Shining Stars light up Buttermilk | AspenTimes.com
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Shining Stars light up Buttermilk

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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ASPEN Jason Spalding of Maybell is grateful he got cancer: It’s made every day of his life worth something since, he said. And over the course of this week’s 26th annual Shining Stars Foundation Winter Games at Buttermilk, he’s been able to share his experience with 51 other kids – ranging in age from 8 to 18 – afflicted with the disease.Spalding was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 7 and finished treatment two years later. Now 18 and cancer-free, he shows the scar from his operation and says, “I feel like I’m better for having it.”It opened my eyes to how hard things can be,” he said. “Why should I complain? I just make the best of what I have.”Spalding’s been snowboarding for about six months and had a few rough falls Thursday on the race course at Buttermilk.

“I biffed it a lot, but I got right back up again,” he said. And that’s his message to the younger kids facing a tough diagnosis: “Don’t stay down. Don’t let it take you down. … You’re going to be all right. Just have faith you’re going to be OK.”Oh, and no parents”Parents get in the way,” said Kathy Gingery, executive director of the Shining Stars Foundation. The week of events – everything from race lessons and days on the slopes to games, activities, dances and dinners – is about letting kids who’ve been isolated because of illness come together.Volunteers rang cowbells and banged plastic hand-clappers at the finish line Thursday, and a group of second- and fourth-graders from Aspen Country Day School held signs and cheered at the finish line. While the Shining Stars are mostly from Colorado (including two locals), they included nine kids from Phoenix and eight from Chicago.About 75 percent of the kids were “never-evers” on skis or snowboards and got through the course Saturday after just six days on the slopes, Gingery said.

“The event celebrates the lives of these special souls,” she said. Kids arrive afraid, and far from home, but all meet up with a volunteers from The Buddy Program, with whom they’ve been in contact with for a week before the event, and that helps.And if they’re shy and self-conscious at first, wearing wigs and hats to hide bald heads, they quickly come out of their shell, Gingery said. Especially when they learn the week’s motto: “Bald is beautiful, is our message.””They forget they have cancer for a week,” she said. Eduardo Mejia, 13, from Aurora, cleared Thursday’s course in 35 seconds and joked with his instructor, Pam Renaud of Evergreen, but she said it wasn’t always like that.”You see these kids evolve,” Renaud said. “When Eduardo came, he was quiet and shy; now he’s the boss.”

“These kids never give up,” said Hal O’Leary, who founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, 32 years ago. “They will overcome anything in their way, including snowboarding.”With more than $220,000 in funding and massive in-kind grants, the event is entirely volunteer-run. It pairs each child with a pen pal, so when they head back home for treatment, they stay connected.”These kids are so ‘up,'” said retired Aspen Elementary teacher Bobby Seelenfreund, who added that the group usually breaks down the door for breakfast and is on the go all day.A gala ball Thursday at the Hotel Jerome gave the kids had a chance to watch a video of the week of events – including a slopeside marriage of two volunteers – and collect trophies.For more information about the Shining Stars Foundation, visit http://www.shiningstarsfoundation.com or call 925-STAR.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.


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