ARLINGTON -- Providence Spence dressed appropriately for the Metropolitan Classical Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker on Friday afternoon at UT-Arlington.
The 6-year-old wore ballet attire as she and about 1,400 others settled into their seats for the holiday classic at the University of Texas at Arlington.
This wasn't just any audience at Texas Hall. Those in attendance were part of Snowball Express, a group founded in 2006 to make childhood fun again for the children of military personnel killed on active duty since 9-11. Providence, who lost her father to a helicopter crash in Iraq five years ago and is visiting from Idaho, was looking forward to the show.
"I've seen the movie, but I've never seen the performance," she said eagerly while waiting for the curtain to rise.
The ballet's special performance was just one stop in a fun-filled weekend for the families. Later Friday, they were to attend the Mesquite Championship Rodeo and hear a concert by actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band.
This afternoon and evening, they'll descend on Six Flags Over Texas for Holiday in the Park. On Sunday, they'll enjoy horseback rides and other activities at Southfork Ranch.
Supporters go all-out to show their appreciation for the families' wartime sacrifice. During the trip to Arlington from a Dallas hotel, the buses carrying the families had Interstate 30 largely to themselves, thanks to a Dallas police escort that blocked highway ramps.
American Airlines donated eight charter flights, including the services of pilots, flight crew and ground crew, for the families.
Snowball Express spokesman and board member Dan Ronan said at least 600 volunteers are involved in the weekend activities. Among them are Michele Kelsey of Pantego and her husband, Mark, a board member and former Army casualty assistance officer whose task it was to notify people that their loved ones had been killed.
"We feel very strongly about this cause," Michele Kelsey said. "I just do my little part."
She added that the families are as grateful as can be.
"Many of them would say thank you," she said. "I would tell them, 'Why are you thanking me? We're supposed to be thanking you.'"
Sharing The Nutcracker with the Snowball Express children was special to members of the ballet, too.
"As performers, we put our heart and soul into this," said Sunni Thomason, an Irving native. "It's giving them something that's heroic and uplifting that can maybe bring a little light to the dark time they might be going through."
A shared bond
Fun isn't all Snowball Express provides. The real impact can be much more meaningful.
Shannah Parr of Salt Lake City said this is the first year for her and her son, Nicholas, 8, to participate. His father was killed in 2007 in Iraq. "It's been great, especially for him to meet other children who understand what he's going through," she said. "Nobody else can understand what it's like."
Kristen Chase of Midwest City, Okla., who brought sons Brett, 16, and Trevor, 14, agreed. Snowball Express has given Brett a place to make friends with whom he can keep in touch.
"We still live by a military base, but he doesn't have any friends there who have gone through the same thing," she said.
Meanwhile, like a typical boy, Trevor Allen, 11, of New York wasn't thrilled about the ballet, even if it was his first. "I'm probably looking forward to the rodeo the most," he said.
Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423