Shining Stars celebrates 20 years of magic in Aspen

Shining Stars volunteer David Bach claps hands with children as they finish their runs during the Aspen Winter Games at Buttermilk on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Shining Stars Foundation hasn’t let a pandemic take away the magic of its recreational programs for kids experiencing cancer or another life-threatening illness.

The Aspen-based nonprofit’s annual Winter Games at Buttermilk is on hold this year; COVID-19 caution precludes hosting the week-long adaptive sports event that draws more than 60 youth participants and nearly 200 staff, volunteers and family members to the mountain.

But there have been a handful of outdoor, socially distant activities and more than 40 online events over the past year, according to Megan Nelson, director of development and operations at Shining Stars. Virtual trivia games, dance classes and build-your-own-slime nights — if it sounds like fun, there’s a good chance they’ve tried it over Zoom.

“While we can’t do adaptive sports and some of those things the way we’re used to, we can still give them community connection and make sure that they have that support — that they don’t feel alone, that they can talk to people who get what they’re going through,” Nelson said. “Until then, at least we can give them community,”

This month, that community comes together to honor Shining Stars’ 20th anniversary with a full slate of virtual programming. The festivities bring together current and past Shining Stars participants with family, volunteers, staff and supporters in Aspen and beyond to share in the fun and the nostalgia.

On deck for the celebration: a retrospective video, a ”20 Days for 20 Years” social media campaign and a new line of merchandise. The marquee event, a virtual iteration of the Winter Games, runs Feb. 26 through March 4 with seven straight days of virtual events.

Shining Stars’ Alex Brown, 15, left, and Serenity Gibney, 16, talk before taking a group picture during the Aspen Winter Games at Buttermilk on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Shining Stars CEO and founder Kathy Gingery said it’s hard to pick just one favorite memory after two decades providing joyful experiences for families facing the immense challenges of childhood illness.

“’You gave them back a life and a hope and an aspiration that we never dreamt was possible,” parents have told Gingery after they lost a child.

“If you can make them feel whole again, it’s a beautiful gift of magic,” Gingery said.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving as Shining Stars continues to grow and adapt.

Around 15 kids participated in that first week of winter sports back in 2001; last year’s winter games hosted 65. The organization has helped more than 1,000 families to date with a volunteer base that has grown “exponentially,” Gingery said.

In addition to the Winter Games, the organization offers single-day activities, summer adventure experiences, a school program that engages students in volunteer opportunities and a support and mentorship program for young adult survivors of pediatric cancer.

The goal has never been growth for the sake of growth, Gingery said; “quality over quantity” is the motto.

“We could have grown tenfold if we wanted to, but we would lose the quality, and to us, that’s the most important thing,” she said.

Organization leaders are certainly looking forward to the return of in-person Winter Games in the future — it’s the kind of event that can be the highlight of a participant’s childhood.

“Not only is it just something that gives these families hope, but people actually say, ’this day at Winter Games was the best day of my life, this was the best time I’ve had, ever,” said Shining Stars Board of Directors secretary Riley Gallagher.

Shining Stars’ Erika Grigoryan, 9, celebrates with a cheering audience as she crosses the race finish line during the Aspen Winter Games at Buttermilk on Thursday, March 5, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

But there also are some benefits to hosting a virtual program beyond maintaining that connection with Shining Stars.

“You can reach more that way, there’s no doubt,” Gingery said.

Last year, it cost the organization around $325,000 to host 65 participants and their families for the Winter Games at Buttermilk; the low cost of virtual programming makes it feasible for everyone — kids, families, volunteers, donors, staff — to join in.

Kat Tanke is among those looking forward to the virtual slate this year. She first attended the Winter Games as a participant at the age of 13; now 28, she’s involved in the “All Stars” group of young adults and led some online dance classes this year.

To her, Zoom provides a vital connection in a time of isolation that feels all the more secluded for people with compromised immune systems.

“It’s been really nice during the pandemic. They’ve had a ton of videos, especially at a time when most of us feel very lost and secluded because a lot of us have to stay in,” Tanke said. “They’ve made us closer through the pandemic.”

Plus, Tanke said, the online format allows her to share the experience with her family in a new way.

“Whenever I come home from a Shining Stars event, (my parents) just sit for the next three hours and listen to all the fun times I had, because I just — that’s all you can do is think and talk about all the great times,” she said. “You can never really have them understand exactly how magical it is.”

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