Cancer survivors get red carpet treatment

A dozen years have come and gone since Savannah Solomon hosted that first Red Carpet weekend, providing a welcome escape from the brutal chemo-and-radiation regimen and the faint sense of doom that lingers over cancer patients like so many IV poles.

James Bostic knows what that’s like. So do Lauren Bullard and the 13 other teens shuttled last week from their hospitals in Savannah and Columbia, South Carolina, to Lake Lanier’s Legacy Lodge.

That’s why, they said, Solomon’s ongoing efforts mean so much.

After a day at Stone Mountain, they looked forward to being chauffeured about town in stretch limos. Dressing to the nines and walking on the red carpet. Shopping at Atlantic Station. Enjoying dinner parties and dancing. And instead of cancer, talking about the importance of laughter, giving compliments and cherishing each moment they’ve been given.

“It’s been really fun,” said Bullard, 15.

Their weekend ended Friday, but next week, Solomon, now 28, will be in New Orleans with that city’s retreat leaders ready to treat another group of cancer patients. She plans to expand the leadership program next year to Charlotte, North Carolina, which will become the third site for the Red Carpet retreat.

An urge to feel normal

The last time Atlanta Journal-Constitution readers heard about Solomon, she was a 16-year-old junior at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone in the midst of her own battle with rhabdomyo sarcoma, a cancer of the muscle tissue.

Even then, Solomon, who was first diagnosed at age 11, was a seasoned soldier. She’d successfully navigated middle school, that most awkward of seasons when you don’t just feel awkward but alone.

“People tugged at your wig or thought you were your mother’s son,” she said. “At cancer camp, sometimes I’d be the only kid in the cabin still on therapy, and still couldn’t relate. I made friends in the hospital, but eventually, I was the one who survived, which brought its own sense of isolation and guilt.”

Then at the end of eighth grade, Solomon said, she was invited to attend a camp for teens with cancer in Aspen, Colorado, and for the first time in two years, she could go back to being a kid. It felt good feeling normal.

And so it hit her.

“I thought we need something like this in Atlanta,” she said. “I planned the idea in my head for a retreat. In 10th grade, I became a Girl Scout troop of one to earn the Gold Award, the highest service award in Girl Scouting.”

Just as she was about to implement her plan, Solomon came down with bronchitis. But instead of seeing fluid, doctors saw tumors on her right lung. She needed surgery to remove them.

It was February 2001. As she endured 14 rounds of chemotherapy and a month of radiation, Solomon found comfort in bringing her vision to fruition. She enlisted 16 of her friends, who somehow always knew how to say or do the right thing during her illness, to help host the event.

At the end of May 2002, 36 teen cancer patients from Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas arrived in Peachtree City for the first-ever Red Carpet Day Retreat.

“The feeling of ‘normalcy’ they provided made more of an impact than I’d ever expected,” Solomon said. “A girl named Erica wrote a letter and said she had never been comfortable with her cancer until she came to RCD. One boy said it tore a wall down for him.”

The letters lit a fire under Solomon, and the one-time project became an annual event.

“If I had a sense of urgency, this was it,” she said.

‘For teens, from teens’ spirit

After graduating from high school and entering Georgia Tech, however, Solomon suffered yet another setback. A CT scan in December 2003 showed another tumor in the same lung.

Doctors scheduled surgery the day after Christmas. Solomon dropped out of school. For six months, she endured chemo treatments, two weeks on, one week to recover.

“I basically sat in a chair to marinate for eight hours,” she said. “I finished in May 2004, right before the third RCD, and spent most of the summer rebuilding my strength.”

Her sense of urgency grew stronger. She wanted to expand her efforts beyond Georgia and provide additional services. That summer, she founded Heart of Passion and in 2005 held her fourth year of retreats in Atlanta and the inaugural retreat in Dallas.

Solomon graduated from Tech in 2007 with a degree in economics and international affairs and hit the pause button to attend business school and acquire the skills she believed she needed to build Heart of Passion into a model program.

The goal? To create a leadership development program that would maintain the retreats’ “for teens, from teens” spirit. Solomon would train high school students to plan, fundraise for and facilitate the retreats.

She graduated Tulane University in 2010 with her MBA and the following year held the first retreat in New Orleans using the model. Solomon, who now lives in North Carolina, also works as an analyst.

“This is our third year for the leadership development program and the first year back in Atlanta,” Solomon said. “It’s a very humbling experience to watch the leaders make it their own.”

Taylor Flewellen, 18, was among the first group of 16 HOP Atlanta leaders.

“The fact that we’d be planning the event was the draw for me,” Flewellen said. “When Savannah says it is student-led, it’s student-led. We plan everything. I liked being hands-on and getting to see the guests smile. It makes me happy.”

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