Meet Francis "Buck" Kern, executive director of the Tarrant County based, non-profit Snowball Express, benefiting military families who have suffered the painful loss of a loved one.
Kern transitioned from the corporate world and now finds joy in devoting his life to healing broken hearts, helping military families find comfort and peace all packed into a special celebration flight with American Airlines.
We wanted to get to know Kern a bit better and he was nice enough to answer a few questions about himself, Snowball Express and the military families he lives to serve.
Dawn Tongish: Please begin by telling us about Snowball Express?
Francis "Buck" Kern: Snowball Express is a north Texas based non-profit 501(c) 3. We were formed in 2006 by a group of southern California residents who heard about some military families that had a loss and they wanted to help. The original idea for the gathering came from a last letter written by a soldier in Iraq to his wife. In the letter, he asked his wife to keep their promise to their kids and take them to Disneyland. The original idea was to have the families come to southern CA. for a long weekend of fun and excitement at Disney and other locations, as well as a chance to heal and be with other families that have had a loss. From that one long weekend we have grown substantially from several hundred family members that first year to last year when Snowball Express Eight had more than 1700 children and surviving spouses at our north Texas event. We are grateful that we have a tremendously supportive presenting sponsor in American Airlines, who each year provides at least 9 inbound and outbound charter flights, plus fuel and the volunteer flight crews that make it happen.
DT: What are your duties at Snowball Express?
FBK: As the Executive Director, and because I am the one and only “employee” of the organization, my duties really encompass everything. Overseeing all aspects of the organization falls within my responsibilities. Snowball Express is unique in that we have a working Board of Directors made up entirely of volunteers. Each board member has an area of responsibility and expertise. For instance some are experts at fundraising, finance, logistics, transportation, communication/PR, etc, and they all have deep contacts and connections in their area of expertise. We work together to set an overall strategy and then carry out that strategy. All of our board members are volunteers and contribute a significant amount of time to the effort. I work closely with the board and consult with individual members on a daily basis, and am very privileged to have such great support from this team. I also have the privilege to be able to communicate with and work closely with our families on a daily basis.
DT: How did you become involved with Snowball Express, and why are you so passionate about the work being done there?
FBK: I was with Neiman Marcus as Director of Operations, and I was asked to become a member of the board of directors, and then asked to chair the board. I volunteered for several years working to build the organization and serve our families. From the moment I met some of the families and the children, and heard directly from them what this organization means to them, I immediately understood the importance of our mission and knew that it was important in the lives of these special families. Once you get to meet these wonderful families and the children you realize the incredible sacrifice they have made for our nation, and you realize how fortunate we are as a nation to have courageous men and women who are willing to give up their lives for our freedom, it was an easy decision to take this position full time when the board and I began talking. We owe these families and the deceased service member a huge debt of gratitude and we believe that our efforts in December, and all year long are truly helping them recover from their incredible loss.
DT: Why do you work in the non-profit sector?
FBK: I had never really considered working in the non profit sector. After working with the children and families for several years, and seeing first hand the very positive and life changing effect that Snowball Express has on these children and families I came to realize that I really wanted to do more. I loved my business career with Neiman Marcus, but decided that there was so much more that could be done to support the children of our fallen heroes. It is so humbling and gratifying to be able to serve these families who have paid such a high price. Their hero made the ultimate sacrifice so that I / we can live free in this great country. They paid a very high price for my freedom. Nothing that I or any of us do will come close to giving what they have given, but I would like the purpose of my life to be something that supports them in a some small but meaningful way. I and our board have the pleasure to work with some truly fabulous people who we have become close friends with. We keep in touch with many of the families throughout the year. Now that Snowball Express is in our ninth year, we have watched many of the children grow up and become wonderful young adults. It is very gratifying to see the kids grow, see the progression of the healing process, and although the pain never goes away, it is wonderful to see many of these children learn how to cope with the pain and watch them take on a different role. These young adults become mentors and reach out to the kids who have experienced their loss very recently. They become the healers. Who better to help a child who lost his/her parent in the military than another older child who has experienced the loss and pain first hand.
DT: It can be difficult for any non-profit to pay the bills. How do you stay afloat?
FBK: Again, We are very fortunate to have the help of our Presenting Sponsor, and other sponsors who support us so well. Our in-kind support is very substantial indeed. American airlines donates the airplanes that enable us to bring these families together, but their pilots, flight attendants, airport personnel around the country donate their time to support these children all year long. Other organizations like Neiman Marcus, donate a very special gift store that enables each child to select a gift and make a personalized card to give to their surviving parent for Christmas. The Sheraton Hotel, and the Hyatt Hotel have donated rooms and convention space to give these families an experience they will remember forever. Yum Brands, Pizza Hut, KFC, Pedrinos Foods, and other food sponsors donate food and meals. The Patriot Guard Riders, Hero Miles, Dallas Fan Fares, Grey Hound Buses, Texas Music Project, ,Martin Plowman Racing, Organizations like the Air Power foundation, the 31 heroes Project, The Gary Sinise Foundation, Carry The Load, Green Beans Coffee, the USO, the 1967 Foundation, Albertson’s, E&J Gallo Winery, Terry Fator, Bell Helicopter, Headington Realty and Capital, the NCOA, Overseas Service Corporation, the YUM Brands Foundation, The Huchton Family Foundation and our newest long term partner, Highland Capital Management donate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Individuals and groups such as the Kiwanis clubs, Rotary, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Ladies Auxiliary Posts coordinate group fundraising efforts to help support our kids. Snowball Express is very careful with its money and more than 94% of the money we raise in cash, and in kind donations is used to support our efforts. We are also fortunate to have some great high profile people who back what we do. Actor Gary Sinise continues to be a huge supporter and he assists us in so many ways, whether it’s raising awareness about Snowball or bringing his “Lt. Dan Band” to Snowball to perform a concert for the children. Gary has also done dozens of fundraising events and videos for us during the seven plus years he’s been associated with us. Now Gary serves on our Advisory Board. Tony Orlando continues to be another person who really is behind the effort and he is a valued member of the team, talking up Snowball Express at his concerts and when he performs. We are grateful that one of the most beloved entertainers of all time, forty plus years, is with us 100%. And we must also recognize Terry Fator, who has been on the Snowball team now for five years. Terry has come to Snowball, performed for the families and he also donates a portion of his ticket sales from the Mirage in Las Vegas to help us stay on a stable financial base. The real reason for our success and overall gratitude goes to our volunteer board of directors and the hundreds of volunteers who give freely of their time and talent. We have so many wonderful people who give so much of themselves year after year to help make this event what it is, and we can’t do it without their help.
DT: How can the people of Tarrant County and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs?
FBK: We have a big announcement concerning Tarrant County. First, we recently moved our offices to Grapevine, and we’re happy to be here. Second, we have decided in 2014 to hold the event in Tarrant County and Fort Worth. We have been working with Fort Worth’s Mayor Betsy Price, Mayor Pro-tem W.B. ‘Zim’ Zimmerman and other city officials. We have had several successful days in Fort Worth in the past, at the Stockyards, Billy Bobs, Sundance Square, and the Fort Worth Zoo and we decided this year to bring the entire event to Fort Worth. This decision was made specifically because of the tremendous show of support our families received from the citizens of Fort Worth. The Walk of gratitude in Fort Worth and the turn out of the public was a demonstration that really showed these families that they are not forgotten and the sacrifice of their hero is appreciated and honored. Now that we have made the commitment to the community to hold SBE 9 in Fort Worth we want their help, financially, signing up as volunteers and joining this great team. We know that Fort Worth and Tarrant County are great when it comes to support for the military and this is a real opportunity to show the nation and the world what we all know in Texas, that this community is a huge fan of the men and women who wear the nation’s military uniforms, and of course the families.
DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experiences at Snowball Express?
FBK: There are so many. Every year when the families leave their home cities and fly to DFW Airport they fly on the charters, and it’s always such a rush of excitement and energy when they come out of the jet way at terminal C. We’ve tried very hard to make this one of the highlights of the event, with hundreds of people applauding, a marching band, lots of media coverage, activities for the kids and a lot of excitement. It's always a highlight. To give a few examples of memorable and meaningful experiences, let me first explain about a young boy who lost his dad only a few months ago. I saw him when he arrived on the first day. He looked very sad, he never smiled, and he avoided the other kids. I watched him over several days as he started to interact with the other kids, he began to play with then, to smile, to laugh, and to be a happy kid again. I remember seeing his mother cry and hearing her tell me how happy it made her to see him so happy. She said that it was the first time in eight months since her husband was killed that she had seen him smile and laugh. A second memory is when one of our widows after returning home from the event told me about how wonderful her first time at Snowball Express was. She said that it had been over a year since her husband was killed and her son had “shut down” and he had never talked with her about his dad’s death, and never spoke about his dad at all. She explained that on one evening during our event she checked in on her son while he was in the teen’s lounge. She snuck up on him without him realizing that she was nearby. She explained that he was talking with another teenage boy and she overheard them discussing their dads. She said that it was the first time she had ever heard him open up. She then told me that one night after they got back home, her son asked her to sit down and talk. She said that he opened up to her and wanted to discuss his dad. This mom said that had her son not attended Snowball Express, she did not think that he ever would have talked about his dad, and opened up to her about his feelings. These two stories are examples of what this event is really about and why we believe so strongly that what we are doing is very important.
DT: What is the first thing you do when you walk into work each day?
FBK: I remember. It might sound a bit cliche but I think about the sacrifice made by these families and how important our mission is. It helps to keep everything in perspective. I start each day remembering how much these families have suffered and sacrificed, remembering the ultimate sacrifice their dad or mom made so that we can be free to live the great lives we live. Remembering the families and the sacrifice is the best way stay focused on our mission, and honor these gold star families. It helps me not to take anything for granted and you can never really have a bad day when you remember what we really have to be thankful for.