‘This was Melissa’s place!’ Splash pad project seen as fitting memorial to dedicated Woodstock lifeguard

Those who knew and worked with her described Melissa Canto O’Leary as kind, inclusive, always positive

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.

After Woodstock resident Stephanie Accardo hurt her head during lifeguard training this past summer, her instructor, Melissa Canto O’Leary, never left her side, even offering to drive her home herself.

The story is one of many from those who knew O’Leary, a longtime employee of Woodstock Recreation Department, who died in August. Now, the city and her loved ones are trying to honor O’Leary and her connection with the community with a memorial splash pad, which officials are hoping to install at Woodstock Water Works in the coming years.

Her friend and former boss, Becky Vidales, said O’Leary would have loved the idea of a splash pad, as it was something those in the department have wanted to build for a long time. But the idea didn’t gain traction until after O’Leary’s death, when the department began thinking about ways to honor her.

“I think this is the right thing,” Vidales said. “We could have named a pavilion after her or something like that, but I think we needed something bigger.”

O’Leary began as a lifeguard back in 2002, returning for the summer for the next four years, Vidales said. She then became a manager. Throughout her tenure, she taught and mentored many people and became seen as a pillar of the community.

“She’d always say ‘I’m not coming back,’ and she always did,” Vidales said.

Vidales, who developed a friendship with O’Leary, said it was strange in some ways because when she met O’Leary, O’Leary was just a kid. Vidales, who was in charge of the pool and is now the program coordinator, watched O’Leary grow into an adult.

“Now we were more friends than I was her boss,” Vidales said. “She became an adult right before my eyes.”

The past few years saw O’Leary step away from a managerial role, and instead work as a lifeguard instructor. Accardo was one of those who learned under O’Leary. Accardo said O’Leary’s death was “shocking,” considering she had just worked with her over the past summer.

“You could tell she was a people person,” she said. “Everybody knew her and loved her. She was genuine to everybody, and it showed.”

Inclusive and kind were the words Vidales used to describe her late friend, going out of her way often to make people feel welcomed and comfortable, particularly those on the lifeguard staff, which she helped train.

“Ages, sizes, color, she was very good at that,” Vidales said. “She was just always thoughtful, always very kind, always wanting to talk to those who came in.”

Now the hope is for the splash pad to carry on that legacy. Jerry Anderson, a lifeguard who trained under O’Leary and is set to be a manager next year, said he feels a splash pad would be a great way to remember O’Leary. Echoing comments from Vidales, he said it was something O’Leary was always talking about.

“I know she would be honored to have this fund go towards something that will help kids have fun at Woodstock Water Works for years to come,” he said.

The splash pad is still in the infancy stages, Woodstock Executive Director of Business Development Danielle Gulli said. It’s been decided that it’s going to be placed at Woodstock Water Works, but the current plan is to raise as much funding as possible.

The goal is to raise $250,000 for the pad. Contributors can donated at different sponsorship levels from $500, $1,000, $2,500 and $5,000, according to the department’s website. As of around mid-November, the total was around $13,000, Gulli said.

Business sponsorships and donations, along with individual donations, grants, and, if it’s feasible, possibly the city, are some of the ideas that could come into play to raise the needed funding, Gulli said.

Another idea for funding could comes from a marathon the recreation department puts on every year, Gulli said. That could possibly be made into a memorial run for O’Leary in the next year, with all funding raised going toward the splash pad.

“That may be more than a one-year event and we would continue to put money toward this, and [explore] other funding ideas that come up,” Gulli said.

Once funding gets to a good spot, the design will come next, Gulli said. The timeline at this point is not set, with Gulli saying the earliest it could be done is probably around 2025. Nevertheless, the priority is there, and the goal is to spread the word as much as possible.

“This was Melissa’s place,” Vidales said. “This was the place everybody knew she would be.”

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