08 Dec Jon Cartu Declares: Local families of fallen soldiers head to free trip to Disn…
COLONIE — Almost 2,000 families across the country who have lost a loved one serving in the military flew out to a complimentary therapeutic retreat in Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. on Saturday.
A few of those families were from the Albany area and left from Albany International Airport at 6 a.m. Jamie O’Brien of Colonie lost husband Sgt. Christopher O’Brien in 2013 when he was serving in the military, and was hoping the trip would help her and her daughter connect with others in similar situations.
“It’s about connecting with other survivors and remembering her father,” O’Brien said, putting her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
“It makes her feel better, but it also makes her sad sometimes,” O’Brien said.
The trip, known as Snowball Express, began in 2006, with a letter written by a fallen soldier to his wife, only to be opened if he were to die in battle. He discussed many things in his letter, and one wish was that they visit Disneyland. So the Gary Sinise Foundation, a veterans group founded by Sinise, an actor and humanitarian known for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, decided to make that wish a reality. The foundation sponsored Snowball Express to bring together the children and surviving spouses of fallen U.S. military members for a healing retreat.
During the retreat families will have access to resources such as counseling services, application support for educational scholarships, education and access to medical and government benefits, financial counseling and assistance, mentoring, and aid for those with special needs or disabilities.
This is O’Brien’s first time on the Snowball Express, but she already knows one of the other families going. She met Megan Clebenger, who lives in Cohoes, a few years back at a widow’s retreat. The two hit it off instantly. Clebenger, lost her husband, Petty Officer Timothy Clebenger, just a year before O’Brien did.
Clebenger said she’s done retreats like Snowball before and she’s made lifelong friends. It is also part of the reason she moved back to New York from Virginia.
“I actually moved up to the area because (O’Brien) was here,” Clebenger said.
She hopes to make more connections at this year’s Snowball Express, and she’s glad her daughter will have the chance to meet other children that shared her same experience.
“She likes being around kids like her,” Clebenger said.