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Gary Sinise Foundation Celebrates 10 Years of Service

June 30th, 2021

062421 GSF10 AnniversaryFundraiser-Blog

Over the past decade, we have been fortunate enough to grow the Gary Sinise Foundation into one of the country's top-rated military, veteran, and first responder support organizations. The support of our mission and efforts to serve our nation’s heroes and their loved ones has made it possible for us to continue to positively impact the lives of so many.

As we reflect on our 10 years of service, continue reading below to see how your support over this past decade have made it possible for us to continue serving our nation's defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.

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2011: Gary Sinise Launches the Gary Sinise Foundation

Award-winning actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise announced the launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation at the National Press Club on June 30, 2011. Gary’s lifelong work supporting our nation’s heroes began in the early ‘80s with his creation of the Steppenwolf Theatre, where he supported Vietnam veterans in Chicago and continued in the ‘90s when his portrayal of Lt. Dan formed an enduring connection with service members across the country. Gary’s dedication to our nation’s active-duty service members, veterans, first responders, and their families inspired him to launch the Gary Sinise Foundation.

The Gary Sinise Foundation is rooted in his mission of service and a steadfast desire to raise spirits and improve the wellbeing of our nation’s heroes and their families. Gary’s vision and personal commitment to improving lives and demonstrating gratitude to our nation’s heroes are deeply embedded into the ethos of the Gary Sinise Foundation.

2012: First Invincible Spirit Festival at Naval Medical Center San Diego

The Gary Sinise Foundation debuted its first Invincible Spirit Festival at Naval Medical Center San Diego on October 20, 2012. The festival featured a performance by the band Stolen Silver, a barbecue lunch provided by celebrity Chef Robert Irvine, appearances by the Cirque du Soleil Street Team, and special guests from the television show “CSI: NY.”

Our Invincible Spirit Festivals celebrate the courage displayed by our wounded heroes, and their families and caregivers. Since 2012, more than 102,400 recovering service members, veterans, their families, and medical staff have attended Invincible Spirit Festivals at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir in the D.C. area.

2013: Expanded Vets Night to The Geffen Playhouse

In 2013, the Gary Sinise Foundation expanded its Vets Night to include the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles as part of our Arts & Entertainment Outreach. Inspired by his experience directing the production of “Tracers” in 1984 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, Gary felt it imperative that our veterans be able to enjoy an evening at the theater free of charge. Vets Night was born as a result.

Today, Vets Night welcomes veterans for a dinner and dress rehearsal performance free of charge at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, The Catholic University of America in D.C., and at other locations around the country. To date, over 7,500 veterans have joined us for a Vets Night performance.

2014: Hosted “Hollywood Salutes Heroes” for Wounded Veterans

Gary and the Gary Sinise Foundation rolled out the red carpet for wounded, ill, and injured service members, veterans, and their guests from across the country for “Hollywood Salutes Heroes” — a multiday celebration and expression of thanks to those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. The trip included a full day at Disneyland®, a feast at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and a celebration at Paramount Pictures Studios. On the Paramount lot, the heroes were surprised by Gary, many fellow celebrities, and more than 100 local veterans. They were treated to a private screening of “Forrest Gump” followed by a special concert performed by Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band.

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2015: First Soaring Valor Trip to The National WWII Museum

The first Soaring Valor trip to The National WWII Museum took place on June 24, 2015. An honor flight of WWII veterans departed Los Angeles and arrived in New Orleans to a hero’s welcome, kicking off three red carpet days of entertainment, celebratory meals, and community building with their fellow heroes. The trip honored the heroism, sacrifices, and contributions made by the men and women of America’s Greatest Generation.

Bringing World War II veterans and their guardians to tour The National WWII Museum built in their honor was inspired by Gary’s uncle Jack Sinise, who served in WWII in the pre-Normandy invasion bombing runs over Nazi-occupied France aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress. A video recording of Uncle Jack’s oral history is amongst those archived at The National World War II Museum.

In 2017, we began expanding Soaring Valor trips to include high school students so that they could experience the museum side-by-side with WWII veterans. These students who accompany our veterans carry on their stories with a new appreciation for the sacrifices made by an entire generation. Since the first trip in 2015, more than 1,100 veterans and their guardians have participated in Soaring Valor and recorded hundreds of hours of interviews for the museum’s video archive.

2015: Donated Essential Equipment to First Responders in North Carolina

In June 2015, the Gary Sinise Foundation delivered much-needed equipment to North Carolina first responders in honor of Louise Cantrell and in memory of her late husband Edward and daughters Isabella and Natalia, who died in a fire in March 2012. The Cotton Volunteer Fire Department received a “Lt. Dan” rescue boat, and the Hope Mills Fire Department received an underwater equipment trailer through our First Responders Outreach program.

2016: First “Hollywood Adventure” in Partnership With TAPS

The Gary Sinise Foundation put together a multi-day “Hollywood Adventure” from October 12-14, 2016, to pay tribute to surviving spouses of fallen service members. In partnership with TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), 23 spouses from around the country flew to Los Angeles for the three-day trip. In recent years, spouses have visited The Magic Castle in Hollywood and the set of “NCIS” at CBS Studios. For the Gold Star spouses who attend “Hollywood Adventure” each year, sharing their experiences and reminding one another they are not alone, helps them find joy in the present once again.

2017: Grand Opening of the Education & Outreach Center

Opened in December 2017, the Education & Outreach Center brings civilians and defenders together for constructive dialogues and inspiring events. Through speaker series, workshops, and summits, we instill visitors with a new respect for our defenders, raise awareness about the heroes living among them, and focus on educating communities about the importance of service over self.

Since its opening, the Gary Sinise Foundation has hosted numerous events, including a seminar in conjunction with the California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee (Cal-JAC), where veteran firefighters who also served in the military spoke about transitioning from protecting the country to safeguarding communities. In February 2020, we welcomed 20 Medal of Honor Recipients whose courageous actions and bravery took place on battlefields in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. These veterans spoke about their service, what life has been like out of uniform, and talked about the significance of the Medal of Honor.

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2018: First Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express Annual Event at Walt Disney World Resort

In December 2018, the Gary Sinise Foundation held its first end-of-year Snowball Express event at the Walt Disney World® Resort in Orlando. With the support of our official airline partner American Airlines, families of our fallen military heroes were transported to the Happiest Place on Earth™ for a four-day therapeutic retreat. Throughout the event, families had access to complementary resources such as counseling services, educational scholarship application support, medical and government benefits education, financial counseling and assistance, mentoring, and a variety of activities and entertainment, including a concert by Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band.

Snowball Express began in 2006, with a letter written by a fallen soldier to his wife, only to be opened should he perish in battle. While the letter expressed many things, one wish was that they visit Disneyland®. From that letter, Snowball Express was created to bring together the children and surviving spouses of fallen military heroes for a healing retreat.

Gary was first introduced to Snowball Express in 2007 and personally supported their efforts, performing with the Lt. Dan Band for many years. In 2018, Snowball Express became an official initiative of the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief & Resiliency program, allowing us to grow the program and bring hope and new memories to even more children and Gold Star families throughout the country.

Through a year-round events calendar, the families of our fallen heroes can build bonds with the only people who can truly understand their loss: each other. Whether visiting the Georgia Aquarium, Six Flags Magic Mountain, the North Carolina Zoo, or attending sporting events and dinners with their peers, we’re creating a community for these families to learn, grow, and make lasting memories with new friends. Since 2018, over 8,700 family members of fallen military heroes have participated in Gary Sinise Foundation’s Snowball Express.

2019: Concert For Defenders #VenturaStrong

The Gary Sinise Foundation has been supporting our nation’s first responders since its founding. In November 2018, the communities of North Los Angeles and Ventura County were devastated by the tragic shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill and the Hill and Woolsey fires. First responders rushed to the scene of the shooting in Thousand Oaks, and within hours were responding to the fast-moving wildfires, evacuating thousands in harm’s way. Twelve families suffered a tragic loss at Borderline, as did families living in the fire’s pathway.

On April 13, 2019, nearly 4,000 people joined the Gary Sinise Foundation at the Concert for Defenders #VenturaStrong in Thousand Oaks, which honored Ventura County’s first responders and those lost during the Borderline tragedy and the Hill and Woolsey fires. Concertgoers enjoyed music from Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band and Grammy-nominated Five for Fighting. They were also treated to a flyover from the Condor Squadron and a performance from Pipes and Drums of California Professional Firefighters.

2019: Completed 60th R.I.S.E. Specially Adapted Smart Home

On December 12, 2019, the Gary Sinise Foundation dedicated its 60th mortgage-free specially adapted smart home to retired U.S. Army Sergeant Stefan LeRoy and his family. Stefan lost both legs during a combat operation in Afghanistan in 2012 when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated underneath him as he was carrying a wounded soldier to an awaiting helicopter. After moving into their new home, Stefan said, “I can get everywhere, there's not a place in the house that is not accessible to me,” reaffirming his newfound mobility and independence.

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2020: Launched the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service Campaign

In response to the emerging public health crises, the Gary Sinise Foundation launched the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service campaign in April 2020. Over the course of the campaign, more than 60,000 meals were delivered to 313 locations in the U.S. and abroad. At 273 hospitals and 145 VA medical centers across the country (an estimated 40 states in all), pre-packaged meals nourished our nation’s doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals working on the front lines.

Weeks before the campaign started, the Gary Sinise Foundation was already fielding COVID-19- related requests. Grant applications from first responder departments in need of personal protective equipment (PPE) came in one after another. We also assisted service members, veterans, first responders, healthcare professionals, and their families who found themselves in need of financial assistance. In total, the campaign amassed a sizeable impact: over $485,000 in grants to 64 first responder departments nationwide and more than $500,000 in financial aid distributed to those in need.

2020: First Virtual R.I.S.E. Home Dedication

Our R.I.S.E. specially adapted smart home dedications looked a bit different in 2020 due to the ongoing public health crises. On May 19, 2020, a virtual welcome home from the Gary Sinise Foundation and its partners greeted retired U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Matthew Slaydon and his wife, Annette, as they moved into their new custom-built smart home. With features designed for his unique needs, Matthew is once again able to perform the simple tasks of everyday life that most of us take for granted. Never again will he need to worry about how to reach a high shelf or take a shower in his own home. Matthew’s new home has helped him regain his independence and mobility.

2020: Launched the First Gary Sinise Foundation Chapter

On August 15, 2020, the Gary Sinise Foundation marked a historic milestone in its nearly decade-long mission of supporting America’s heroes and their loved ones with the debut of its first chapter in Central Florida. The Central Florida Chapter was established to extend our impact and raise greater awareness of our mission at a regional level. The first of many chapters to come, the Central Florida Chapter will focus its efforts on serving the future and present needs of our nation’s heroes and their families located in the Central Florida region.

2020: First Virtual Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express Annual Event

With the health and safety of our Snowball Express families being our top priority, the end-of-year event became a weekend-long virtual celebration. Over the course of the weekend, our families remotely participated in daytime group activities with their peers and had access to the same vital resources they receive at the in-person event. There was a fun and entertaining Opening Ceremony, special appearances from celebrity guests, and a special show by Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band.

The event also featured a virtual Remembrance Garden with a flag representing the fallen hero from each of the over 2,000 families in our program, as well as a virtual Walk of Gratitude, complete with a little Disney® magic. These moving and emotional moments served as a tribute to our fallen heroes and ensured our Snowball Express families know their loved ones are not forgotten.

Before the virtual event kicked off, our Snowball Express families received a special gift to prepare for the coming festivities. In partnership with volunteers and staff from the Walt Disney World® Resort, specially marked packages were mailed to each Snowball Express family across the country. Inside each box was a Gary Sinise Foundation t-shirt, a Mickey Mouse-shaped Rice Krispy treat, a bell for their fallen hero, and more.

2021: Surpassed 10,000 Pieces of Donated Equipment to First Responders

Long before establishing the Gary Sinise Foundation, our Founder and Chairman, Gary Sinise, provided support to our nation’s first responders. What began in 2007 with the donation of the original “Lt. Dan Van,” used to provide no-cost transportation to 9/11 first responders battling illnesses, evolved into the creation of our First Responders Outreach program. Since then, we have provided more than 300 grants to low, underfunded, and volunteer departments, and in January 2021, we surpassed 10,000 pieces of donated essential equipment to first responders across the country.

As we close the book on the past decade of service, we look forward to continuing our mission to honor and serve our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need for many more years to come.

Join us. Express your gratitude for our nation’s heroes and donate today in celebration of the Gary Sinise Foundation’s decade of service.

Written by Gary Sinise Foundation