Odessa family takes Starlight Foundation trip of a lifetime through the Rockies

Blake Willing (right) with his older sister Cadence (left), enjoying some of the breathtaking scenery aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. Submitted photo.

Odessa 10-year-old Blake Willing and his family were recently gifted a train trip of a lifetime by Rocky Mountaineer in partnership with Starlight Children’s Foundation Canada. Along with 16 other children dealing with serious or life-altering illnesses, Blake and his family took a life-changing trip through the Canadian Rockies.

The “Starlight children” and their families travelled on the last train of the season from Banff, Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia on October 5, 2022.

“We saw lots of mountains, and mountain goats and eagles,” said Blake, who made some great new friends on the train with whom he plans to keep in touch: Starlight kids from all over Canada. 

Bravery beads: at Sick Kids Hospital, children earn a bead for every poke, procedure, admission, surgery, and other process that they have to go through. Blake, seen here at age seven, has many strings of them. These photos were taken when Blake returned after a nearly two-month stay which involved 10 brain surgeries after numerous complications.
Photo by Becky Hinch Photography.
Blake, now 10, on his first airplane flight, courtesy of Air Canada Foundation: he said he “wasn’t scared… well maybe a little.” Photo submitted.

The families flew from cities across Canada, courtesy of the Air Canada Foundation, to Banff, where they enjoyed an evening reception and a meet-and-greet before resting up for the train trip the following morning. Once on board the train, families were treated to tons of surprises and in-cabin entertainment, including a caricature artist and the foundation’s own resident superhero, “Captain Starlight.” 

The family was thankful to meet Andy, Danny, Priscilla, Cat and all the Rocky Mountaineer staff, who treated the family like royalty along the way. Blake was particularly impressed with the ice cream sundae bar they created.

Blake, who travelled with his mom, Stacey, dad, Andy, and older siblings Ryder (11) and Cadence (13), explained just how unique the experience was for his family, in more ways than one. “None of us have been on a plane before or like all together on a big trip because I’ve always had to be near Sick Kids… So, it was a great opportunity,” he said. 

Blake (bottom left) watches while his sister Cadence attempts a trivia challenge with their dad Andy, brother Ryder, and other Starlight families aboard the train. Submitted photo.

From birth, Blake had serious issues with his digestive system and lived in constant pain from ongoing complications. In November 2017, he had an MRI to check his spine, and a tumour was found in his cerebellum. It was determined that the tumour was slow growing, but in a difficult spot to remove. Since then, he has had 11 intricate surgeries.

Blake’s family was unable to take vacations due to Blake’s medical instability and the fear that, at any moment, he could experience life-threatening hydrocephaly (an abnormal build-up of fluid in the ventricles of the brain) and they’d have to rush to the hospital. 

Stacey said, “Starlight really makes it completely carefree for the families. They really take care of everything so that you can just focus on fun and getting to be kids with your kids. For our family, like Blake said, we’ve missed lots of time together over the years with… his hospital stays. [It’s great] having the freedom to travel and not worry.”

Blake and Stacey Willing aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. Photo Submitted.

She also noted how good it is for the Starlight kids to meet each other and understand that they are not alone in their struggles. “The opportunity to spend the time and get to know these other Starlight families was really important… The kids all understand each other. And also for the families because… it’s hard in your day-to-day life to find other families who truly understand what it means to have a seriously sick child. So, it’s it’s pretty life-changing for all of us.”

“Distractive entertainment is at the core of what we do at Starlight Canada,” said Brian Bringolf, Starlight Canada CEO, in a news release before the trip occurred. “This unique experience will allow our children and families the chance to break away from their routine hospital visits and difficult treatments to enjoy a VIP expedition through Canada’s beautiful Rocky Mountains. We’re endlessly grateful to Rocky Mountaineer for gifting this amazing trip to our families for the second year in a row!”

Starlight relies solely on public donations, according to the release: “Starlight Children’s Foundation® Canada does what no medicine can do: create priceless smiles and memories for seriously ill children and their families. For over 30 years, Starlight Canada has been spreading joy to sick kids across the country through a unique blend of hospital-to-home programs designed for the whole family. With your help, together we can create more magic in-hospital, grant more wishes out-of-hospital, and spread more sparkles across Canada!”

Stacey encourages families with severely ill children to register with Starlight. “You go on the website starlightcanada.org and fill out an application. There are children with all types of illnesses included in Starlight families; there’s more information on the website about who they support.”

“It’s really hard to put into words, to be honest, what these things mean,“ she said. “Most families just kind of look at it and say, ‘Yeah, they’re sending kids on trips. That’s nice.’ But these kids really do lose so much of their childhood and so much of what normal kids have, so these carefree moments that these kids would otherwise never have are really cool.”

“Blake jokes that his brain tumour was worth it for the trip,” Stacey concluded, emphasizing that she would have traded all the trips in the world for him not to have that experience.

For more information on Starlight, visit the organization’s website.

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