Melissa O’Leary memorial run event taking place Saturday in Woodstock

Event has close to 400 runners signed up, and several sponsors

Melissa Canto O'Leary was seen as a pillar of Woodstock's community. After she died in August 2022, officials and loved ones are working to create a splash pad at Woodstock Water Works to honor her. The splash pad picked up traction in November 2022, with the goal to open it in the coming years.

As Woodstock Recreation Department gears up for its summer programming, there is one person notably absent.

Melissa Canto O’Leary, who worked for the department for 20 years dating to when she was a teenager, was as a lifeguard and eventually a manager within the department. But after she died last August at age 38, many in the community took time to reflect on her contributions, remembering her as a mentor, teacher and pillar of the community.

To honor her, the department is trying to build a memorial splash pad at Woodstock Water Works in her name and hosting a memorial run Saturday to help raise the needed funds.

Titled the “Melissa O’Leary Memorial Splash Bash,” the event has about 400 runners signed up and more than $40,000 in funds already raised in the past several months. Woodstock’s Recreation Department is seeing more interest from the community than for runs put on in previous years, Recreation Director Dave Zinnen said.

In the past, the department has hosted the “Woodstock Challenge,” which is coming up on its 50th year soon, Zinnen said. But with this year’s run instead being dedicated to O’Leary, more than twice the number of runners compared with recent years are turning out, as well as more sponsors.

The run Saturday coincides with Woodstock Water Works opening for the summer, according to the recreation department’s website. That was done on purpose, said Becky Vidales, who was O’Leary’s friend and former boss within the department. Vidales currently serves as the recreation program manager.

“Since she would be here on Memorial Day we rolled it into this weekend,” Vidales said. “We’re going to open in her honor.”

As part of that, there also will be a plaque dedication for O’Leary at 11 a.m. Saturday, Vidales said.

“She was well-known and well liked. I think it just shows the kind of person she was and the importance she had in the community.”

—  Becky Vidales, Woodstock's Recreation Department's Recreation Program Manager on her late friend, Melissa O'Leary

Saturday’s race will start at 8:30 a.m. and include a 5K run/walk event and a water run, Vidales said. The water run is a 1-mile interactive run that will include super soakers, sprinklers, bubble station and a little splash from the Woodstock Fire/Rescue District.

Both races will be at Emricson Park, with the winners for each age group getting prizes and plaques, Zinnen said.

While Saturday’s race will be the first fundraiser hosted to raise money for the splash pad, there is another scheduled in July, Zinnen said. The hope is to have $250,000 raised within the next two years for the splash pad. Currently, the department is working on a site plan for the splash pad in hopes that it will get even more attention. The goal is to have that ready within the next six months.

While the deadline to sign up for the race has passed, Vidales and Zinnen said those interested still can donate and sponsor the splash pad’s efforts, as well as come out to watch the runs on Saturday. With several raffles planned, there also will be an opportunity for everyone to participate.

Vidales said there is no set goal on how much they hope Saturday’s event raises. Regardless of the figure, she hopes it shows there is massive support for what they are trying to achieve.

Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner, who is planning to be at the finish line during Saturday’s races, said the splash pad is something the city wants to work toward, and he appreciates the community’s support.

“It’s terrific to see the community joining the effort.”

Vidales said that the recent support shows the connection the O’Leary had with the community.

“She was well-known and well-liked. I think it just shows the kind of person she was and the importance she had in the community.”

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