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Mountain adventures provide respite for kids facing cancer

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By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Eighteen kids with cancer enjoyed 10 packed days of adventure activities and food thanks to the generosity of a large group of sponsors and donors in and beyond the Big Sky community. Providing what program director Kara Erickson calls “therapeutic adventure,” Big Sky Adventure Camp, the capstone of Eagle Mount’s oncology program, Big Sky Kids, concluded June 29.

Without even having to pay for luggage, campers and one family member—typically a parent or sibling—flew into Bozeman before being whisked away to Big Sky. Based out of Buck’s T-4 Lodge, and accompanied by an army of volunteers, campers between the age of 11 and 18 boated at Hebgen Lake; witnessed an erupting Old Faithful; rafted with Geyser Whitewater Expeditions; rode lifts and hiked at Big Sky Resort; fed grizzly bears in West Yellowstone; enjoyed performances at West Yellowstone’s Playmill Theatre; rode horses and wagons; camped in the Taylor Fork, and much more.

Kara Erickson, the director of Big Sky Kids, gives a camper a lift.

Meals were provided by organizations like the Big Sky Fire Department; the Corral Bar, Steakhouse & Motel; Nine Quarter Circle Ranch; and the Gallatin Canyon Women’s Club. The list of additional sponsors, and both in-kind and financial donors, is lengthy and represents many Big Sky businesses, organizations, nonprofits and residents.

Karst Stage donated a bus and driver for the duration of the camp, shuttling the group of just over 60 campers, family members, volunteers and staff, while two chase vehicles tagged along for routine blood tests and in case of emergency. A pediatric oncologist and nurse were ever-present as well, enabling campers in more severe conditions to take part.

Hosting youth since 1985, Big Sky Kids has developed a legacy as past campers, or those related to campers, volunteer to create the same caliber of experience for new participants year after year.

Morgan Johnson, a Bozeman native, is one example. Johnson had leukemia when he was 11, before a transplant of his father’s bone marrow rendered him cancer-free. Having been a camper in 2011, he volunteered as a counsellor in 2013 and 2014, and this year as the main photographer. He is also a sponsor.

“I love this camp because when you’re going through cancer you’re kind of segregated,” Johnson said, explaining how people didn’t know how to talk to him when they learned he had the disease. “People around you that are your age just get really weird, and it’s kind of hard to fit in. That’s what’s cool about this camp, [a large proportion] of people here have had cancer, so here it doesn’t really matter in a way, which is really cool.”

Campers challenged themselves through many outdoor adventures such as rock climbing and rafting.

Marie Taylor of St. Louis, Missouri, accompanying her 15-year-old grandson Joshua Honkomp, agreed. “There’s no one staring at you, you know, thinking that you’re different and wondering, ‘How come you don’t have hair?’ and ‘How come you walk the way you do?’” Taylor said. At camp, “these kids don’t have that. We’re a family here.”

Big Sky Kids hosts camps throughout the summer for different age groups. Later in the summer, children between 5 and 10 years old and their families will escape to Hyalite Youth Camp on the banks of the reservoir, and another camp will take 16- to 23-year-old young adults in remission on a week of wilderness immersion, this year in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Big Sky Kids also hosts a ski reunion weekend at Big Sky Resort in April and a flight camp in which campers log 10 hours of flight time in Diamond DA-20 aircraft.

For Delmy Roquel and her son, Jordy, who has leukemia, this opportunity seemed too good to be true. Approached by a social worker back in their hometown of Provo, Utah, both were initially hesitant. The social worker assured Roquel that medical staff would be present throughout the camp and told her, “You need to just say yes. That’s all you need to do. They will cover everything for you guys.”

Campers competed to see who could dress themselves the fastest in full firefighting gear at Big Sky Fire Department.

After some convincing from his siblings, Jordy was game to go, and the two traded time in the hospital for the scenery of the Treasure State. “I don’t know if we deserve to be here but we are glad to be here,” Roquel said.

“[This program] is healing a lot of minds and hearts,” assistant director Caroline Miller said. Miller and Erickson explained that Big Sky Adventure Camp reaches beyond the kids, being just as fun for the parents. The two laughed as they recounted how, during their lake day, two moms had “ditched” their kids on shore for a ride together in a tube towed by a motorboat.

“It’s not just about the kids,” Erickson said. “Cancer affects the whole family.” She added that the program is about giving these children some respite from the world of treatment and hospital visits, a chance to just be kids.

“It’s such a blessing for the children, and us, to see them play and not worry about things at home and to just relax, be themselves, meet new people,” Taylor said.

Taylor and Roquel were overwhelmed at the generosity that made the camp possible. “These are amazing sponsors in your area,” Taylor said. “Everyone is so kind, so generous. I’ve never been across anything like this in my life.”

“I don’t have words to say thank you to all the people that are involved in this, because for them maybe it’s not that important but for us it’s huge,” Roquel added. “Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming.”

Erickson and Miller echoed the difficulty of expressing sufficient thanks for the community support. At every chance they got, the group sang a thank you song created by the counsellors, and gave a little ceramic heart pin to donors and sponsors. The hearts went quickly, Erickson said with three days left of the adventure camp. “We had 1,000 and we’re almost out.”

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