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Cancer-stricken youths get the star treatment in Aspen

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoClockwise from right, Shining Stars Sarah from Montrose and Tony from Phoenix, Ariz., get some help down the mountain from instructors Mike Monaco, Wendy Foster, Harry Kissel and Mike Englebert.
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ASPEN ” Jack Stalker, in all his 13 years, seemed as surprised as anyone that he has never managed to ski or snowboard at Snowbowl ski resort, which is near his home in Flagstaff, Ariz.

But he has sure been snowboarding this week in Aspen and, despite his ongoing battle with cancer, Stalker said Wednesday he plans to keep it up.

“This is my first time,” he said in a no-nonsense tone. “I guess my parents never got into it. I think that when I get back, I’m going to buy a snowboard.”

Stalker, 13, is one of 51 youngsters taking part in a week of fun in the mountains at the Shining Stars Foundation’s Winter Games.

About 85 percent of the kids involved hail from Colorado, while the rest come from all over the country. They all are dealing with a form of cancer.

The group is staying at the Inn at Aspen, where the food is among the highlights.

“You will not starve if you come here,” Stalker declared.

He and another participant, John Corey, also 13, of Colorado Springs, bantered about their newfound love of snow sports, and about the glorious fun of using the swimming pool and hot tub at the Inn, and about the pleasure of being on their own for a time.

“Me and Jack go every single day, at least two times a day,” Corey said enthusiastically about the pool and tub.

But the highlight of the week, they both said, is the the snow and the chance to be away from the home situation.

“You get to go skiing, and you’re kind of away from your family,” said Corey. “It’s not, like, people always saying, ‘Are you OK?’ Because not everybody’s always OK here.”

Corey, who was diagnosed with cancer last fall, said he was hiking up to the Continental Divide with other teens when he suddenly found he couldn’t breathe. It was shortly afterward that doctors diagnosed the cancer.

“For me, it’s getting away from the everyday routine,” added Stalker, who has lived with cancer for months.

But for Tanya Strong, 16, of Folsom, Calif., the biggest kick is heading into Aspen to check out the local stores, although she also is an avid skier and has been an outdoor girl all her life. That has included, as much as possible, the eight years or so since doctors found a tumor that had invaded her spinal cord.

“I love shopping,” she said emphatically. “I’m going to get something really nice for the banquet … something fancy,” referring to the group’s big thank-you party Thursday night at the St. Regis Aspen hotel.

That is where Shining Stars will host the 145 or so volunteers and others who have helped out during the week, foundation executive director Kathy Gingery said. The event will recognize participants from the Aspen Buddy Program, the buddies who have befriended the kids; the ski instructors who have helped them learn how to cope with snow and gravity; and a host of restaurateurs who have provided meals throughout the week.

Gingery said she has been coming to Aspen once a year for the past couple of decades, first with the Sunshine Kids organization and then with Shining Stars, which she founded after the former group ceased operating.

“We’re an Aspen-based organization,” she said, and the foundation also has offices on the Front Range and in Winter Park. She said the foundation puts on 15 such events throughout the year, all over the state.

“We challenge them so they succeed,” said Dr. Larry McCleary, retired chief of pediatric surgery from Denver Children’s Hospital and the leader of the 10-person medical team with the foundation.

“We hope that carries over to their approach to their disease, so they survive,” he added simply.

The big event of the week, a race on Buttermilk starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, is open to the public. The kids will each get two runs down a race course, and the judges will pick the best run to determine each athlete’s standing in the event.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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