Bennett Curtis has been to that deep, dark place only something like cancer can take you. In 2013, when he was 13, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and developed numerous tumors over his upper body.
Miraculously, he survived and now is cancer-free. But that experience is something he’ll never be able to forget. Most of it was obviously bad, but there was some good to come out of it, such as getting involved with the Shining Stars Foundation.
“When you are going through something like cancer or other life-threatening diseases, you feel like no one understands you,” Curtis said. “I often felt like I had it worse than everyone else, and it’s super easy to get that mindset. But I came here and I saw kids that had it so much worse than I did and they had a smile on their face. They are living life to the fullest. They are skiing, they are snowboarding and they are having a great time. So I just thought, ‘Why can’t I do the same?’”
With its administrative office based in Winter Park and its event office here in Aspen, the Shining Stars Foundation was founded in 2001, with roots that go back even further. Over that time, one of its mainstay events has been the Aspen Winter Games, which just concluded yet again at Buttermilk Ski Area.
The foundation works with children challenged by pediatric cancer or other life-threatening illness by providing them year-round recreational and social programs, such as a week of skiing or snowboarding in Aspen. Around 70 kids from across the country took part this past week.
“People sometimes think it’s a little crazy that we take these kids who are really sick, some of them are still on treatment, and we bring them to Aspen,” said Ryndi Zastrow, the foundation’s director of programs and events. “Our goal when we bring them here to Aspen is to just let them be kids. Forget about the medical, have a pool party, do a disco dance night, go out skiing and snowboarding and just remember what it feels like to be a kid again.”
Curtis understands it all too well. He, after all, was a Shining Star not that long ago, and the second he turned 18 decided to return, albeit in a different role. From Chicago, Curtis fell in love with skiing through his time in Aspen and after defeating cancer went on to become a certified ski instructor.
This was his third year being back at Buttermilk, where he is helping the children discover a freedom they may not have known was possible between hospital trips and chemotherapy sessions.
“Here you are not a kid with cancer,” Curtis said. “It puts a smile on my face. It’s as simple as that. It gives you so much hope. Just watching these kids, throughout their whole life they’ve been either put down or told they can’t do things because of their condition. Here, the sky is the limit.”
Curtis is one of roughly 250 volunteers — Zastrow said they are the “heartbeat of the organization” — who make the weeklong event possible. While a lot goes on in that time, it’s really the skiing and snowboarding that stands out. For so many of the children, this is their first time giving Aspen’s No. 1 pastime a go. It’s also likely one of the few opportunities for them to take part in a physical activity with their illness often making things like skiing impossible.
Christi Mueller, another volunteer ski instructor from Chicago, has been coming to the Aspen Winter Games for a handful of years now with her father, who also is a ski instructor. Christi’s brother died of cancer 14 years ago.
“It’s the joy throughout the week that brings me back,” she said. “Earlier this week I was working with a girl and she was so weary the first two days and then something clicked. By the end of the second day she was begging to go back for more and she was loving it. It’s fun to see them come alive through skiing.”
A large part of the volunteer staff includes a medical team. The hard reality is many of the Shining Stars still are very sick, and it takes a group of dedicated nurses and other medical professionals to make sure these illnesses don’t interfere with the children’s time in Aspen.
“These kids do have medical challenges and many of them are still on chemotherapy,” said Kathy Hinkle, an oncology nurse from Phoenix who has been coming to Aspen with the Shining Stars Foundation for eight years. “I always view my role as supportive. I want them to come here and forget that they have cancer. I don’t want them to think about it.”
Everyone who talked about the Aspen Winter Games had a heartwarming or inspiring story about one of the children. There was the Shining Star who Curtis helped instruct who was doing laps around him on Buttermilk: “Here’s this little 5-foot, 60-pound girl who is going through hell and I’m just trying to keep up with her.”
Then there was the boy Hinkle worked with, who is in remission from a brain tumor and has trouble with vision and balance. Still, put him on a sit ski and he might give Bode Miller a run for his money: “Just think how liberating that has to be for him to have that freedom to be out there moving.”
And that’s what matters. For a short week here in Aspen, these children get to forget about their troubles, forget about the cancer and simply be children once again.
“The connections don’t stop after this week. They go on afterward, and that’s something pretty special,” Hinkle said. “Shining Stars, it’s become my family. I’ve built friendships through these committed people. You cannot walk through the doors and not feel love here. It’s a really magical place and the volunteers create that and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”