Leslie Figueroa, 14, of New Jersey, celebrates completing a run Tuesday morning at Steamboat Ski Area. Leslie is one of about 25 teenage cancer patients participating in the 29th annual Sunshine Kids Winter Games in Steamboat Springs.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Leslie Figueroa, 14, of New Jersey, celebrates completing a run Tuesday morning at Steamboat Ski Area. Leslie is one of about 25 teenage cancer patients participating in the 29th annual Sunshine Kids Winter Games in Steamboat Springs.

Sunshine Kids helps youths with cancer get back to normal on Steamboat slopes

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Sunshine Kids Winter Games participant Mya Taylor smiles while skiing Tuesday at the Steamboat Ski Area.

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Instructor Allison Tate works with Sunshine Kids Winter Games participants Leslie Figueroa, 14, left, and Mya Taylor.

— Leslie Figueroa just wants to be a normal teenager.

When the 14-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, that wasn’t easy. She was sick, vomiting daily and was in and out of the hospital. She lost her hair when the chemotherapy started.

She couldn’t do the things she always did — swim and play volleyball, tennis or football (she was the quarterback on an otherwise-boys team). And she couldn’t go to school like everyone else.

When she was offered the chance to participate in the Sunshine Kids Winter Games, taking place this week in Steamboat Springs, Leslie said she had to think about it. Back in school, she didn’t want to miss any more after missing parts of her sixth- and seventh-grade years.

“Everybody thinks I’m so weird because I like going to school,” she said. “When I got sick, I was home-schooled. I hated it.”

Leslie eventually agreed to take the trip organized by the Sunshine Kids Foundation, a national nonprofit group that provides activities for youths with cancer. She’s busy skiing and participating in other activities. She’s hanging out with other youths who are in the same situation.

Jennifer Wisler, director of children’s services for the Sunshine Kids Foundation, said the organization was created in 1982 after a volunteer in a Houston hospital’s oncology ward decided to make a child’s wish come true.

She said Sunshine Kids is hosting its 29th Winter Games, the sixth consecutive year in Steamboat, for about 25 youths ages 12 to 17, who are accompanied by medical professionals.

“We like to think activities like this give them their childhood back, the childhood that was stolen by their cancer diagnosis,” Wisler said.

Dr. Frank Lin, a fellow at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, brought four of his patients to the Winter Games. He said it was nice seeing them interact with other youths, just hanging out and goofing around.

“I know these kids from the hospital,” he said. “They’re cancer patients, sick, puking their guts out. Here they’re just teenagers. It’s hard to put that into words.”

A number of local businesses and organizations are supporting the Winter Games, said Laura Cusenbary, who has helped organize activities since Sunshine Kids began coming to Steamboat.

They include Prudential Steam­­boat Realty, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., Saddleback Ranch, Marabou, Steamboat Smokehouse, Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, Johnny B. Good’s Diner, The Drunken Onion Get & Go Kitchen, Black Tie Ski Rentals and the city of Steamboat Springs.

Cusenbary said the annual Tour de Steamboat bike ride, which takes place July 15 and 16, also helps pay for the Winter Games.

She said the community rallies around the Sunshine Kids every year.

“I think truly we’re a family-oriented town, and we love kids and sharing the experience of being in Steamboat,” she said.

Bill Copeck, Leslie’s nurse at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, said this year is his third Winter Games in Steamboat. But he’s been working with the Sunshine Kids for more than a decade.

“I’ve been on 11 trips over the years to various cities,” he said. “I think this gives them the most unique opportunity to do something they’d never have a chance to do.”

Leslie is in the maintenance portion of her treatment, which means she receives oral chemo treatment daily, chemo intravenously every month, and a chemo injection into her spine every three months, Copeck said. He said she’s doing well, back to being the ball of energy she was before her diagnosis.

On her first day on skis, Leslie didn’t fall once. She even found herself whizzing through a group of people before she was even taught to turn. She’s glad she decided to give up a week of school for a chance at a different kind of normal.

And so far, Leslie said she likes skiing. She thought it would be hard, but she said it’s not.

“I’ve never been skiing before, and I’m already a pro,” she said.

— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or e-mail jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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