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Kids no longer isolated by illness

Charles AgarVail, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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ASPEN – Jason Spalding of Maybell, Colo., 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.”

“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 from the Aspen area – the group included nine kids from Phoenix and eight from Chicago.

About 75 percent of the kids had never skied or snowboarder before, 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 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. She said Mejia hasn’t always been able to make jokes.”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,” added 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.”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 its Web site at http://www.shiningstarsfoundation.com or call 925-STAR.


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