While Earth’s yellow sun turned Kal-El into Superman, those same rays can sometimes have devastating effects on us regular human beings here on Earth, including heat stroke or exhaustion, sun damage and skin cancer. Nowhere is the power of the sun felt more keenly than in Laredo, Texas, where the intense heat prevents the city’s youth from enjoying the parks.
“For a child, there is nothing more delightful than the utter joy of being at play, whether that is whizzing happily down a slide, soaring higher on a swing or chasing friends around the jungle gym,” says Laredo Mayor Raul G. Salinas. “Unfortunately for Laredo children, the average summer temperature and high sun exposure keep most kids away from City of Laredo parks without shade structures,” he adds. “Additionally, the high cost of the structures makes it impossible for the City of Laredo Parks and Recreation Department to set aside money to be able to invest in such coverings for their parks.”
That is now about to change, thanks to a donation from a local charitable fund--the Lamar Bruni Vergara Trust--founded after the death of a local philanthropist. The trust has supported a variety of religious, health and educational efforts in South Texas, especially in Laredo. The LBV Trust has awarded $330,500 to the parks and recreation department to design, purchase, and install shade structures for 19 parks; there are currently only 10 parks in Laredo with shade structures. Last summer, the department submitted a grant application to the LBV Trust, highlighting the health effects hot temperatures and harmful sun exposure have on Laredo youth.
By The Numbers
According to Nedil A. Antonini, a local dermatologist and member of the grant application team, the effects of sun exposure in young children can be devastating well into adulthood. “In the United States, most people receive 80 percent of their lifetime exposure to the sun by age 18,” he says. “What that means is that the skin has already been severely damaged by exposure to ultra-violet radiation. Now in Laredo, the ultra-violet index, that is, the indication of how strong the radiation is on a given day, is consistently higher, with stronger, more direct ultra-violet radiation, than other places in the United States because of its location and proximity to the equator.”
Antonini points out that while all other cancers are decreasing or staying stable, the rate of melanoma in the United States is increasing at a rate of four to five percent per year. “These shade structures will help prevent these cancers and other effects of sun exposure, such as wrinkles, sun spots and early loss of elastic fibers. These kids will really be grateful when they turn 35,” he concludes.
During the summer months and beyond, the intense heat that overwhelms visitors to the community frequently earns the city the nation’s top hot spot on The Weather Channel. Local weatherman Richard “Heatwave” Berler, a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist from the American Meteorological Society, has been tracking Laredo temperatures since his early college days, and has found some remarkable facts: “On average, Laredo annually experiences 178 days (almost half the year) in which the temperature is 90 F or higher, of which 81 of those days are 100 F or higher,” says Berler. “While Laredo usually sees its first 100 F day around April 10, it has come as early as February 18, and while the last 100 F day is around September 26, it can come as late as November 17.” (We almost made it on November 27, 2005, when we hit 99 F.)
Berler offers an interesting example for comparison: “In San Antonio [approximately 150 miles north of Laredo], they experience, on average, 111 days in which the temperature is 90 F or higher, with seven of those days hitting 100 F or higher. That means that Laredo endures more than two months more days … of both 90 F and 100 F weather than San Antonio, making Laredo much hotter to bear,” he concludes.
A Safe Place To Play
Both Berler and city engineers note the simple fact that air temperature can drop dramatically “in the shade”; even in Laredo’s heat, shade can help reduce the stress factor of standing--or for Laredo children--playing in direct sunlight. But it is not only the children’s bodies that are receiving sunlight and conducting heat; it is also the play structure, whose core temperature--depending on the material--can soar significantly higher than the air temperature, making those slides, swings and jungle gyms too hot for little hands to touch.
Additionally, in warmer weather, children at play are more likely to lose body moisture by sweating, which can cause heatstroke and heat exhaustion. Some simple safety tips that help alleviate some of these dangers--such as wearing light clothes that breathe and drinking plenty of water--are easy enough to follow, but staying out of the sun when it is at its hottest is almost impossible to avoid in Laredo. The shade structures will be a super hero to block out the sun and the heat for Laredo kids.
City officials expect it to take anywhere from two to five months to design and install the shade structures, and are moving forward in ordering them.
“We’re excited to once again work with the Lamar Bruini Vergara Trust Fund, as they provide beneficial assistance to the citizens of Laredo with their generous donation,” says Miguel A. Pescador, director of the parks and recreation department. “There are 61 parks in the city; with this grant, we will be able to provide shade for approximately 50% of the parks. This extremely generous donation by the Lamar Bruni Vergara Trust Fund will provide momentum for us to help us meet our goal of providing shades for 100 percent of our parks within the next five years,” he concludes.
This is the second grant the Lamar Bruni Vergara Trust has made to the City of Laredo Parks and Recreation Department. In 2002, the LBV Trust awarded the department a $2.3 million grant to help fund the construction of the Lamar Bruni Vergara Inner City Technology Recreation Center, the second of its kind in the state.
Xochitl Mora Garcia is the Public Information Officer for the City of Laredo, where she spearheads all public relations initiatives for city departments. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.