Holiday Express program assists military families

"Santa … It's going to be Santa …"

Lorena Vigil with the New Mexico National Guard had just announced that a special visitor would be coming through the Holiday Express and children aboard the train had no disillusions about who the special visitor was going to be.

The whispers turned to shouts as Santa Claus entered the final train car and several small hands reached into the air, begging the man in red to come see them first.

Leila VonDohlen, 2, who occasionally bounced and rocked with the rhythm of the train as it rolled through Curry County, jumped to her feet on the train seat, giggling as Santa entered the room.

Alisa Boswell: CMI staff photo

Leila VonDohlen, 2, center, greets Santa Claus excitedly Monday evening as she rides on the BNSF Railway Holiday Express with her parents, Shaneka and Joseph. The train travels the U.S. providing free rides for military families. BNSF Railway also donated money to two military organizations.

It was the first time in the five-year operation that the Holiday Express stopped in Clovis. The BNSF Railway's program honors military families every year by offering a free train ride and donating funds to military organizations.

This year BSNF will donate a total of $20,000 to Boots on the Ground and the New Mexico Enlisted Association Emergency Fund.

"We just want to thank you guys for what you do," Vigil told families on the train Monday.

"What we decided to do is find something unique and special for the men and women who serve, especially for those families who are separated this time of year by deployment, said Joe Faust, director of the BNSF public affairs. "It is just our way of thanking our men and women for their service."

He added that military men and women are important to the railroad industry, with 15 percent of their employees being veterans.

The Maas family, of Cannon Air Force Base, was one of those separated by deployment.

"They're dad has been deployed, so I thought this would be a fun distraction," Tracy Maas said of her husband, Lt. Col. Andrew Maas.

"I think it's awesome," said her oldest son, Ethan, 9, of the ride. "It's less bumpy than I thought it was going to be."

In another car was 3-year-old train fanatic Justice Leach, who steadied himself against his sister's shoulder as he stood to see out the train window.

"He's the reason we're here," said Justice's father, Tech Sgt. Jerry Leach, also of CAFB. "We watched "Polar Express" for the first time last year and we watched it about four times a day for six months."

He laughed.

Two-year-old Brianna Palacios was also a train fan.

"She kept telling me, 'ride the choo-choo, ride the choo-choo,'" he mother said, laughing. "She likes Thomas, the train, and she'll do her little arm up and down and go 'choo-choo.'"

The train ride ended with families lining up for photo opportunities with Santa.

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