
American Airlines provides nine planes for the cause and all workers donate services to transport family members from throughout the country and even overseas.
Approximately 1,800 attendees filled 45 school buses and were escorted by 70 Patriot Guard Riders and more than 30 Dallas police officers on motorcycles in a presidential style motorcade.
One of Hannah’s favorite parts of the trip was a Saturday visit to Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. Children got into the park before it opened and were able to ride some rides by themselves — as many times as they wanted.
Hannah’s favorite was the new Texas Giant roller coaster.
“She’s a daredevil,” Jennifer said. “She loves all the thrill rides.”
The trip included many other fun events.
That Friday, children were able to shop, for free, for their parent or guardian at the Neiman Marcus store in the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.
“I’m not quite sure what I ended up with, but there were some really nice gifts,” Jennifer said.
Children also attended a tree lighting ceremony at the AT&T Performing Arts Center and could go ice skating.
On Saturday morning, the group got special seats for the Annual Children’s Medical Center Holiday Parade, complete with celebrities and big floats.
“It was truly like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Jennifer said.
Another trip highlight occurred that Sunday when the group spent a day at the Fort Worth Stock Yards, a series of shops.
“Every day, they drive longhorn cattle down the streets of the stock yard. We got to see the cattle drive,” Jennifer said.
Santa Claus parachuted in from a helicopter and the U.S. Air Force made a flyover.
They saw the “Pawnee Bill Wild West Show” at the coliseum and had dinner and a show at Billy Bob’s Texas, billed as the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk.” Movie and television star Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band performed.
“It was really neat,” Jennifer said. “(Sinise) came to our hotel on Monday morning and met with the kids and families and took pictures with them and signed autographs for the kids. Every kid got a bag full of five DVD movies — a gift from the Gary Sinise Foundation, whose primary focus is to support military families.”
That night, some performers from Cirque du Soleil and variety show magicians entertained the group.
Jennifer said Hannah enjoyed the trip.
“She had a blast and got to meet lots of new friends from all around the country — and the nice thing about it was that each of those kids she met had also lost a dad or a mom that was serving in the military. It was kind of unique, because she didn’t have to worry about something asking, ‘Where is your dad,’ because those kids were in her same situation and they understood,” Jennifer said.
It was a great experience for Jennifer, too.
“As a parent, it was wonderful,” she said. “Since my husband died on July 1, it was five days — the longest time I’d gone without crying. … I got to see people who were years out from losing their spouse and I could see that life does move on and you can enjoy life and find happiness again,” she said.
Jennifer and Keith were married 16 years. She’s grateful for those years.
During the trip, she also met children who never got to meet their fathers.
“I’m thankful that Hannah had eight years with her dad. Hannah really does have good memories of those eight years,” she said.
Hannah is an energetic third-grader who loves school.
“She’s a fireball. She always tries to make me laugh. She loves to be goofy and play around. Every time she sees me getting emotional, she tries to cheer me up. … She remembers and the reality of not having a dad sets in for her and she does get emotional occasionally,” her mom said. “She’s a happy-go-lucky girl who was put in a horrific situation.”