Holiday lights brighten season for military families


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When you're 6 years old and it's 2 1/2 weeks until Christmas, sometimes it's pretty easy to tell why several men in Santa hats are using ladders to get on the roof of your home -- even if your mom is trying to make it a secret.

"I think it's Christmas lights," a beaming Madison Chavis told her mom, Tenika, Saturday afternoon after the crew from Christmas Decor by E.L.F. Entertainment showed up to their South Oakland home.

Madison, who could scarcely contain her joy at being right, gave the crew exactly the kind of response they hoped for when the Chavis family was chosen as one of five local military families in the Decorated Family program this year. Through the program, the families' homes are professionally decorated by Christmas Decor for free -- a service that normally costs anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000.

"You see the kids react and you know why you do it," said Elizabeth Frankel, co-owner with her husband, Maury, of Christmas Decor, a holiday lighting company based in Gibsonia.

For the Chavises, that meant the four-person crew from Christmas Decor lit their three-story home literally from top to bottom, with white holiday lights along the roof of the home, two large wreaths and garland with red bows hanging on the first and third floors, wrapping an outdoor light pole in red bunting and lights, and framing the front yard in white lights.

The Chavis family story was chosen because Mrs. Chavis' husband, Tony, is an Army Reserve staff sergeant with the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command that has been deployed to Kuwait since June and won't return home until March at the earliest.

It's the first time Madison has been without her dad because of a deployment, and six months after the family's newest edition, Ayana, was born, making three young children in a family that includes Danielle, 8.

"Oh, my goodness, this is so nice," said Mrs. Chavis, 31, who works for a company teaching people how to start home-based businesses. "We really need something like this right about now."

"The kids have been going through a lot right now with dad leaving and the new baby. It's been a lot in one year," she said.

The Frankels have been offering the Decorated Family program since they bought the Christmas Décor franchise six years ago and have helped about 15 area families in that time, including five this year.

Christmas Decor works with several local military support organizations to identify military families who would appreciate the service, and take in other candidates directly themselves.

"It's just our way of showing them that we appreciate them," Mrs. Frankel said.

Three of the families this year -- all from the 316th -- were suggested to Christmas Decor by Operation Troop Appreciation, an 8-year-old local support group based in the Century III Mall in West Mifflin.

Decorating a home might not sound like much, but, "it does an awful lot for the military families," Monica Orluk, president of Operation Troop Appreciation, said by phone Saturday while boxing up more care packages her organization was sending to troops in Afghanistan.

"Over the holidays at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, it's that much more difficult for families know that their dads or moms aren't there and might be in harm's way," she said. "I just think it's a tremendous gift."

Mrs. Frankel's four-person crew, all dressed in Santa caps and Christmas-red sweatshirts, also decorated the Wilson family's home in Oakmont on Saturday -- even though the family was nominated past the normal deadline.

"Once we saw the email, we knew we had to do it," Mrs. Frankel said.

Diane Wilson, 43, a group home nurse, wrote in just a couple weeks ago when she realized that all of the children in her blended family (three hers, two for her husband, Chris) would be home this Christmas for the first time in years.

That might not be compelling by itself, if it weren't for the fact that four of the five children are in the Navy -- and the fifth one, 18-year-old Logan Schmidt, has been living in California caring for an older sister's baby son because both she and her husband have been deployed. (Mr. Schmidt intends to join the Navy himself in the near future.)

"I just thought, 'I don't know when we'll get them all together again,' " Mrs. Wilson said, explaining why she reached out to Christmas Decor.

It was a last-minute decision because her kids had been scheming to surprise her and Mr. Wilson by showing up for Christmas together, but one of them "spilled the beans" because she needs the Wilsons to babysit their son while she's on a new deployment.

"When I heard they were all coming home, I was like, 'What can I do for them?' They were going to do something nice for me," she said.

The result, realized at about 12:30 p.m. Saturday after three hours of work of crawling on the roof of her home and garage, stringing lights everywhere Christmas Decor's happy band of elves could, brought a smile to Mrs. Wilson's face to rival Madison Chavis' later on Saturday.

"It's impressive," she said. "They're going to love it."

region - holidays

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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