Challenge Aspen troupe takes a bite out of ‘The Lion King’ |

Challenge Aspen troupe takes a bite out of ‘The Lion King’

Kids at one local summer camp are working tirelessly this week preparing for a Friday production of “The Lion King.”

At Challenge Aspen’s week-long music and dance camp, the happy campers include 16 kids ages 7 and up with disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy and cancer. All together, the kids and Challenge Aspen volunteers sing and dance their way through the story of Simba the lion cub, which will be presented this Friday at noon at the Aspen School District Theatre.

Forget the lazy afternoons of traditional summer camp: With this particular Challenge Aspen experience, mornings are spent rehearsing the performance, and afternoon activities include gymnastics, rafting and a square-dancing hoedown. The kids have evenings to memorize lines and practice songs for the show.

“It all happens in four days, and it’s crazy, but we do it,” said Amanda Boxtel, Challenge Aspen co-founder.

Dallas resident Kelsey Wood, 11, plays Pumba the wart hog in the musical. She said memorizing her lines and singing is the hard part.

“It’s a bunch of work,” she said, “but it’s cool. I’ve never done a musical before.”

Wood came to Aspen with three other girls from the Dallas area, all of whom are just finishing or undergoing cancer treatment. Andrea Levitt, 10, came along with the girls, and says she enjoys her role as the young Simba.

“My favorite part of camp is practicing for the play,” she said. “I was a little homesick the first day, but I’ve felt better since.”

While most of the campers sing and recite their lines with pride, some Challenge Aspen volunteers say it’s a learned skill after a past experience at camp or in schools.

“Some kids here have been coming to camp for the past five years, and in the beginning we had to lead them around on stage,” said Cathy Crum, who is volunteering as director for the show. “But now they’re fully responsible for their parts and learning all of their lines.”

Crum said one young girl at the camp took some of her first steps without a walker down the yellow brick road in a summer production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“These kids are incredible – whatever part they have they do it to the fullest of their hearts,” Crum said.

Volunteers made costumes and sets for the show while the campers rehearsed. The group sings and performs together every morning at the Snowmass Chapel.

“I think the most unique thing about this camp is that it’s not just for kids with one specific disability – it’s open to any disability,” said Stacey Degen, from Challenge Aspen. “As the week goes on, you see kids compensating for each other, and helping each other out. They overcome obstacles together.”

Challenge Aspen receives discounts during the week from many local businesses, and even gets meals of free pizza from Goodfellows Pizza in Snowmass Village. The kids and sometimes their families stay with hosts in the area, rather than in hotels.

Co-directors Julie Paxton and Rich Ganson are providing live music for the production in the form of keyboards and guitar.

Cindy Clancy, from Dallas, is volunteering with the camp this year in memory of her daughter Lea, 10, who died in March after a battle with cancer. Lea participated in the music camp for the past two years, and the Clancy family plans to continue volunteering with the productions.

“We felt we had to come because Lea would want us to be here,” Cindy said. “She always liked to sing and dance, and she loved being with the other kids. I think she recognized everyone’s different disabilities, but she didn’t look at them as any different than other kids.”

The public is invited to Challenge Aspen’s performance of “The Lion King” on Friday, July 19, at noon at the Aspen Elementary School District Theater. Admission is free, with an optional $5 donation. Volunteers are making baked goods to sell just before the show.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is]

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