Healing Hearts at Trail West

As the buses pull in to camp, road weary, but happy faces emerge to the cheers of enthusiastic work crew and summer staff. All week long these campers will look upon the magnificent mountains, shriek on the rides, splash in the pool, laugh uproariously, sing unabashedly and lean in attentively as they hear about Jesus. By week’s end, there will be many lives changed for eternity.

Just another unbelievable week at Young Life camp? In many ways, yes. But there is a marked difference in this week’s campers. This trip is filled with families who have something special in common: each family has a child fighting cancer. The parents, the siblings and the children undergoing this harsh reality have all endured more than most families ever will.

So, for the second straight year at Trail West, one of Young Life’s camps in Colorado, families basked in the encouragement and joy that lately have been so scarce in their lives.

A gift

The gift of a week at Trail West for these families, most of whom hail from the Dallas–Fort Worth area, is the vision of Jean Marie Alpert. For 14 years, Alpert served as caretaker to her mother, who was battling leukemia. “I’d live with my mom for months at a time in the hospital,” Alpert said. “I’d be around all these children and their families and see what they’re going through. I thought, ‘If I’m ever in the position to give back to these families — I don’t know how — but I’d like to.’” The week at Trail West, in fact, is nicknamed “Camp Mati” in honor of Alpert’s mom, who passed away in 2003.

In the summer of 2010, Alpert was driving home from a week spent at Trail West with her family (“We just fell in love with it!”) when an idea began to take shape in her mind. “I felt the Holy Spirit talking to me, asking me to do this. I thought, ‘Lord, you’re asking the wrong person. There’s no way I’m going to pull this off.’ But I returned from the trip, called Trail West and asked, ‘Is this possible?’ And the whole time I had to have confidence the Lord was not going to let me fail.”

The task was a tall one. Alpert knew it would involve recruitment, vision casting and fundraising — three incredibly challenging obstacles. She contacted doctors, hospitals and churches to locate families whose children had cancer but were in remission and healthy enough to experience a week at camp.

Alpert said, “The first year was really hard because nobody knew who I was or what I was doing. It was hard finding cancer patients because of HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects individuals’ privacy and health records), because no one can give you information. So, it was just word of mouth.”

Prayerfully, Alpert continued to spread the vision and her persistence gradually began paying dividends. Financial backers for the vision came on board. “My friends were taking a leap of faith with me. They were entrusting me with their money and I didn’t know if I was going to pull it off.” Alpert eventually raised more than $100,000 to help bring the families to camp. In the meantime, families also began to sign on for the trip.

A relief

The first family to sign up was also the first one Alpert approached. William White, while attending church with his daughters, Stella and Ivy, was sitting in front of Alpert, whom he had never met. “Jean Marie tapped my shoulder,” he said, “and asked if she could talk to me. She told me about this camp trip she was trying to put together and I was all for it.”

White’s daughter Stella, now 10, was diagnosed with cancer of the retina two years ago. The cancer had taken the sight in her left eye, which surgeons removed to prevent the cancer from spreading further down her optic nerve. Chemotherapy treatments followed and Stella has been clear of the cancer ever since.

The time at Trail West gave kids like Stella a welcome relief from dealing with the effects of cancer. “At the end of the day,” White said, “I like seeing all these kids not think about sickness, but just having the time of their lives.”

Nate Oxford is another camper thrilled with his time at Trail West. Nate, 6, has medulloblastoma, cancer of the brain and spine. His dad, Wes, shared the highlight of Nate’s week: “Nate uses a walker to get around, but he wanted so badly to ride the zip line. It’s hard to do without going through the ropes course, but they bent over backwards yesterday to make it happen. Joe, who’s running the ropes course, harnessed himself in with Nate to one zip line and my wife to the other. That ride just made his week.”

While the week means the world to kids enduring sickness, it’s a healing time for their parents and siblings, too. Camp speaker Brian Summerall witnessed firsthand what the men’s time together meant. “A father shared last night that he’d never been in a group of dads where they could just talk. He said they pass each other in the hallways of the hospital and don’t say anything, but here they felt safe telling their story.

“I watched dads say their kids are their heroes and how cancer kids are tougher than any kid you’ll meet; how their kids have gone through more by age 9 than any other kid they’ve been around. They talked about how their kids are happier than them and how they’ve been able to find joy in their circumstances.”

A window

The week is another opportunity for Trail West to do what it does best: serve as a window into Young Life. Every summer, Trail West helps families enjoy the best week of their lives by experiencing Young Life firsthand. Many of these families have been involved locally, but have never considered the depth and breadth of the mission. While at camp many find themselves drawn into the ministry at a deeper level and return to their hometowns committed to making an impact on reaching kids with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Wes Oxford said, “The Young Life work crew is so great because you’re around some of the most respectful kids you’ll ever meet. They have a great spirit for God and serving. I’m already excited for when my boys are old enough to be campers or participate as work crew.”

As with every Young Life camp, the goal is to introduce guests to the person of Jesus, and this week bore this out. William White said, “I’m just hearing story after story of many people who have come on this trip, and if they didn’t have any kind of faith in God before, they do now.”

Learn more about Trail West.