Trips for Killed Soldiers' Families Questioned The Snowball Express brings hundreds of widows, widowers and their children to Southern California, where they receive an all-expenses-paid weekend vacation that includes a day at Disneyland. But there are serious questions about the organizer of the so-called Snowball Express, and the integrity of the enterprise.
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Trips for Killed Soldiers' Families Questioned

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Trips for Killed Soldiers' Families Questioned

Trips for Killed Soldiers' Families Questioned

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Hundreds of widows, widowers, and their children began arriving in Southern California today for an all-expenses paid weekend vacation, including a day at Disneyland.

The group shares a tragic bond. Each has lost a spouse or parent in the fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. These families are supposed to be the focus of the weekend.

But revelations about the organizer have shifted the spotlight and raised questions as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Nine-year-old Destree(ph) Livaudais couldn't be more excited about climbing aboard the Snowball Express. That's what this weekend's trip to California is called.

DESTREE LIVAUDAIS: It's fun, and a good opportunity because I have never been to Disneyland. So I'm going to take advantage of that moment - have as much fun as possible.

BERKES: Three years ago, a woman strapped with explosives blew herself to bits at a U.S. Army checkpoint in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Niño Livaudais died in the blast. The Snowball Express gets his son Destree the chance to meet other kids who lost dads or moms to war.

LIVAUDAIS: I can make friends with them and try to help them with their problems. And they can help me with mine if they want.

BERKES: Writer Karen Zacharias has lost a father in Vietnam. And she's at the Snowball Express event to provide grief counseling. But she was dismayed to learn about the checkered history of the event's organizer.

KAREN ZACHARIAS: I'm concerned of the credibility issue. It is not uncommon, even if my mother's there, for people to exploit these families.

BERKES: The concern is that families and donors are being conned. That stems from a story in the OC Weekly in Orange County, California, which focused on Snowball Express founder Michael Scott Kerr.

Writer Gustavo Arellano probed Kerr's past.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: So when I dug up the facts that Mr. Kerr had an outstanding child support arrest warrant in Arizona, that he owed about $50,000 in child support, it just struck me as incredibly hypocritical that a man who is organizing something that will help out children doesn't really care about his own biological children.

BERKES: NPR has independently confirmed the existence of the arrest warrant in Arizona and the child support debt. NPR also reviewed Kerr's biography as posted on the Web site of a recent employer. It lists a college degree he never received and a real estate license he doesn't possess according to university and state records.

All this, and statements on the Snowball Express Web site concerned Debbie Gregory of, which both publicized and helped organize this weekend's event.

DEBBIE GREGORY: Given that the site has said that they're going to invest monies for widows and children of fallen soldiers in long-term investments, I'm very uncomfortable with having someone invest that money that has been less than forthright and seems to have many of their own issues.

BERKES: Snowball Express has raised $100,000 in cash and a million dollars in in-kind contributions. Michael Kerr has promised tax deductions in e-mails obtained by NPR. But some contributions are collected in the names of entities that do not have tax-exempt status and are not registered charities according to state and federal records.

Here's Peter Manzo, the former director of the Center for Nonprofit Management.

PETER MANZO: There are a lot of very valid and worthy causes that get too excited about accomplishing their mission and they don't take time to make sure that they're properly set up legally. The difficulty here though is that it's harder to distinguish those groups from groups that may be trying to pull a fast one on donors.

BERKES: Michael Kerr agreed to a brief interview this morning and provided a written response to some of the questions NPR has raised. He says he's trying to pay down his child support debt with regular monthly payments. He acknowledges the arrest warrant in Arizona. He blames the inaccurate resume on his former employer, where a spokeswoman told NPR Kerr provided the information in it.

He insists the fundraising is legitimate and supervised by accountants, and he's dismayed that attention has turned to him as widows, widowers, and kids gather for the Snowball Express this weekend.

MICHAEL KERR: I am a man that went through some very tough times and by the grace of God, I was pulled up and I've been able to motivate some people to do this wonderful event for those children and families of our fallen heroes. Our books are open. Our lives are open. We're just here to try and make this a wonderful event for these families.

BERKES: Michael Scott Kerr says he's ready to open those books and respond to any and all questions, but not till after this weekend.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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