An ordinary school day turned into something extraordinary for a first-grader at LSU Lab School on Thursday.
Anna Lee Daniel was whisked from her classroom for an exciting ride in the back of a classic car to Baton Rouge Metro Airport for a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed party, followed by a “Snowball Express” flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, where she and her grandmother were joining more than 1,800 children and spouses of military service members who have fallen since Sept. 11, 2001, in the service of their country.
Daniel, 7, is the daughter of the late Staff Sgt. William Austin Daniel, who served with the Louisiana National Guard. Sgt. Daniel graduated from the Lab School in 1994 and is honored with a memorial painting in the school office. He served two tours of duty overseas, earning numerous awards and, in 2009, succumbed to heart failure at the age of 33, due in part, his mother Alice Daniel said, to Stage 3 Hodgkin’s disease that she links to burn-pit exposure during a 2004 Iraq tour.
Alice Daniel accompanied her granddaughter to the Snowball Express event.
“Last week, all I heard from Anna was, ‘I’m the only one in my class without a dad,’ ” Alice Daniel said before the excitement got underway at the grade school. “This week, all I’ve heard is ‘Snowball Express!’ That’s what this wonderful thing they are doing is intended for — she gets to be with lots of other kids like her who lost their mom or their dad.”
Snowball Express is a volunteer nonprofit organization with the goal of serving the children of fallen service members, Baton Rouge Metro Airport General Manager Brian Anderson said. Families from 72 cities across the United States were to arrive in Dallas via 10 chartered and 51 commercial flights on Thursday.
“In an effort to bring some enjoyment and healing to these families, Snowball Express annually partners with American Airlines’ ‘Kids In Need’ program to fly these children and spouses to Dallas/Fort Worth for a few days of fun and friendship,” Anderson said.
American Airlines is providing the majority of the air travel, Anderson said, and all flight crews are donating their time to participate in the Snowball Express program.
While in Dallas and Fort Worth, the families will participate in a red carpet special premiere of the movie “Annie,” starring Jamie Foxx, a meet-and-greet with the stars of the Discovery Channel show “Fast N Loud” and other activities.
They’ll take a tour of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, be honored guests at a western cookout at the Sheriff’s Posse Ranch in Weatherford, Texas, and at a private concert by Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.
When Anna Lee was called out of her room by Principal Myra Broussard on Thursday to start her extraordinary day, classmates lined the front sidewalk to Dalrymple Drive where a classic, white 1949 Packard Deluxe awaited her along with a half-dozen motorcycles driven by local members of the Patriot Guard to serve as escorts.
“She is very deserving of this,” said Tommy Roy, 74, an Air Force veteran and Patriot Guard member who owns the Packard. “Her dad gave his life for his country.”
“Have fun,” the kids shouted to her as the convoy roared away with motors rumbling and flags flying. When she got to the airport, the staff had decorated Gate B1 into an undersea SpongeBob SquarePants scene, complete with a bubble machine with the cartoon’s theme song playing over loudspeakers.
Julie Arton, marketing director for Baton Rouge-area Chick-fil-A, presented Anna Lee with a bag of gifts, and then the entourage of media, motorcyclists and airport staffers feasted on — not SpongeBob “crabby-cakes” — but Chick-fil-A nuggets and a SpongeBob-shaped cake.
Asked about all the excitement, Anna Lee shyly said, “It’s great.”
The flight, a regular EMB 145 commuter aircraft, departed the airport as an official “Snowball Express” flight and was saluted by airport firetrucks shooting their water cannons as it taxied down the runway.