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Walking for courage, delivering beads

Walking for courage, delivering beads

Aiden Callsfirst, a 5-year-old cancer patient at Billings Clinic, has a string of beads nearly twice as long as he is tall. 

Every treatment, every poke with a needle, every prod with an instrument, Aiden earns another bead for his collection. 

"He likes them," said his grandmother Ernestine Spang. 

Although, it may take him a few years to really understand just what they mean, she added. 

On Thursday, Aiden met Stacie Eichinger, a volunteer with Beads of Courage who is walking across the country to raise awareness for the bead program. 

"It's therapeutic," she said. 

The program was designed for children battling significant illness as a way to give them special and unique recognition for everything they have to endure as they undergo treatment.  

The beads act as a physical symbol of everything the child has gone through, Eichinger said.

Sarah Blackburn, a social worker for Billings Clinic, was trained by the Beads of Courage organization, and sees weekly the impact they have on the hospital's youngest patients.

"It is a way for them to communicate what they've gone through," she said. "It also honors the journey. Each bead is a badge of courage."

Billings Clinic is the only hospital in Montana and neighboring states that uses the bead program, which is one of the reasons Eichinger is walking. She wants to raise awareness for the program countrywide and to encourage more hospitals and clinics to use it. 

"Whoever I run into, I just promote it," she said. 

Her next hospital visit will be in Minneapolis, the next-closest medical center that uses Beads of Courage. She also has an event set up in Rapid City, S.D., where she's hopeful the hospital there will sign up for the program. 

In the meantime, she'll be walking. 

Eichinger started in Ocean Shore, Wash., and will continue on to Chicago before dropping south to finish in Savannah, Ga. Friends worry about her safety, but so far the walk has been an amazing experience. 

"People just want to help," she said. 

She's been invited into homes, to sit down to family meals and to take shelter for the night. 

She's also learned to appreciate the vastness of the United States. Walking along a highway in Western Montana, she passed by a billboard that advertised a diner just an hour up the road. 

She realized it would take her three days of walking to reach the exit. 

She's camped out in fields several times, stayed at RV parks and campgrounds and in people's homes. For her, it's been a singular journey. 

"I've had nothing but great experiences," she said. 

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