Colorado Rockies get a visit from a very special group of kids

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Credit: Caitlin Rice, BSN Denver

Campbell Sullivan is a competitive skier. Maybe one day, she will be a champion.

“I go to the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy in Minturn," she tells BSN Denver. "We ski all morning and then go to school in the afternoon. It’s really special and awesome. I watched all the events of the Olympics. I was watching like Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn. I love the Norwegian team too. So, that was pretty awesome to watch all of them do well."

Sounds like just about any other girl who loves to ski. But feeling totally normal can be difficult for her and her peers.

On this day, she and 26 other patients from Children's Hospital Colorado are getting to take a literal vacation from their illness to make a pilgrimage to Colorado Rockies spring training. Like Campbell herself---and if I may steal her phrase---this, too, is pretty "special and awesome."

It's a trip designed to let these kids escape for a moment and focus on something fun. They get to meet their favorite ballplayers, stay in a fancy hotel, and many of them get to be away from home---and their parents---for the first time.

"This is a really special day for all of us," says Michele Murray, one of the primary organizers of the event. "This is like the first day of camp. Seeing all these kids and all the nervousness but also excitement... we're thrilled to see them experience something that helps them feel like a kid again."

Because of generous donations from The Jason Motte Foundation---who continues to support the program despite Motte having moved on to the St. Louis Cardinals---the hospital has been able to organize this trip for the sixth year running. Before Motte, Troy Tulowitzki was instrumental in establishing the tradition.

And it is up to the 15 caretakers and the phenomenal hospital staff to make sure the goals of the tradition are met. The point isn't to make these kids forget they are sick, they tell me, but to take care of all the pragmatic stuff that comes with it so they can spend as much of their time as possible just watching a game or playing some catch. These caretakers are true heroes whose selflessness and ability to deal with the most trying of situations is truly worthy of being given a medal.

Tragedy befalls almost all of us at some point, but it remains unimaginably unbearable when it happens to kids. The thing is, they don't have to imagine it. They live it every day.

Most 11-year-old kids just want to be normal. It isn't easy for adults who feel like they don't have a community, and on top of everything else there is to worry about, the one thing each and every kid told us was that they just wanted some friends who understand what they are going through.

"One of the goals of our trip is to allow kids to get to know each other," says Dr. Bob Casey who was described to me as the "ringleader" of this operation. "You come in, you get your treatment, you go home. It’s hard to really get a nice connection with the other patients who are going through the same thing."

An athlete thrilled to meet people who work hard to hone their craft, Campbell was anticipating meeting some people her age just as much. "I’m excited to meet some new kids," she says. "I haven’t met any of these kids before. It’ll be fun making new friends.”

And the Rockies have gone full-tilt into this thing, and the tone of his voice makes it clear this means the world to Dr. Casey.

"The players are phenomenal," he says. "I’ve never seen an organization embrace a community project like this the way the Rockies have. We have access to the entire team. From the starters all the way to the guys who may be playing in single-A when spring training is over. The coaching staff. We meet everybody on Sunday morning. And that’s phenomenal.”

The Rockies may be billed as the highlight of the sabbatical, but it's the developing friendships that are the true MVP.

"What stands out to me," continues Casey, "Is when a kid comes back from the trip and says, ‘the kids on this trip get it, they get what I’ve been through. When I go to school, the kids there just don’t understand because they just don’t have any idea.’ And I think that’s one of the missions of the trip, is to have kids develop relationships, even if it’s only for the three days we’re gone. They can share their experiences and know that they’re not alone in what they’ve experienced and there are other kids who have gone through the same thing.”

These relationships can often last far beyond one long weekend, though.

“We’ve been really lucky," says Casey. "In fact, I had an adolescent girl say to me just a few weeks ago that she’s getting together and having dinner with four other girls that have been on the trip. So there have been a number of groups of kids who have maintained relationships beyond the trip.”

Even the closest friends and family members of patients can have a hard time relating. Campbell's father Kevin says no matter how well you know someone, there's just no replacement for experiencing what they are.

"I can’t even speak to going through cancer," he says. "We got 50, 60 kids that are going through something that most people in this world will never get to go through. For them to have the opportunity to spend time with other kids going through very similar situations, without their parents around, there’s a lot to gain out of it. Positives. If a kid’s having trouble, I mean, more down than others, I think this will be a positive weekend for them. Someone like Campbell, who’s having a pretty good ride, to talk to other kids in similar situations is something I can’t talk to her about, or her mom, or anybody. Because we haven’t lived it.”

Someone who has lived it? Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Chad Bettis.

"We had a reunion of the kids who went on the trip last winter and we went to the ballpark and it happened to be Chad Bettis's first game back," Dr. Casey tells me. "And he met with the patients after the game. And I think it was just a really unique, special experience. You couldn't have scripted that if you tried. We've been really fortunate with the players that have embraced what we've done."

The impact of the prospect of meeting Bettis is not lost on Campbell. “That’d be super cool," she says. "That’d be a great connection. Great to meet him. It’s awesome to know that there are survivors, and people get better and can participate in sports again. I want to compete again, so it’s just awesome seeing someone come back on the professional floor.”

It is so often the case, and it definitely holds true here, that children going through these kinds of experiences will often have a far deeper impact on those that they meet than the other way around. If Chad Bettis is inspirational, Campbell Sullivan and her peers are worthy of folklore.

They can remind anybody about the essence of life.

"I've met a lot of players who say to me it keeps them grounded and gives them perspective," says Dr. Casey. "To see these kids come down---and a lot of them are physically challenged because of their diagnosis and treatment---and to see them battling, I think the players really appreciate that. A number of players over the years have, for one reason or another, got connected to a patient or two, and maintained that connection through the year. And that's such a lift for those kids. And I think the players are aware enough to know which kids may be struggling a little bit more, and they've sort of singled out some of those kids and maintained that relationship which has carried through the season which has been so uplifting for the patients."

Baseball teams have always been a family-like extension of their fanbase, but this takes it to a whole new level. Take, for example, the Sullivans. Originally from Philadelphia, they are not predetermined to be Rockies fans. "We were there for the good bandwagon," Kevin says of following the Phillies in the second half of the last decade. "Well actually, one year, the year we were in the first seed, the Rockies swept us in the first round."

Dr. Casey has seen this before.

"One of the things I’ve found that’s interesting is, by the end of the weekend, they will be die-hard Rockies fans," he says.

The Sullivans say they fully expect this to happen.

It's easy to be cynical about sports. Really, it's easy to be cynical about anything. But there is no room for that here. The only downside to this program is that it can't serve everyone who could benefit from it.

"We have about 350 newly diagnosed kids a year," says Casey. "And so, unfortunately, there's no real shortage of kids who could go on this trip. We're taking a handful of our patients this weekend. So my goal is certainly to have this trip last as long for as long as we can. And because of the generosity of the Rockies and specific players over the years. Jason Motte, who was a former Rockies player, not only funded the trip last year but funded the trip this year. He's now in St. Louis. Troy Tulowitzki was the one who really got this started. Even after he had gone to Toronto he continued funding for the following year. So, we've been really, really lucky to have not only the support of both players but the support of the whole organization."

Both Michelle and Dr. Casey tell me they aren't sure exactly who will be the main foundation for funding the trip next season but this was not a day for those concerns. Today is a celebration. They know the team will step forward. One would think Bettis may be a natural fit. But every bit of support from every possible source can help send a kid who could really use a break to spring training or help them get the treatment they need.

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Maybe, in 2022, the Winter Olympics will come to Denver, Colorado. And I'll turn on my TV and see a familiar face flying down the mountainside. There will be Campbell Sullivan: Champion.

Or maybe she'll become a teacher, or a scientist, or an artist. If she's taught me anything, it's that limitations are made by the mind and liberation is made by the soul.

As the kids made final checks on the bags they had packed, signed some paperwork, and gave some goodbye hugs and kisses to family, they began to gather for a group photo in front of the bus. The palpable emotions of parents already missing their still-in-front-of-them children rises and hangs in the air.

They place their custom-made Rockies luggage in the confines below the cabin. Some don the classic "CR" caps and a few sport the new Colorado flag spring training variety. Some of them are huge baseball fans, but all will be by the week's end.

But what they may not realize is that while this vacation may feel like a gift, it is their strength that is the true gift to us all.

To sit and listen to their stories and dreams is to be lifted to a plane of existence where all the petty nonsense that so permeates our daily lives is washed away like winter frost in the spring rain, revealing a piercing and undeniable true beauty; there is seemingly no limit to the power and depth of the human spirit.

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