EAGLE MOUNT CAMPS LOOK OUT FOR THE KIDS

STORY AND PHOTOS BY JODI HAUSEN

A chestnut-brown horse towered over Adeline Gengenbacher’s tiny body as she ran a brush along its flank. Her hammed-up, gap-toothed smile belied the trauma the 6-year-old had endured through cancer’s pitiless assaults.

Adeline, her parents and younger brother joined four other families last summer at Eagle Mount Bozeman’s Camp Braveheart for cancer patients ages 5 to 10 years old. The nonprofit’s five Big Sky Kids camps, held annually throughout southwestern Montana including at Big Sky Resort, are now in their 36th year. The camps allow children, young adults and their families to escape their sobering medical battles in a place where parents watch their kids just being kids and to be with each other in a way not often accessible in their own communities. It gives families a chance to bond with each other and with others who share their struggles.

“Just to be there with other families, to hear their stories and realize that the path that we walked, it’s not a lonely path, we’re not the only ones that have ever done that,” said Adeline’s father, Derek Gengenbacher. “It’s healing in a way.”

Because Eagle Mount also provides recreational opportunities for people with a wide array of disabilities, Big Sky Kids can accommodate campers who have lost limbs to the disease or are not strong enough to walk, for example, providing a worry-free environment and a vacation like none other.

“It takes away those day-to-day decisions that parents are thrown into making” when they have a child with cancer, said Dr. Dan Niebrugge – a pediatric oncologist who has been volunteering with the camp for nearly 30 years. Everything is done for them—transportation, meals, accommodations. They get to relax and enjoy much of what Montana has to offer.

Sitting under a tarp at a picnic table on Taylor Fork Road about 20 miles south of Big Sky, Todd Young said he’s hopeful the bone marrow transplant his son Sam received from his sister will keep Sam from getting cancer a third time.

Now 13, Sam said having cancer was certainly scary. It was also boring. “I can’t leave the hospital, I had to be there for a couple of weeks and I wasn’t able to do a lot of things after.” In fact, Sam was cleared only days before coming to camp to be in public without a facemask, which he’d worn to protect himself from infection.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 11,000 U.S. children and 5,800 adolescents are expected to be diagnosed with the sometimes-lethal disease this year. But advancements in treatment mean that more than 80 percent of child- hood cancers are cured. That’s not to say they come through it unscathed—cancer leaves children with physical scars—but the emotional wounds are often more profound.

“…to hear their stories and realize that the path that we walked, it’s not a lonely path, we’re not the only ones that have ever done that… It’s healing in a way.”

Last summer, Jolene Carlson came from Minnesota with her daughter Natalie, 15, to Big Sky Adventure, a 10-day camp for 11- to 18-year-olds. Natalie attended Camp Braveheart when she was in first grade and this was her first time returning to Montana. She persevered through more than two years of chemotherapy starting when she was 5 and Jolene believes Natalie suffers from PTSD from the experience. Being with other childhood cancer survivors helps.

Bryan Beckedahl was a robust young man playing high school football and working on his parents’ North Dakota farm when at 15 he was diagnosed with bone cancer. He attended Big Sky Kids in 1987 at age 17.

Beckedahl had always wanted to give back to the program, but until last summer he had not returned.

On this warm sunny day in July, Beckedahl wears a heavy Nikon camera around his neck and uses a single crutch to get around, having lost one-third of his hip to the disease. As a volunteer, he was unsure he’d fit in with these young cancer patients and their families but as the days came and went he realized his presence delivered a powerful message.“What I really wanted to do is to be an inspiration for the parents,” he said. “I wanted to be a beacon of hope for them.”

The last night around the campfire was emotional when Beckedahl learned he succeeded in his quest.

“It was impactful for them to see me, you know, alive and doing well 33 years later and that, at one point, I was in the same position as their child,” he said.

Big Sky Kids camps also include a Young Adult Retreat for ages 16 to 23, Flight Camp with Summit Aviation for cancer survivors 18 or older, and Spring Fling weekend, a reunion of campers and family members that includes skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Big Sky Resort and Lone Mountain Ranch.

Wooden, hand-painted nametags dangle from evergreen trees, mostly spruce, planted on Eagle Mount’s south Bozeman campus reflecting the stories of children who have come here to celebrate life—lives that have survived cancer and, in some cases, succumbed to it. Each year a new tree is planted and campers place their nametags on boughs in the waning hours of their Montana adventure.

They come from all corners of the country, creating a network of people whose spirits support one another in a fight only they can comprehend. And, like campers’ hopes and dreams, the trees keep growing.

“It’s a family, it’s a place where the kids belong,” said Lee Stevenson, who has worked or volunteered with the program since its inception. “It’s a living, growing tree. Every year you get a new branch and the trunk supports the branches and everybody blooms here.”

Jodi Hausen is an award-winning journalist based in Bozeman, Montana, who has been published in Montana Quarterly, Outside Bozeman, and has had her work aired on Maine Public Radio.