Aspen Times Weekly: Star power | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Star power

by Jeanne McGovern

NEED TO KNOW

The Shining Stars Foundation offers several programs in support of children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases and their families, including:

Aspen Winter Camp: The Aspen Winter Games Program is an eight-day adaptive snowboard and ski recreation program held every year for more than 200 participants, including children, their medical team, instructors and volunteers. Over 80 percent of participants are on active treatment for their illness. The emphasis of the week is on empowering each child and giving them a sense of hope, by pushing them to accomplish things on the mountain that they never thought possible. Activities also bond children with one another, giving them life-long relationships through which they gain strength and support for the journey ahead. Each child learns to focus on all that they can do, rather than their limitations.

Aspen Summer Adventure: A weeklong program for children ages 8-14 designed to foster new relationships between participants, while giving them challenging and unique experiences. Activities include rock climbing and rappelling, outdoor education, team building activities, rafting, therapeutic arts and crafts, paddle boarding, horseback riding, hiking, challenge courses, and more.

Kids Helping Kids: This program engages high school, middle school, and elementary students from throughout Colorado as volunteers with the Shining Stars Foundation in a variety of projects and roles. Last year, more than 2,700 kids were served throughout Colorado.

Grand County Family Adventure: A five-day summertime adventure offered each summer to the children the foundation serves and their entire family, at no cost to participants. This program has become one of the organization’s largest, catering to 250-plus children and family members from across the country.

Family Wellness and Support: Throughout the year, the foundation hosts single-day events, which all Shining Stars and their families are invited to. Activities have included days at the zoo, professional sporting events, a holiday party, toy drive, concerts, theater productions, and more. Last year, more than 60 different events were offered through this program.

As a nonprofit, the foundation is supported by a network of volunteers, as well as donations from individuals, businesses and other philanthropic organizations.

For more information on how to help, contact the Shining Stars office at 970-726-8009 or email office@shiningstarsfoundation.org.

On first blush, it seems to be just another après-ski scene at the base of Buttermilk.

Boots are flying off feet and skis are stored for the night, snacks are ripped open and tales of the day are bantered about at high volume.

Kids are everywhere; the day on the slopes hasn’t zapped their energy. Some play video games, another practices tricks with his Yo-Yo, and a group takes turns doing front flips into a mountain of brightly colored beanbags.

Of course there are signs this isn’t your ordinary ski camp. In the corner is a jumbled pile of sit-skis, ski bikes, sleds and tethers. In the middle of the room, a physical therapist helps a young girl stretch her legs. And, on the wall, posters are filled with names and faces. One features the Shining Stars — the group of kids who are in Aspen for a week of adventure. Another tells us which doctors and nurses are there to care for those kids — the medical staff are all volunteers, and they come from hundred of miles away to provide treatment and ensure the kids stay healthy enough to enjoy the experience.

“The way people join together to support these kids, and the way these kids blossom as a result, astonishes me every year,” says Kathy Gingery, executive director of the Shining Stars Foundation, which sponsors several programs for children battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases. “It is a gift to everyone — especially the kids.”

KIDS BEING KIDS

Indeed, the Shining Stars Aspen Winter Camp, which culminated last week with the Aspen Winter Games ski race, is about giving these kids a chance to just be kids — if only for a week. They ski and snowboard with the help of volunteer adaptive instructors; they go on outings like snowmobiling, Ultimate Taxi rides and more; they eat, laugh and get to know kids who are just like them.

And they do it all without their parents hovering over them.

“That is the magic,” says Gingery, who says the organization made a conscious decision to have it be a kids-only week. “When these kids are away from their parents, they can really just be kids; and parents, they need a break, too.”

Dr. Tom Smith agrees that, in many ways, the Shining Stars setting and philosophy is the best medicine.

“What this program does for the kids mentally is far more important that what it does physically,” says Smith, a pediatric oncologist from Children’s Hospital Colorado who became involved with the Shining Stars after seeing its positive effect on so many of his patients. “I can honestly say that every patient I’ve been lucky enough to send here has come back a changed person.

“And that is so important for the kids and these families.”

REALITY CHECK

Fun and games aside, the Shining Stars Foundation is about supporting kids who are very ill. They are chosen for the program by their medical teams at a select group of hospitals. All are in the midst of a battle; 80 percent are in active treatment while in Aspen.

Sometimes the reality of the situation is gut-wrenching.

“We are like our own mobile medical unit; the kids get their treatments right here — in a non-hospital setting for the most part. And that is so important. But sometimes, things do happen,” says Gingery, when asked what happens if a child gets sick while in Aspen. “For example, we did have a child come down with a fever and have to go to the hospital this morning.”

Unfortunately, that child’s prognosis was not good before coming to Aspen, Gingery says with a hint of sadness in her voice. But then, she offers this story:

“He was scheduled for a biopsy, and the news was likely to not be positive,” she says. “His mom didn’t want him to come here, but he said he wanted to; he had to. He chose to wait on the biopsy so he could just be here.”

For this child, the week at Shining Stars could well have been one last week filled with joy away from a clinical setting.

“He was so happy here, smiling the whole time. He was weak, but so strong at the same time,” she says. “You could just see how happy he was to be part of this.

“Knowing that we don’t know how his life will turn out is so challenging, but to be able to give him this gift now is what we focus on. It’s what matters most.”

BUILDING BONDS

With all these competing emotions, a week with the Shining Stars is truly a balancing act. And it’s one the organization has mastered with grace, according to many involved in its 25-year evolution.

“We are legally and morally responsible for these children,” says Dr. Larry McCleary, medical director for the Shining Stars. “And that is a big responsibility. But it’s also an honor. The team we work with to make this happen each year amazes me; everyone is so dedicated to these kids and making this experience positive.”

And it is almost always, without a doubt, a positive experience.

“I’ve sent patients to, and been a part of, many of these types of programs for kids,” says Smith. “And I can say that Shining Stars is the best one out there. It just is.”

Gingery attributes the success to the volunteers and Aspen community. In addition to the physicians, nurses and ski instructors who work for free, the community donates food, activities and more. And, local kids play a role in making sure the Shining Stars’ kids get as much as possible out of their week in our mountain playground.

“We touch the lives of hundreds of people each year,” Gingery says. “And sometimes I think the kids in the Aspen schools, the volunteers, the community at large, gets as much out of our program as the participants.”

Participants like Jay, Emily, Natalie, Carson, Josh and dozens of others, who leave Aspen saying things such as this: “It’s been an amazing week; I really can’t describe it all,” says 18-year-old Josh. “At the end of the day, I am just grateful to be here.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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