Perkins Road Community Park’s newest improvement isn’t terribly exciting by most 7-year-olds’ standards, but the massive shade structure — installed at a cost of nearly $37,000 — is pure poetry to Ben McGuire, who runs BREC’s Outdoor Adventure Program.
“I see symbolism everywhere,” McGuire said, gazing up at the shades, that now cast a protective shadow over the older children’s playground at the park. “And, to me, these represent Lauren.”
Lauren Savoy Olinde, who died in January 2012 after a two-year battle with melanoma, is in large part the reason the shade is there today — the foundation started in her name raised money to pay for the project, said Olinde’s close friend Sarah Lomax, who co-founded the Lauren Savoy Olinde Foundation with her sister, Emily Lomax Gonsoulin.
The LSO Foundation and BREC officially opened the improved playground with a ribbon cutting Saturday, in conjunction with BREC’s Ride N Roll event.
Lomax sees the start of something much, much bigger for Baton Rouge.
The LSO Foundation’s mission is to promote skin cancer awareness and prevention in Louisiana, Lomax said, and the shade project is just the first of what she and McGuire hope will be a long partnership between the two organizations to keep Baton Rouge’s children in the shade while they play.
The initial project may end up being the most expensive, Lomax said, because part of the cost included retrofitting the playground with footings to secure the poles holding the shades in place, she said.
“We’ve been in talks with BREC about including footings in their future plans for playgrounds. It’s much easier and less expensive to add it in the construction phase than it is to come back after the fact,” Lomax said.
She’s very passionate about what she’s doing.
“It was a shock to us all,” Lomax said of Olinde’s death. The two became friends as high school students at St. Joseph’s Academy and remained close through college. It was especially scary for Lomax to learn how common skin cancer really is, she said.
“In fact, it’s the most common form of cancer in the U.S.,” she said. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there are more new cases of skin cancers than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined, and one in five Americans will develop a skin cancer of one kind or another in their lifetimes.
While melanoma — the kind of cancer Olinde had — is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, it is also the rarest, though that statistic is somewhat misleading.
“Melanoma is a young person’s skin cancer,” she said. “It’s the most common form of cancer in young adults between the ages of 25 and 29.” Olinde was 27 when she died, just short of her 28th birthday.
By the time the spot on her scalp was big enough for her to notice, the melanoma was in her lymph nodes, said Dr. Lindsey Hall, a Baton Rouge dermatologist who met Olinde in Delta Delta Delta Sorority at LSU.
“That’s one of the problems with melanoma,” she said. “It’s very aggressive, but if it’s detected early, the cure rate is approaching 100 percent,” she said.
Where skin cancers often appear, however, are hard to reach with sunscreen — behind the ears, the neck and the scalp — and are hard to see until they are large enough to have spread to the lymph nodes.
Seeing what Olinde went through made Hall an even more diligent doctor when she does annual skin checks. “I don’t ever want to miss a skin cancer,” she said.
Hall produced a video for hair stylists to educate them about early detection for skin cancers.
“They’re in your scalp every three months or so,” Hall said. “They’re really the only people who see that much of your scalp that close.”
It’s something Garrett LeMieux, a stylist at Blon Salon in Baton Rouge, has been acutely aware of since he had a scare with a pre-cancerous spot on his own skin.
“After that, I’ve noticed a couple of suspicious spots on clients’ scalps, or behind their ears, and said, ‘Hey, I’m not a doctor, but I think you should go get this checked out,’ ” he said.
“I’m blunt about it — it’s better to be safe that be worried about offending someone. Besides, I’ve established good relationships with all my clients.”
One client came back in for his next haircut, LeMieux said, and told him he’d had a pre-cancerous growth removed.
“It’s something I’ve been aware of for a while,” he said, and he makes other stylists aware, as well.
LeMieux is featured in Hall’s video, which has been approved to be used as part of the curriculum for stylists by the Louisiana Board of Cosmetology.
“It only takes one blistering sunburn in childhood to double your risk of skin cancer,” Lomax said, and she agrees with McGuire, who spent too much time in the sun without covering when he ran his own windsurfing business years ago.
“I do feel like she’s here, every day, watching over us,” she said of Olinde. It’s what keeps Lomax going, pressing bottles of broad spectrum sunscreen into palms with every handshake, and putting hats on lifeguards and outdoor workers across Baton Rouge, using money raised through grants and several events, including the Hat Run 5K and the LSO Top Hat Soiree.
She doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.