Saturday Run/Walk At Pheasant Branch Will Honor Woman Who Died In Rafting Accident

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger
Lina Vergara

Today marks 10 months to the day since the howling waters of the Wolf River silenced 20-year-old Lina Vergara’s laughter forever. But on Saturday in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, the late Middleton woman’s family hopes the community will smile, laugh and honor Lina's life, even as they continue to mourn her death.

The first annual Glowing Smiles 5k Run/Walk and Kids Dash will raise funds for the Lina Vergara Memorial Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the school where Lina was majoring in bilingual education and English as a Second Language at the time of her death. It will start at Orchid Heights Park in the City of Middleton, continuing through the Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

Vergara, who was swept under the rain-bloated Wolf River during what was intended to be an innocuous outdoor adventure in July, had a passion for two things, according to her mother, Margarita Vergara. “She loved kids and she loved nature,” she said.

Lina’s sister, Coni Duhr, echoed her mother’s sentiments. “She walked and ran on that trail all the time,” she said of Pheasant Branch. “That’s why we’re doing the 5k there.”

“It was very important to us to keep her memory alive as long as possible,” Duhr continued. “Nature was important to her, and education was important to her, so we wanted to combine the two.”

Specifically, they hope to educate the public about a lack of regulations on companies that rent rafting equipment in Wisconsin.

The Kids Dash is scheduled to begin at 9:15 a.m. The 5k will follow at 10.

While children may participate for free, the proceeds from adults’ registration fees will help fund the scholarship created in Lina’s name.

Alejandro Vergara said his daughter gave her family “many beautiful memories.” But her accidental death, which the family believes might have been prevented with better regulations on companies such as Shotgun Eddy Raft Rental, the Menominee County-based business that outfitted Lina, left them “feeling so empty.”

“It’s very painful for any parent to talk about the loss of a child,” he said. “What I’ll say about Lina comes from other people; from the people who reached out to us after we lost her. They said she was so young, and so full of life, and so intent on making people around her happy. She made people of all ages, particularly young people, smile. What I remember most about her is her smile.”

One correspondence to the family came from Clarity Care, a non-profit organization that serves those with disabilities and special needs.

“We were shocked and saddened to hear of the tragedy that took Lina’s life, but comforted to hear of a memorial that was created in her name to impact the lives of others,” wrote Kurt Johnson, Clarity’s director of program development.

Lina worked as a volunteer for Clarity, reading to residents and organizing popular karaoke nights.

“Lina had the talent to get some of our residents to sing at karaoke night, when [without her] … they would never [have dared] get in front of a group and sing,” Johnson wrote. “They had a blast and still talk about it to this day.”

“Our residents loved Lina,” Johnson continued. “Her enthusiasm and desire to create full inclusion no matter the individual’s abilities was exceptional. We are grateful and appreciative of the time Lina gave to make the lives of others more fulfilling and enriching.”

Alejandro Vergara said he hopes Saturday’s event and the scholarship it bolsters will encourage others to pick up where his daughter left off. “We want others to continue what she did,” he said. “Having that type of effect on people.”

 

LINA’S LAW AND THE

WOLF RIVER PETITION

Duhr said the family is advocating for more stringent restrictions on whitewater rafting companies.

Newspaper reports at the time of Lina’s death showed that the Wolf River, already dangerous, had morphed from Class II rapids into treacherous Class IV due to heavy rainfall.

“When my sister went missing, they even pulled some of the rescue teams because they said the water was too dangerous, even for them,” said Duhr.

The family started the Wolf River Petition, which they hope will encourage businesses, the Menominee County Chamber of Commerce, and state lawmakers to prevent Lina’s fate from befalling others.

“We don’t want any other families to ever feel what we feel,” said Duhr. “We don’t want anyone else to lose a loved one.”

State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) met with Lina’s family and said she plans to introduce legislation to make rafting safer.

“There are currently no regulations on wearing a life vest when using a raft rental company,” said Hesselbein. “Part of the problem here is that Lina did everything right. She was wearing a vest.”

But Hesselbein added that regulations could prevent future tragedies.

“Years ago when we started talking about a seatbelt law, a lot of people said, ‘Why would you need that?’” she stated. “I think this could wind up being similar.”

“I’ll introduce a bill with or without Republican support,” said Hesselbein. “We’ll call it Lina’s Law, and I encourage everyone to call their representatives and tell them about the need for this.”

As of press time, the Wolf River Petition had amassed 2,571 signatures.

For more information about Saturday’s event visit glowingsmiles.org. To learn about the effort to change rafting regulations visit www.linavergara.com.

 

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