Bobby Menges talks about his experience during the Sunshine Kids Winter Games weeklong camp this week in Steamboat Springs.
Photo by Matt Stensland
Sunshine Kids participants go on a snowmobile tour Thursday at Saddleback Ranch.
Photo by Matt Stensland
Kim Krupa, a child life specialist with Winthrop-University Hospital in New York, goes down the tubing hill Thursday at Saddleback Ranch. Krupa was one of the medical professionals in Steamboat this week with the Sunshine Kids.
Large, dense snowflakes had just begun to fall Friday on Mount Werner as 26 children tossed around snowballs and laughed on the side of the NASTAR course at Steamboat Ski Area.
They wore sparkles, poodle skirts, pinwheels, ribbons and other bright decorations in celebration of the last day of the annual Sunshine Kids Winter Games weeklong camp.
These children don’t need blue skies. They make their own light with their beaming smiles, spurred by the pure enjoyment they’ve found on the mountain during the past week.
Fourteen-year-old Isais Javier, a survivor of a form of bone cancer, said there’s no feeling like skiing.
“It feels like you’re flying,” Isais said. “It gives us a happier mood. You feel like you have hope because there are people helping you.”
Hope sometimes can be a tall order for the group of children, who have all been in treatment for some kind of cancer.
But Sunshine Kids, a nonprofit based out of Houston, helps children find hope within themselves through various trips and activities throughout the year.
“It’s amazing,” Isais said. “At first, it was a little foggy and daze-y because you didn’t know anyone. But now, you feel comfortable. Like the eyes aren’t all on you, wondering, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with them?’”
The ski trip is the longest-running Sunshine Kids program, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The group has been coming to Steamboat for seven years and is funded by the annual Tour de Steamboat bike ride and benefit dinner.
Prudential Steamboat Realty puts on the race and the dinner, and its agents act as volunteers throughout the weeklong camp.
“It changes the kids’ outlook on everything,” said Cam Boyd, Prudential owner. He stood at the bottom of Bashor, cheering on each child as they skied down a race course and through an arch of balloons Friday morning. “This is what it’s really all about — the kids and just seeing how much fun they’re having.”
The two events raised nearly $65,000 in 2011, allowing Prudential to fully fund the trip for the first time this year.
Sunshine Kids Director of Children’s Services Jennifer Wisler said the program offers many trips throughout the year to places like Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. But the ski trip stands out.
“What makes it so special is the opportunity it gives these kids to face their fears and conquer the mountain while getting the chance to build relationships with kids their age who are also battling cancer,” she said.
Throughout the week, the participants spent every morning on the mountain getting instruction from Steamboat Ski and Snowboard School teachers, as well as the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports team.
In the afternoons, they covered almost all of Steamboat’s favored winter activities, from snow tubing and sleigh rides to bowling parties and snowmobiling at Saddleback Ranch.
Julia Sabourin, a 16-year-old from Ottawa, Ontario, said the experience of driving a snowmobile for the first time was something she’ll never forget. But what happened off the hill was just as vital.
“Every time I go to something like this, I come back a better person,” said Sabourin, who has been out of treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma for almost a year. “I remember what’s important.”
And most of the children agreed the most important part of the trip was being around others in their situation.
“We can relate to each other without needing to explain everything,” she said.
Forrest Jackson, a teenager from Texas who is on his third trip as a Sunshine Kids mentor, echoed Sabourin’s sentiments.
“You make a bond so quick,” he said. “It’s comfortable.”
Bobby Menges, 14, was the only snowboarder in the group Friday, but he stands out for other reasons. He was a maniac on the snowmobile at Saddleback Ranch, his blue braces glinting in the afternoon light as he hooted and hollered. He got the sled stuck, then got right back on it for another round.
On Friday, just before the final run down Bashor, he fell twice.
“I was kind of out of control,” he said with a laugh.
But snowboarding has offered him something more than a rush of excitement.
“It takes a load off my back,” he said. “It’s like a stress reliever.