1. #1
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    Default Support for the troops-Christimas style

    Military family's home gets dose of holiday cheer

    Tuesday, December 20, 2005


    PEQUANNOCK - Sanders Place in Pompton Plains was, as usual, a quiet suburban street Monday morning, but for the bustle at a split-level house.

    The clacking sounds of rising extension ladders, the tinkle of jostling Christmas bulbs and the crunch of snow under foot broke the silence as red-sweat-shirted professionals created a festive holiday display.

    The effort is part of a program by the Texas-based Christmas Decor company to decorate - for free - the exterior of homes for families of servicemen and women stationed overseas.

    Twenty-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Leo Colombo, in Bahrain this Christmas on standby for deployment, lives in the home with his mother, his disabled sister and his grandmother. Responding to a newspaper ad about the decorating program, Leo's grandmother, Diane Brancato, wrote on behalf of the family.

    "I just felt my daughter needed some light in her life," said Brancato, who surprised her daughter, Kathy Colombo, with the visual display. "She worries about her son and taking care of her daughter is like a second full-time job. She is an angel."

    When Little Falls landscape designer Craig Tkaczenko learned about the family, he jumped at the chance to donate his services. Tkaczenko runs a Christmas Decor franchise in the region with his partner, Dan Smith.

    "We said if we found a serviceman's family in the area we'd do it in a heartbeat," Tkaczenko said. "When I met with the grandmother to measure it up and map it all out, she was floored."

    Within minutes of their arrival, Tkaczenko and his crew were swarming the house with strings of custom lights, wreaths and evergreen garland. In all, some 500 Christmas lights are strung along the roof line, in the greenery and across the ground.

    Said Kathy Colombo: "I was very surprised. It's such a nice gesture and it came at such a good time of year because Leo's not going to be here. But he'll be here in spirit."

    Colombo, who speaks to her son about once a week by telephone, is eager to send him a photograph of the house aglow in lights.

    "This is going to light up the whole neighborhood," said Brancato, taking it all in through her front window as she prepared hot chocolate for the men Monday. "I belong to a lot of clubs and I know my friends will be driving by tonight. I couldn't keep this a secret. I e-mailed everybody."

    Christmas Decor spokesman Brandon Stephens said the company received a few hundred requests from families of those serving abroad. About half were taken care of.

    "It's a bittersweet feeling. We'd like to be able to do all of the houses, but there's just no way," Stephens said. "But it makes us feel good. Our franchisees are just great people. We're glad to do it."

    The families of servicemen need encouragement this time of year, Stephens said.

    "When you watch the news or read the coverage, a lot of times these people get overlooked," he said. "Many of them may not have the time or ability to decorate. There's a lot of strain when a family separates like that."

    The home's exterior may be Tkaczenko's domain. But indoors - that's Brancato's turf. The mother of eight and grandmother of 17 has prepared her own colorful display of Santas, stockings and ornaments in anticipation of a family Christmas celebration. A portrait of Leo in his Marine dress blues is proudly displayed in the living room.

    "My mother is a very involved woman and very giving," Kathy Colombo said. "I thought it was great of her to do all this. She just keeps me going."

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