A 30-year-old watering hole on Interlocken

Written by Stephen Knapp on .

It’s 6 a.m. on July 4, and Hiwan residents Priscilla O’Leary and her husband, Mike, are hard at work.

Priscilla and Mike are just 2 of the roughly 150 volunteers whose selfless sweat and support ensure that Evergreen’s annual Freedom Run 5K runs like an All-American Swiss watch. As bright orange dawn starts to break across the eastern sky, others are busily placing signs and cones along the route, checking in runners, and prepping for the monster after-party at Nick’s Pro Fitness. On their quiet stretch of Interlocken Drive, the O’Learys hustle to erect rows folding tables in front of their home, and to deck the street’s thick walls of green pines in red, white and blue.

The O’Leary house is an alpine oasis, of sorts – the sole watering station on a dry and winding course between Evergreen Middle School and the race’s finish line at  U.S. Bank. Shortly after the floodgates open at 8 o’clock sharp, more than 500 gasping neighbors will begin streaming down Interlocken; and they’ll be looking for cool relief. They’ll be looking for it because the O’Leary house is also a Freedom Run landmark of long standing. The O’Learys and a small but devoted crew of volunteers have been refreshing Freedom Runners for 30 years and counting.

At first blush, the Freedom Run is a family-friendly benefit for Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice. Beneath the colorful bunting and numbered bibs, however, it’s a story. Hundreds of stories, actually, all of them about crises confronted, help sought, comfort given and breaking hearts eased. And about thanks, and gratitude, and kindness paid forward.

It started in 1987….

The story of Priscilla’s “watering hole” begins in 1987. A Mount Evans certified nursing assistant for 20 years, every Fourth of July she enjoyed watching the panting Freedom Run crush cascade through her neighborhood. Determined to be of assistance, and noting that her house stands almost exactly at the race’s 2 kilometers mark, she set up a table and started offering water and encouragement. It was a small operation, but appreciated; and it was about to get bigger.

“In the early 1990s I cared for a diminutive, classy lady named Ethel Ball,” says Priscilla. “Ethel died in 1994; and her son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Joan, immediately began volunteering at my water station in her memory.”

At about 6:30, longtime Evergreen resident Ray Costello drags a stout industrial hose up to the road and fills clean, lined barrels with clean, cool water, and then tops off a pair of play-pools intended for the relief of the Freedom Run’s sizeable canine contingent. Priscilla tended Ray’s wife, Lois, when she fell ill two decades ago, and Lois ultimately died under the loving care of a Mount Evans hospice nurse. Ray’s been pitching in at Priscilla’s watering hole ever since. His story is echoed by that of Jean Giroulx, a bereaved mother of three who enlisted in O’Leary’s troop after Mount Evans helped ease the untimely passing of her husband, Cal.

Like a family reunion, it has grown over the years….

With more helping hands came more tables, more trimmings, and more amenities. Ethel Ball’s grandson, Richard, is a 1982 Evergreen High School graduate and an accomplished musician who’s been serenading Interlocken Drive every Independence Day for the better part of a quarter-century, sometimes solo, often with a band, and always with a grateful nod to Mount Evans. Richard starts setting up just before 7 o’clock, producing, among other things, a Brazilian berimbau and an Australian didgeridoo.

“A lot of people tell me that the music is what gives them the boost they need to keep going,” he smiles.

The sun climbs higher and the reedy buzz of a PA system filters through the trees from the distant starting line as volunteers continue to trickle into the watering hole. Priscilla’s neighbors Kathi and Craig Chaffee walk over and take up station. It was 18 years ago that the Chaffees’ 16-year-old daughter, Carrie, suffered a terrible fall at a local park, sustaining severe head injuries that have left her utterly dependent on round-the-clock care. Mount Evans has supported Kathi, Craig and Carrie during the difficult years since; and the Chaffees are pleased to return in kind.

By the time the thin crack of a starting gun skitters overhead, Priscilla’s watering hole is a happy monument to good works and good neighbors stretching nearly 30 yards along both sides of Interlocken Drive. It’s well stocked, impeccably decorated, and abundantly staffed.

“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” laughs Priscilla. “We all get together once a year for the Freedom Run.  We’ll be done by 9 o’clock, and I won’t see most of them again until next Fourth of July.”

The sum of its stories….

More than anything, though, the Interlocken oasis is the sum of its stories, and when the gasping mob of runners flows into view any minute now it will carry with it hundreds more stories of sorrow and solace, of compassion and comfort, of help and hope and healing. Because, after all, Priscilla’s wonderful watering hole is really just a single chapter in the far greater story of Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice and the caring mountain community it serves.

“Dignity and respect for end-of-life services is our mission,” Priscilla says. “I’ll never be able to put into words what the patients and their families have given back to me.”