Valdez Elementary Throws Shade at Skin Cancer: AAD Grant Provides Shade Structure for Outdoor Play

A new grant-funded shade structure aims to protect Valdez students and staff from harmful UV rays. Photo by John Renfrow

It was three summers ago when Kelly Hersh brought her kids to Escuela Valdez Elementary to use their school’s playground and enjoy an off day, when halfway through the fun she felt the sun was getting more and more intense. She noticed the shade structure in place didn’t provide much refuge, being a ways from the playground, and the trees lining the area were hardly as tall as her children; so she hatched a plan.

Finally, on Dec. 3 at 3:30 p.m., Hersh debuted her solution. After a long process, and with a little help from her friends, Valdez introduced a new, grant-funded shade structure that was made possible by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Dr. Melanie Wong, local dermatologist and fellow Valdez parent, sponsored the grant’s application and wrote the letter to the AAD, which ultimately resulted in more sun protection for Valdez’s 420 students.

“We decided to create a sun safety program here at Valdez in hopes of winning a shade structure,” Hersh said. “While I am in the medical field, I personally am not in dermatology, and what I learned in working with Melanie is that traditional sun safety awareness programs often miss English language learners.”

Valdez is a bilingual school for both English speakers and learners, and together Wong and Hersh made it their mission to have sun safety programs in both English and Spanish. The grant, worth $8,000, provided a near-20-foot pole with shade extended over the four-square court and playground area, which Hersh said is very popular among the students. There is a brief recess each day, but the shade will also help during before- and after-school programs and protecting kids in summer school.

Not unique to Valdez Elementary, the AAD Shade Structure grant program provides such grants to schools and other nonprofit organizations, including playgrounds, pools, and other recreational areas. According to the AAD website, since its launch in 1999, the program has awarded over 450 shade structure grants, which provide shade for over 3.5 million individuals each day. Several Valdez families as well as the Kendrick Family Foundation contributed extra donations to install a larger structure than the original grant could provide.

The University of Denver’s website states that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime, and states with higher elevation like Colorado and Utah have increased ultraviolet waves relative to flatter states. During the structure unveil, Valdez handed out sunscreen, SPF lip balm, and other protective creams and sun safety information.

“At high altitude in Colorado, we are all at higher risk of sunburns and UV damage to our skin, regardless of our skin type or age. UV exposure over time is known to cause skin cancer and photoaging. In order to protect ourselves, while enjoying an active outdoor lifestyle, we should use sunscreen, wear sun protective clothing and seek out shade,” Wong said.

For Hersh, she’s proud the AAD recognized the importance of Valdez’s efforts to make the sun safety awareness information accessible to the Spanish-speaking population. It’s her belief and hope that the efforts put forth by caring Valdez families highlighted the need for further outreach programs for other non-English-speaking populations as well.

But as a parent, having that reassurance that even one more shade structure could make a big difference in protecting her children and other students and staff at Valdez for years to come is invaluable peace of mind.

“I like the fact that the teachers standing there watching the kids for 20 minutes can stand under there and not get overheated, not have a sunburn because they don’t necessarily have the time to put sunscreen on before they go outside every time. I’m proud of the fact that the Valdez community was able (come together and raise extra funds),” Hersh said. “This is ours. We made it work.”

For more information on Valdez’s sun safety awareness program, visit For more information on preventing skin cancer, visit 


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