- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - It is hard to believe that 5-year-old Blair Schlote’s eyes could’ve opened any wider when she saw the Kona Ice mascot - a giant penguin - Sunday morning at Kansas City International Airport.

Blair, who was traveling along with her mother, Tiffany Schlote of La Vista, Nebraska, had just gotten a penguin mask painted on her face as part of the send-off for the Snowball Express when the giant penguin appeared. After Blair and the penguin posed for pictures, they gave each other a huge hug, The Kansas City Star (https://bit.ly/2gEcQ6N ) reports.

“I’m so happy I got my mask,” she said with grin.

Blair was one of 38 children who were traveling with about 20 other family members to Dallas aboard the Snowball Express flight. This is the 11th year for the flight, put on by the nonprofit Snowball Express for children of service members who have died while on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

American Airlines is the official airline and had similar send-off parties in other cities. Nearly 1,800 children and spouses of fallen U.S. military were flying to Dallas for the special three-day trip.

This was the first year that Blair was eligible able to fly.

“She’s finally old enough,” said Tiffany Schlote. “We’ve heard about it from all of our friends and all of their kids about how much fun this is, so she’s excited.”

Schlote’s husband, Sgt. Robert Schlote, died about a month after Blair was born. He was with the Nebraska National Guard and on his fourth deployment. He had made it back for Blair’s birth, but died a month later from an illness he had contracted in Afghanistan.

“All holidays are hard, and Christmas is always tough,” Schlote said. “You always see this piece missing. You feel it in your heart. You see it in the Christmas cards and pictures. We still have the stocking with his name on it, and it goes up every year. It’s good, but it’s a reminder that they aren’t there.”

Schlote was traveling with her friend Dena Yllescas-Johnston of Aurora, Nebraska, and her 8-year-old daughter Eva.

“It’s a lot of fun. Kids look forward to it every year,” said Dena Yllescas-Johnston. “It helps them bond with other children who have gone through a similar experience of losing a parent.”

Yllescas-Johnston’s husband, Capt. Robert Yllescas, died in December 2008 from injuries caused by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

“It makes us realize that we’re never forgotten,” said Yllescas-Johnston. “It’s amazing. I’m not a big crier, but here you can’t help but cry.”

Marti Williams of Junction City, Kansas, was traveling with her three children, Adrian, 6, Jewels, 13, and Aleeya, 14. Her husband, Army Sgt. 1st. Class Justin Williams, died in a motorcycle crash in March 2014 on Kansas 7 south of Leavenworth.

“I like that it (Snowball Express) is over the holidays,” Aleeya said. “It’s hard losing a parent and going through the holidays without them. It makes it easier.”

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, https://www.kcstar.com

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