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Charity Tries to Relieve Sorrows of Iraq War

Orange Coast Snowball Express plans to treat slain soldiers' families to a big weekend, including visits to Disneyland and the Crystal Cathedral.

September 29, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Armed with a stack of emotional letters from the widows of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Michael Kerr maps out his grand vision.

In mid-December, hundreds of surviving spouses and their children will be flown to Orange County, put up in hotels and chauffeured to Disneyland -- all free of charge. The military families will also see a Christmas pageant, attend an elaborate party and return home lugging toys and gifts.

He calls the project Orange Coast Snowball Express.

Kerr, a Newport Beach real estate consultant who pulled off a similar event for needy children in Phoenix a decade ago, has lassoed support from hotels, an airline, Rotary Clubs, ministers and politicians.

Some of the details remain sketchy, but Kerr insists the missing pieces will soon fall into place. Meanwhile, as word of mouth spreads in military circles, roughly 350 requests to attend have filtered in, he said.

One of the first inquiries came from Jackie Syverson, whose husband, Paul, died in a rocket attack in Iraq two years ago. "It's amazing that people would take the time to do something like this," Syverson said in a telephone interview. "It really, really means a lot."

But before getting up the hopes of her two young children, she decided to do some research. "I was coming out to California anyway and asked if I could meet Kerr," she said.

Kerr and his Rotary Club backers rolled out the red carpet, taking Syverson to the futuristic Foothill Ranch headquarters of sunglasses-maker Oakley, which has volunteered to host a shindig for the families on Dec. 16.

When Syverson returned home to Pennsylvania, she logged on to goldstarwives.org, a website for wartime widows and widowers, and announced that Snowball Express was legit.

Kerr, 47, said he brainstormed the idea on a drive to La Jolla in December. The San Clemente High School graduate had recently moved back to Orange County after reconnecting with his high school sweetheart.

As the pair motored down the coast, Kerr talked about spearheading a Christmas event like the one he organized in Phoenix, in which 120 children were flown over the city in a jet and then taken to a party featuring Santa, who arrived on a firetruck. The children, ages 3 to 12, were either homeless or grieving the death of a parent, according to a 1998 article in the Arizona Republic.

When Kerr said he wasn't sure where to find needy children this time around, his then-fiancee pointed off the freeway toward Camp Pendleton and said, "You might find a couple of kids there."

And so the quest began. Kerr phoned Southwest Airlines, which had helped with the Phoenix event, and received $40,000 in ticket vouchers to bring military families to California.

Another boost came from Bill Gunderson, general manager for Marriott hotels in Newport Beach. Gunderson, who was asked to donate lodging just a few weeks ago, initially wondered whether Kerr would have enough time to organize the event.

"It's short notice," Gunderson said. "But it's a great cause. I've got a son in the Marines, so it hit a personal note with me."

Marriott volunteered 70 rooms. Another hotel kicked in 30 suites.

Although the tally is far short of what Kerr will need if his predicted turnout of 1,500 people materializes, he brushed off questions about ending up short on lodging.

If there aren't enough hotel rooms, local Rotary Club members will simply host visiting families in their homes, he said.

Kerr was vague about some details. He declined to discuss how much cash his foundation had raised, although he said corporate donations of merchandise and services were worth $1 million.

Asked how the families would be shuttled to and from airports, hotels, Disneyland, Oakley headquarters and a free "Glory of Christmas" performance at the Crystal Cathedral, Kerr said his logistics team was rounding up buses.

But he stressed that his "strategic plan" for the event centered around "doing things" instead of wasting time with meetings and flow charts.

The project has considerable emotional appeal.

On his website, www.snowballexpress.org, Kerr makes a heart-tugging pitch for help, describing his mysterious rendezvous with a Santa Ana widow and her 6-year-old daughter, who holds an imaginary tea party every day for her father, killed on patrol in Iraq. Kerr declined to identify the woman, saying she wanted no media attention.

Trisha Marshall, director of community service for the Newport-Irvine Rotary Club, was somewhat skeptical of the tea party story at first. But she changed her mind after reading e-mails from other families who lost someone in the war. They all told similar tales, Marshall said.

The December event is "not going to be perfect," Marshall said, "but it will happen."

As Kerr sees it, "If I get just one family here, this would be a success." But he vowed to go well beyond that, motivated by the haunting letters he has received from military families.

"When you see these people, you want to do everything you can for them," he said.

Kerr believes the public will respond in similar fashion, perhaps even lining the streets of Foothill Ranch to cheer as the families of fallen troops caravan to the Oakley party.

The Snowball Express has been extremely time-consuming, said Kerr, who also had to help plan his own wedding last month. "I don't sleep much ... but this is absolutely the most rewarding experience I've ever had."

roy.rivenburg@latimes.com

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