Steamboat Springs Mara Dawkins stands just over 3 feet tall, but that hasn’t stopped the 13-year-old from standing tall this week during the annual Sunshine Kids Foundation’s visit to Steamboat Springs.
“It’s so much fun here,” Dawkins said. “I love it.”
2016 Sunshine Kids
Sunshine Kids Foundation hosted its week-long camp at Steamboat Ski Area.
Dawkins, who is from Byers, got involved with the Sunshine Kids after having a bone marrow transplant in the hematology oncology department at Children’s Hospital in Denver to treat a condition called severe combined immunodeficiency. Before the transplant, Dawkins was not able to keep from getting sick because it was impossible for her body to battle everyday infections.
But this week, she left the hospital and her health problems in the powder as she learned to ski with an instructor from the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports program and enjoyed her time meeting new friends from around the country with the Sunshine Kids Foundation — an organization dedicated to children dealing with cancer.
Despite the fact that Dawkins has never dealt with cancer, she was welcomed by the 24 other children battling cancer who came to Steamboat Springs this week. They could relate to Dawkins' experiences in the hospital and her battle against the odds.
“This is my first time ever skiing this week,” Dawkins said. “Earlier, I did the halfpipe … I just love meeting all these people and skiing down these hills.”
This is the 11th year the Sunshine Kids Foundation has come to Steamboat Springs and the 34th year the organization has sponsored a yearly ski trip designed to help young people who have spent too much time dealing with doctors, hanging out in hospitals and dealing with conditions that have names you have to Google to learn how to spell.
“My doctor told me about the trip,” said 17-year-old Robert Cruz. “They asked me if I wanted to go skiing in Colorado, and of course, I wanted to go skiing in Colorado.”
It was the first time Cruz, who lives in Laredo, Texas, has ever seen snow. He started the week on Alpine skis but quickly decided he would give the ski bike a try.
“The Alpine skis were tough with my prosthetic,” Cruz said. “I already knew how to ride a bike so going to the ski bike seemed kind of natural.”
While Cruz enjoyed his time on the slopes he said the best part of the trip was meeting other children he could relate to.
“I’ve got to meet so many great people that have shared the same experiences as me. It’s been very inspiring, and it makes me want to be better,” Cruz said.
Cruz was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in August of 2015. Since then he has gone through round after round of chemotherapy and had to have his leg amputated, which he said was his choice.
However, he also said he can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and after meeting people who have faced the same circumstances, he knows that he is not alone in his journey to get back.
“I have three more rounds of chemo,” Cruz said. “You get used to the other stuff, but you never really get used to the chemo. You just have to deal with it. Before I had cancer, I was scared of needles — now I’m like just stick me.”
New friend Noah Elliott can relate.
Before cancer he was a skateboarder and snowboarder. But at the age of 16, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, and his life has changed dramatically in a matter of just a few years.
“They tried to do limb salvage surgery to save my leg, but about a year later, it got infected, and I chose amputation," Elliott said. "It was the best decision of my life. I get to be active again and now I’m out here to have a great time with the Sunshine Kids.”
During the week, Elliott and Cruz have spent five days skiing, went snowmobiling at Saddleback Ranch and developed a friendship they can build on in the future.
Cruz said he can relate to Elliott’s battle with cancer, and he understands what it means to lose a leg to cancer. But in Steamboat those things seem to be a part of the past, and the two prefer to focus on what lies ahead.
“I feel great and have never been so positive in my life,” Cruz said. “Sunshine Kids gives us a chance to see these incredible places.”
On Friday afternoon, the 25 kids who attended this year’s camp gathered at the Bashor Bowl picnic area were their worries about cancer and their circumstances were replaced by wide smiles.
They threw snowballs at one another, spent time goofing off with the STARS ski coaches and ate lunch with a few special invited guests including Olympians Johnny Spillane, Nelson Carmichael and Erin Nemec.
“It’s great for these children to get together and form their own community with kids there same age," said Jennifer Wisler, Sunshine Kids Foundation director of children's services. "They understand the trials they have been through with cancer. They get to come here, together, to conquer the mountain, and it has been an incredible, unforgettable week.”
This year, the group included 25 children, ranging in age from 12 to 18 from nine different children's hospitals. Many of the children came from places where snow is a rare sight, Wisler said.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966