A week of shine: Aspen foundation hosts 19th winter games to support, empower kids battling cancer
IF YOU GO...
The Shining Stars Foundation’s Aspen Winter Games will primarily take place at the Inn at Aspen and Buttermilk Ski Area through March 5. Below are some of the schedule highlights. For more information on Shining Stars and the annual winter games, visit shiningstarsfoundation.org.
MONDAY, MARCH 2
Dress Crazy Day!
9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; 1 p.m .to 3 p.m. Ski and snowboard instruction
5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dinner and a Disco Dance Party at the Aspen Elks Lodge
TUESDAY, MARCH 3
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Ski and snowboard instruction
2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Snowmobiling, dinner, marshmallows and a campfire sing-a-long at T Lazy 7 Ranch
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4
9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.; 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Ski and snowboard instruction
6:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. “Shining Stars Got Talent!” Night
8:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Superhero Ice Cream Social
THURSDAY, MARCH 5
9:45 a.m. to 12 p.m. 2020 Aspen Winter Games — everyone is invited to cheer on the Shining Stars during this Olympic-style race!
5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Cocktail party and silent auction for adults and supporters at the Aspen Meadows Resort
5:45 p.m. Shining Stars Celebration Awards Party at Aspen Meadows Resort
In an Inn at Aspen meeting room Sunday, four teens sat at a large, round table, ate their lunches and went over the highlights of their morning at Buttermilk Ski Area.
The two boys said they enjoyed breakfast at the inn. The two girls agreed and talked about how nice and helpful their instructors were. All four Shining Stars emphasized how much they’d loved learning to ski at Buttermilk so far and how easy it’d been to connect with both their peers and the adults helping out with the 2020 Aspen Winter Games, an annual weeklong series of winter activities for kids experiencing cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.
“I think after being sick and feeling weak, it shows us we’re still strong enough to ski down a mountain,” said Serenity Gibney, 16.
“It’s just a bunch of kids having fun, that’s all it is and what it’s all about,” added Jorge Quinones, 17.
For the past 19 years, dozens of kids from across the country have gathered at the Inn at Aspen for the Shining Stars Foundation’s weeklong winter program, which features everything from adaptive skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, to milkshake bars, a talent night and downhill race day — all free of charge for the young adults and their families.
The Aspen-Snowmass foundation has offered a variety of long-term, year-round recreational and social programs in Colorado for its Shining Stars fighting pediatric cancer or other life threatening illnesses and their families since 2001, according to the Shining Stars website.
However, the Aspen Winter Games is one of the foundation’s biggest and most expensive programs. This year, 65 Shining Stars and roughly 200 foundation staff, medical personnel, volunteers, adaptive ski and snowboard instructors and family members will be in Aspen for a week of winter activities that cost roughly $325,000 to put on and require a lot of local support, or “Aspen magic,” White said.
“The program keeps growing every year and the community is always so supportive,” said Rosemary White, marketing and community relations director for the Shining Stars Foundation. “There are so many different groups who help out. … Putting it together part by part makes the whole thing possible.”
As signs welcomed the Shining Stars and festive balloons floated overhead in almost every area of the Inn at Aspen on Sunday, White talked with the Basalt Lions Club members heading lunch that afternoon and volunteers mingling with Shining Stars in a meeting room down the hall, showing off the different parts and moving pieces of the annual winter games program.
One of those pieces is the adaptive skiing and snowboarding tent or “locker room” with a host of equipment that helps make recreation on the mountain possible for Shining Stars of all abilities.
“Every piece of equipment here is tailored to help teach every student,” said Michael Fagan, lead adaptive coordinator of the Shining Stars winter games. “It introduces a lot of kids to a sport they never would have done otherwise.”
Fagan, who has been a part of the Shining Stars winter games for more than a decade, said his goal is to get to know each student’s experience and comfort levels, acquire the gear they need to succeed and get them excited to go out on the mountain.
With sit skis, ski bikes, “trombone bras” that help an instructor guide a student with their turns as they stand ski, and a multitude of other new and improved equipment each year, Fagan hopes to give every Shining Star a chance to experience what it’s like to ski or snowboard down a snowy slope.
“It’s just something that helps me give back to the kids and to society,” Fagan said. “I’ve dedicated myself to the kids.”
Another piece of the Shining Stars winter games in Aspen is the volunteer base that buddies up with the Shining Stars, skiing alongside them and getting to know them each day.
For Julie Lampton, a longtime Aspen local who has been one of those buddies for the past seven years, bonding with the young adults and being a part of the annual winter games has been a life-changing experience.
Lampton said she feels the week is an opportunity for kids to forget they have cancer for a little while and to be surrounded by joy and happiness, and that it’s an inspirational experience for all of the local volunteers involved.
“These kids know how to live life. Not only are they the best children I’ve ever met, they’re the best human beings I’ve ever known,” Lampton said Sunday. “Every year I think I can’t love any more than I did the last year, and here I am only a few days in and I’m head over heels.”
With all of these moving pieces, from volunteers to adaptive ski and snowboard experts and instructors, the Shining Stars Foundation aims to facilitate and connect each part to create an empowering and supportive experience for each child, White said.
The winter games activities show the Shining Stars they can do something hard and that they aren’t alone in their experiences, White said, which often has a lasting impact on their approach to their treatment and overall mental and social health. According to foundation data, 98% of participants have been greatly impacted by Shining Stars programs like the Aspen Winter Games emotionally, socially or psychologically, and 90% report a long-term positive impact from the programs five or more years later.
Olivia Sergot, 18, echoed thoughts similar to White, noting that she loves getting to know all of the kids who come to Aspen for the winter games and being a part of a community who understands what their peers are going through.
“Given that cancer is the worst thing anyone can go through, having other kids understand what you’re feeling is really powerful,” Sergot explained. “We understand each other.”
Sergot, a Chicago native who was at the winter games last year as well, arrived in Aspen on Sunday morning after speaking about her experience with cancer at an event back home.
She said she feels it’s important to raise awareness about pediatric cancer because children are the future, so putting resources toward finding a cure to help those children should be of national importance.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much cancer affects kids, so that’s why I think we need to continue to raise awareness,” Sergot said, noting that some of this outreach goes on at Shining Stars through interactions with local adult and student volunteers.
“It’s so awesome we can all come together like this and is so special to us.”