Sunshine Kids focus on fun, not cancer, during week-long camp
February 27, 2015
Steamboat Springs — As 15-year-old Carson Hilliker eyed the moguls from the top of Surprise, instructor Greg Dalsis warned it would be a challenging ski run.
Carson, who is in remission and in August will be cancer-free for two years, did not hesitate and dropped in.
"I haven't found anything he's afraid of yet," said Dalsis, with Steamboat Adaptive Recreation Sports, or STARS.
Carson, an advanced skier from Denver who grew up learning the sport, was in Steamboat this week for the 33rd annual Sunshine Kids Winter Games, which was celebrating its 10th year in Steamboat. This year, the camp brought together 26 teens who were in various stages of cancer.
"I've never been here before, but I'm liking it a lot," said Carson, who whistles while he skis.
The stories shared by the Sunshine Kids were both tragic and inspiring.
"The idea is to give the kids the opportunity to meet kids the same age that are also battling cancer," said Jennifer Wisler, director of children’s services for the Sunshine Kids Foundation.
Between runs, Carson, a freshman at East High School in Denver, shared his story.
When Carson was 13 years old, he started having excruciating back pain.
"We didn't think cancer, but there was something really wrong," Carson's mom Kathy said.
A week later, Carson had severe chest pain, and he went to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.
"Just like that," Carson said.
Carson was in the hospital for five months straight undergoing treatment. Kathy recalled Carson’s third chemotherapy treatment, when Carson saw that a scary, blue-colored concoction was going to be injected into his body. The treatment and side effects caused Carson intense pain that got progressively worse with every round of chemo.
"Really hideous," Kathy said.
Kathy said Carson's recovery has been remarkable.
"He has a real positive attitude, and it's not fake," Kathy said. "I think he cured himself."
Carson remembered the day he learned he was cancer-free.
"It was pretty great," he said. "It was good to know I was done with it. I could go home, do stuff and ski."
Kathy said the Sunshine Kids camp provided Carson with more than an opportunity to feel normal.
"It's an opportunity for him to shine and help," said Kathy, who thinks Carson is a natural leader who will likely do something in life based on his experience with cancer.
That friendly leadership style was apparent Tuesday as he ripped down the Bashor Bowl but stopped to encourage Kyle Ferguson, a 16-year-old lymphoma cancer survivor, who was learning to ski.
"There you go, Kyle," Carson said. "Point your skis downhill and stand up."
Most of the teens attending the camp were on skis for the first time.
"It's a lot more fun that I thought it would be," said Maddison Williams, a 15-year-old from North Dakota. "It's so much fun here, and it is so pretty."
Maddison was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer, when she was 3 years old. She said doctors initially told her parents there was nothing that could be done.
"Pretty much saying, 'I was going to die,'" Maddison said.
She eventually went through chemotherapy. She had major complications and surgeries.
"Everything in my body the cancer touched had to be removed," she said. "I'm always going to be in remission. I'm never going to be cured."
Maddison said she was ecstatic when she learned she was invited on a trip to Colorado.
"I don't think it would have been a very smart thing to pass up an opportunity like that," she said.
The Sunshine Kids had a busy week before their departure Saturday.
There was snowmobiling, tubing and a sleigh ride dinner at Saddleback Ranch, more tubing at Howelsen Hill, a bowling tournament at Snow Bowl and lots of hot tub time and pool time while staying at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort.
Four days of skiing culminated with the Sunshine Kids Winter Games at Bashor Bowl.
The Sunshine Kids Foundations makes the trip free for the teens and their medical providers. Local businesses provide in-kind donations. Major donors included Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., the Sheraton, Saddleback Ranch, Steamboat Sotheby’s International Realty and STARS.
"For them to get away for a week and be with other kids and kind of forget about it for a week is kind of a nice thing," STARS instructor Lynn Downing said.