STARS camp offers confidence, independence and hope for youth with spinal cord injuries |

STARS camp offers confidence, independence and hope for youth with spinal cord injuries

Michael Uppenkamp paddles his brother, Alex, in a kayak. Their brother, Thomas, accompanies them on a paddleboard. Alex was attending a camp for youth with spinal cord injuries Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports and his brothers tagged along. The camp was funded by the Kelly Brush Foundation and attended by patients at Craig Hospital in Denver. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

CLARK — When Alex Cano was 15 he wrestled, played basketball, soccer and participated in track and field. Then, in April 2019, he suffered a severe spinal cord injury that put him in a wheelchair.

“I was an athlete before my accident. A big athlete,” said Cano, now 17. “Depression comes; all that comes. These guys, I know they’re going to help me get back to it. I was really good at it, so it’s hard to take my ego out of it. I’m getting excited to get back into things.”

This week, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports hosted a camp for youth with spinal cord injuries. The weeklong camp is helping Cano learn that he can still be athletic, even if it looks a little different.

Cano and the rest of the camp spent Thursday afternoon kayaking Steamboat Lake, a first for many of the participants. The week consisted of many firsts and adventures, showing the participants that they have many options for recreation despite having to alter the equipment.

From left, Alex Cano, Alex Uppenkamp, Thomas Uppenkamp, Jared Lucas, Michael Uppenkamp, Oliver Jack, Danielle Scroggs, Kristyn Salazar, Mara Salas, Luise Ollick and Austin Flowers pose for a group shot following a bike ride. The ride was part of a camp for youth with spinal cord injuries hosted by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports. (Courtesy STARS)

STARS hosted five young adults and teenagers who recently suffered spinal cord injuries that left them disabled in some way. All are patients at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, which sent two caregivers to the camp that was funded by the Kelly Brush Foundation.

Craig grads or alumni, those who check out of inpatient or outpatient care, are offered Adventure Camps like this one. Cano has been waiting for his opportunity to attend one for years. His first camp had to be pushed back due to the pandemic.

A huge appeal of the camps is the lack of parents. Each participant can bring a friend or sibling, but there are no parents allowed. For Oliver Jack, 21, the camp gave him his first taste of independence.

From left, Jared Lucas, Oliver Jack, Alex Uppenkamp, Michael Uppenkamp and Mara Salas enjoy the beautiful weather of the Yampa Valley as part of a camp for youth with spinal cord inuries hosted by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports. (Courtesy Alex Cano)

“I was 18 when my accident happened. I was going to go off to college and be independent in that sense. That was kind of stripped away from me,” Jack said. “It’s almost like long overdue. I feel like the last three years I’ve been constantly going to different hospitals. … I’m kind of finding the joy in life again.”

Jack was wary of kayaking, switching to different boats until he felt stable. Jack doesn’t need a wheelchair and walks slowly and carefully to counter his poor balance and limp. The camp is introducing him to the sensations of confidence and independence again.

Jared Lucas, 21, enjoyed meeting others who have a shared experience, swapping life hacks and feeling a part of a community.

Greg Durso, program director at the Kelly Brush Foundation in Vermont, visited and participated in a camp for youth with spinal cord injuries hosted by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports. The camp was the first funded by the foundation, which typically funds equipment for those with spinal cord injuries. (Courtesy Alex Cano)

“(I’ve liked) just making friends, trying to open up my comfort zone, learning from new experiences,” he said.

Kelly Brush is a foundation based out of Vermont that supports those with spinal cord injuries by providing adaptive equipment and grants. This was the first camp funded by the foundation and Program Director Greg Durso came out to Steamboat Springs to see if it was a worthy investment. There is no doubt that it was.

“I think it’s cool we’re changing our programming up a little bit and being able to offer these life changing experiences,” Durso said. “We’ll try to do more of this in the future as well.”

Durso was injured at 23 and was awarded a grant by the Kelly Brush Foundation. About a decade later, he started working for the foundation, ensuring other young people can have the same experience he did.

“I know how important it is to get the experiences I got because of that grant,” he said. “I want to be able to pay it forward.”

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