Kara Lynn Morgan died of melanoma July 15, the day before her 41st birthday, but the tireless neighborhood leader is far from finished with her battle against skin cancer.
She is still fighting it — she and her many allies in New Orleans and beyond — on the fields in the park of her beloved Irish Channel.
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Morgan was raised in New Orleans (though technically a Shreveport native), graduated from Mercy Academy in 1991, and had moved away from the city when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, convincing her to return. The young mother returned with her family (Trey Bornmann and their now two sons) the following spring, and her experience in public administration quickly led her to the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association.
The neighborhood association quickly decided that the best route to stem the tide of crime in the Irish Channel was to focus on recreation opportunities for children. Morgan threw herself into that project, helping create a neighborhood basketball league that attracted the attention of then-rebuilding New Orleans Recreation Department, leading to the formation of the Lyons-Burke Booster Club.
“Kara’s lasting legacy will be her pushing parks and recreation activities for all the kids in the Irish Channel,” said Ed McGinnis, a fellow Irish Channel Neighborhood Association board member.
On Saturday, a second line in her honor stopped at the steps of the Lyons Center, and McGinnis read from a letter she sent once to the City Council in support of NORD: “I’d much rather hear the sounds of joy than the sounds of gunshots in our parks any day,” Morgan wrote.
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In early 2013, Morgan was diagnosed with a terminal form of skin cancer, Stage IV melanoma. She enrolled in experimental therapy and remained president of the neighborhood association, speaking alongside Mayor Mitch Landrieu later that year when the Lyons Center finally opened that summer.
Meanwhile, Morgan also turned her skills in advocacy to the battle against her disease. In March 2014, state Rep. Helena Moreno invited her to Baton Rouge to testify before the House of Representatives Health and Welfare committee in support of a bill banning minors from tanning beds. Morgan noted that she herself used a tanning bed frequently when she was a teen, and explained the ways skin cancer risks are increased by the use of the devices.
“I’m very confident that in the years to come we will look back at tanning beds the way we look at cigarettes now,” Morgan told the committee. “They are carcinogenic, they are unsafe and our kids should not be using them.”
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Morgan returned to the state capital in May when Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Moreno’s bill, but in late June, her cancer took an aggressive turn, and less than a month later, Morgan was suddenly gone.Morgan’s work on behalf of her neighborhood and in the fight against skin cancer, however, were not finished, and are now coming together. Before her death, she asked her colleagues in the neighborhood association to create a fund to build shade structures over the playground at Burke Park and near the pool at the Lyons Center, and the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association created the “Kara Morgan Shade Fund” in her memory.
Fleurty Girl created a T-shirt to help in support of the effort, and the fund raised more than $6,000 in its first week toward its $50,000 goal, led by contributions from Morgan’s partner on the tanning-bed bill, Rep. Moreno. Anyone who wants to donate can send a check to the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association, PO Box 751025, New Orleans, LA 70175-1025.
Services for Morgan were held Saturday afternoon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, and the sanctuary filled to standing room only with friends and admirers bedecked in the festive colors or Saints attire that Morgan requested. Her sister, Kristine Rizzuto told them that although the feisty neighborhood leader was gone, Morgan will live on through the legacy of her work and those who carry it forward:
We will not be defined by this loss. She will not be defined by her loss. Let her be known for her strength, her compassion, her heart. Let her be remembered for her bravery. Let us be her victories. We took the field with a hero and as such, we found the hero in ourselves. Now it’s our turn to lead the next group of heroes.
In the end, this disease was not my sister’s battle. The hospital was not her field. Her battle was to live, to love, to give, to unite. Her field was her community, and our hearts.
Those are the battles that matter, and those are the ones she won.